In this latest installment of our deserving candidates for a historical marker in Alexandria, we look back to a forgotten event that took place near Alexandra in 1844.
170 years ago, on February 29, a tragedy that took place on the Potomac River stunned the nation. The President narrowly escaped death, but eight other souls did not. A malfunctioning gun exploded aboard the USS Princeton, killing the Secretary of the State, the Secretary of the Navy, a State Senator, a Naval captain, an Ambassador, the President’s valet and two sailors. 20 were injured and others were psychologically affected.
Of the tragedy, a historian would write, “Prior to the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Princeton disaster unquestionably was the most severe and debilitating tragedy ever to confront a President of the United States."
And yet, how many of us have heard about this event?
As so often happens with web surfing, I forget how I came across this story. Whatever the case, we are fortunate Kerry Walters, author of more than 30 books, has written about it. “Explosion on the Potomac, The 1844 Calamity Aboard the USS Princeton” is a well-written account of the disaster and the events leading up to it. The author goes further, calling it a “black swan” for Tyler, who became President in 1841 when Harrison got ill and died.
The USS Princeton arrived in Washington in February 1844. The mission for the Tyler administration was to show off the new, state of the art war ship. It carried two 12-inch guns, largest at the time. One of them was dubbed the “Peacemaker.”
What a remarkable change for the United States. Three decades earlier, in the War of 1812, Washington’s military might did not extend far beyond harsh language. Ill-equipped Alexandria had no choice but to surrender. Now, however, the British would have to pay attention. The mighty gun could accurately shoot a two-hundred pound shell five miles. Its steam-powered engines made it the fastest in the world.
In February, Captain Robert Stockton made four excursions on the Potomac. On February 29, President Tyler and his cabinet, along with 300 or more invited guests that included senators, congressmen and dignitaries, boarded a steamer in Washington for the short trip to Alexandria, where the Princeton waited. Owners of the hottest ticket in town, they shoved off the Virginia shore around 1 pm, cruising down to Mount Vernon.
Below deck, everyone dined on a lavish meal and enjoyed the festivities until an unusual sound startled them.
The fuse was lit, the Peacemaker roared, and chaos erupted. Two large chunks of the gun's breech had blown off, instantly killing eight bystanders and injuring twenty others, including Captain Stockton. Body parts and blood covered the deck and cries of agony filled the air. In an instant, the festive occasion had turned into a gruesome disaster.
President Tyler took a beating for his decision to appoint pro-slavery and firebrand Senator John C. Calhoun, and historians have not been kind to his presidency. Fortunately for Tyler, he had found a friend and supporter. Two years after the sad passing of his wife, First Lady Letitia Tyler, he met Julia Gardiner. They married on June 26, 1844. The author writes:
Despite the thirty years difference between them, theirs was, by all accounts, a very happy marriage.
Mount Vernon is probably a more appropriate place for a marker for this event than Alexandria. Either way, we believe that given the impact and cost to the nation, one should be erected.