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US Navy: USS Princeton (1843)


US Navy: USS Princeton (1843)

USS Princeton (1843)

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

USS Princeton (1843) - Specifications:

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Screw Sloop
  • Shipyard: Philadelphia Navy Yard
  • Laid Down: October 20, 1842
  • Launched: September 5, 1843
  • Commissioned: September 9, 1843
  • Fate: Broken up, 1849

  • Displacement: 969 tons
  • Length: 154 ft.
  • Beam: 30 ft. 6 in.
  • Draft: 17 ft.
  • Speed: 7 knots
  • Complement: 166 men
  • Armament:2 x 12" guns, 12 x 42 pdr carronades

  • USS Princeton - Design & Construction:

    In the 1830s, Swedish inventor John Ericsson devised a new steam ship design which used two screw-propellers rather than side wheels. Though this innovative design failed to impress the British Admiralty, it caught the attention of American Captain Robert F. Stockton. Politically connected, Stockton told Ericsson that his new design would be welcomed in the United States and invited the inventor to come to America. Moving Ericsson to New York in 1839, Stockton hoped to have him design a new class of frigate for the US Navy.

    Utilizing his political connections, Stockton worked to secure funding for the new ships. With the ascension of John Tyler to the White House in 1841, Stockton's lobbying bore fruit, though he was only given funding for one steam sloop. The vessel was dubbed USS Princeton after the 1777 Battle of Princeton and Stockton's hometown. While Ericsson designed the ship and its systems, Stockton oversaw construction at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Among the innovative features included by Ericsson were two vibrating lever engines as well as a collapsible funnel and new range finder.

    A central feature to Princeton was a 12" gun mounted on a pivot. Designed by Ericsson, the gun was constructed at the Mersey Iron Works in England and shipped to the United States in 1841. Intended to fire a heavier charge, Ericsson pre-tensioned the breech using hoop construction which greatly increased the gun's strength. This technique called for the heating of iron hoops which were then allowed to cool and condense around the breech. Originally known "Orator," its name was changed by Stockton to "Oregon." To supplement this armament, Princeton carried twelve 42-pdr carronades.

    Stockton's Error:

    As construction progressed, Stockton sought to take credit for designing the revolutionary ship and its gun. While endeavoring to force Ericsson out of the project, Stockton worked to cement his claims by having a second 12" gun made for the ship. Dubbed "Peacemaker," this gun was cast in New York by Hogg and Delamater. Though he attempted to copy Ericsson's gun, Stockton failed to grasp the importance of the hoop design and simply cast a large gun that was thicker around the breech. Fatally flawed, this error meant that the Peacemaker would most likely burst at some point.

    Early Success:

    After limited testing, Stockton ordered his new gun prepared for mounting on Princeton. Launched on September 5, 1843, the ship was commissioned four days later with Stockton in command. After initial trials in the Delaware River, Princeton departed for sea trials off New York on October 17. Arriving, it easily defeated the noted steamer Great Western in a speed contest. After returning to Philadelphia, Stockton declared the new ship ready for service. Steaming to New York, its two big guns were mounted in January 1844. Departing late that month, Princeton sailed for Washington, DC.

    The Peacemaker Disaster:

    Arriving on February 13, the ship quickly became popular with locals eager to see its new technology. As a result, it made public voyages on February 16, 18, and 20 in the Potomac River. During these cruises, Peacemaker was fired several times. On February 28, Princeton embarked President Tyler, members of his cabinet, as well as another 200 other dignitaries such as former First Lady Dolley Madison and powerful Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Sailing in the Potomac, the group enjoyed refreshments below before Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer encouraged guests to go topside for a demonstration of the guns.

    In the course of firing, Peacemaker exploded sending bits of metal flying across the decks. The explosion killed six and injured twenty. Among the dead were Gilmer, Secretary of State Abel Upshur, and David Gardiner, the father of Tyler's fiancée. Tyler was spared largely because he had been stopped by his son-in-law en route to the demonstration. In the wake of the disaster, Princeton returned to the Washington Navy Yard. When the disaster was investigated, Stockton used his political connections to escape punishment and deflect blame on Ericsson despite the fact that it was his gun that had failed.

    He also succeeded in blocking the US Navy from paying Ericsson for his services. As a result, the inventor developed a deep resentment of the US Navy and refused naval projects until the early days of the Civil War when a friend convinced him to design USS Monitor. With Princeton repaired, Stockton received orders from President James K. Polk in 1845 to carry an offer of annexation to the Republic of Texas. Delivering the offer to Galveston, Stockton became aware of rising tensions that could lead to war with Mexico. Returning to Washington, he passed these concerns to Polk.

    Later Service:

    Assigned to the Home Squadron between 1845 and 1847, USS Princeton saw service during the Mexican-American War. On August 17, 1847, the ship received orders to join the Mediterranean Squadron. Remaining overseas for nearly two years, it departed for the United States on June 24, 1849. Arriving at Boston, the ship underwent a complete survey. This inspection found that many of its timbers were unsound and the decision was made to break up the ship on July 17.

    Selected Sources

  • DANFS: USS Princeton (1843)
  • Military.com: Fatal Cruise of the Princeton
  • President Tyler Nearly Killed by Explosion of USS Princeton’s Huge Gun

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