It was a beautiful and unusually warm February day in 1844 when President John Tyler, members of his cabinet, and 200 other important guests including Former First Lady Dolley Madison, boarded the USS Princeton for a trip down the Potomac River. The Princeton has caused a sensation upon its arrival in Washington D.C. as it was the first screw steam warship in the United States Navy. The ship’s designer, John Ericsson, was the same person who later would design the USS Monitor of Civil War fame. The presidential trip aboard the USS Princeton would be the fourth such trip down the river since the ship had arrived in the nation’s capital. On these trips the public was not disappointed as the big guns mounted on the USS Princeton were fired several times.
The ship was outfitted with two guns which were called Peacemaker and Oregon. The Oregon could fire a 225 pound shot 5 miles using a 50 pound charge. The gun had a new type of design that was revoluntionary for the time using a series of hoops in the construction. The Peacemaker’s design attempted to copy the design of the Oregon, but instead of the reinforcement with hoops, the metal of the gun was simply made thicker resulting in a gun that weighed 27,000 pounds.
On February 28, 1844 President Tyler and his guests boarded the ship for a trip that would include a formal luncheon. Besides Dolley Madison guests included former New York State Senator, David Gardiner, and his daughter Julia. His family owned Gardiner’s Island which even today is the largest privately owned island in the United States, and it has been owned by the Gardiner family for over 400 years. Julia Gardiner was “the” socialite of the day and, prior to the trip aboard the USS Princeton she had already captured President Tyler’s heart. Letitia Christian Tyler, President Tyler’s first wife had passed away in 1842, and he had met Julia Gardiner on a few other occaisions. Some sources state he had already asked her to marry him. The Tyler Courtship and Wedding, an article here at American Presidents written by Jennie, provides further incite into President Tyler’s marriage to Julia Gardiner.
During the last planned firing of the Peacemaker for the day the gun exploded wreaking havoc on the ship. An excellent article by Ann Blackman found here provides the tragic details in graphic detail. It was a tragedy that not only had an effect on the people who witnessed the explosion and aftermath, but it had a great effect on the Tyler presidency.
Gone in an instant were two of Tyler’s trusted cabinet members. Secretary of the Navy Thomas W.Gilmer was a former congressman and governor of Virginia. He was killed only ten days into his term as the head of the Navy. Also killed was Secretary of State, Abel B. Upshur. It had been Upshur’s secretive efforts on behalf of President Tyler which resulted in the treaty that annexed Texas. President Tyler’s valet, a slave named Armistead, was also killed onboard the Princeton. Some sources erroneous say he had been aboard the famous slave ship; however, President Tyler’s mother’s maiden name was Armistead, so I am surmising the slave had come to Tyler through his mother’s family. Julia Gardiner’s father did not survive the explosion either. It is she said she fainted and fell into the arms of President Tyler when she was told her father was not among the survivors.