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How An Explosion On The Potomac 170 Years Ago Changed The Course Of History

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A colored lithograph, published by N. Currier, New York, 1844, depicts the explosion of a heavy gun on board USS Princeton, in the Potomac River, which killed or mortally wounded seven and injured about twenty people.
Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C.
A colored lithograph, published by N. Currier, New York, 1844, depicts the explosion of a heavy gun on board USS Princeton, in the Potomac River, which killed or mortally wounded seven and injured about twenty people.

In 1844, Washington, D.C. is a young city coming into its own.

“It’s a city that’s sort of rising out of the swamp, out of the muck and mire,” says local historian and writer Paul Dickson. “There are elegant balls, elegant dance halls, opera houses.”

And this story is about a particular day in this city on the rise: Feb. 28, 1844.

It dawns a bitterly cold but momentous day, because a new ship, a state-of-the-art vessel called the USS Princeton, is coming to town. The Princeton is a marvel of engineering, fast and strong and different from ships that came before it.

“They brought in John Ericksen, the famous Swedish designer, to create a screw propeller for the ship. Before 1841, all warships of any power had sidewheels,” says Dickson.

Sidewheels were a pretty good way of propelling a ship forward, but Dickson says they were risky, because a single cannonball could theoretically take them out and make your vessel a sitting duck during battle. The screw propeller was underwater and less visible to enemies.

A real big gun

But most Washingtonians aren't all that interested in the Princeton’s screw propeller. What they really want to see is on the ship’s deck — the largest gun ever built, a gun known as the Peacemaker.

“It was 10 tons, this one gun, and it was a 15-inch bore, which is a huge piece of machinery,” Dickson says.

A huge piece of machinery that is about to be demonstrated for the Washington elite.

“It was a gala event,” says Dickson. “They moored it off of Alexandria. And President Tyler and all his cabinet, all the members of Congress, all the VIPs — Dolly Madison, who by this time is an elderly woman — they're all invited to the demonstration,” Dickson says.

The VIPs board the Princeton, and the ship starts down the river toward Mount Vernon. The crew fires the Peacemaker, over and over and over again.

“And there’s ice on the river. And the Peacemaker can fire three miles. And they're hitting big icebergs — literally big ice floes,” says Dickson. “Watching them explode and disappear under the surface, it’s unbelievably dramatic.”

Nothing like it has ever been seen in the U.S. before.

The USS Princeton was the first screw steam warship in the U.S. Navy. (Lithograph of Princeton, by Nathaniel Currier, 1844)

The party continues below decks as the ship gets to Mount Vernon. There’s dancing, and a lavish spread of food.

“And somebody gets the idea, starts browbeating the captain of the ship, to fire it one more time,” says Dickson. “And the secretary of war actually opposes it, but he’s sort of overruled and is actually afraid of what’s going to happen.”

One shot too many

A group of people, including Abel Parker Upshur, the Secretary of State, and Thomas Gilmer, the Secretary of the Navy, head upstairs. The commander in chief, President John Tyler, is not far behind.

“Tyler himself is on his way up deck to see this last explosion. Someone yells out to him to propose one more toast. He turns around to do the toast, and holds the glass in his hand,” says Dickson.”

And just at that very moment, there’s a terrible sound from up above.

“Which is not a sharp percussion of a cannonball being shot out of a gun. It is in fact this horrible sort of rupturing sound, this elongated explosion,” says Dickson.

There’s a moment of silence, followed by screaming. The Peacemaker, which is made of cast iron, can’t withstand the force of the repeated firings. It has exploded, sending hot metal around the deck and killing six people. Among them are Secretaries Upshur and Gilmer.

The news is devastating for Washingtonians, and for people farther afield.

“The bodies lie in the White House, and the lines are unbelievable. People come from hundreds of miles around to show their grief, and it is a terribly dark day for the city,” says Dickson.

Some people go down to the waterfront, to look for mementos that might have washed ashore from the Princeton.

“To the city, it’s the most amazing thing. Because it’s the first real technology gone awry,” says Dickson. “In other words, there have been natural disasters before. But this is really man-made.”

A black eye for a young country

The disaster is a foreign policy setback. The Princeton was designed to demonstrate U.S. power on a global stage, and the explosion onboard does little to help that effort.

It’s also a setback to those hoping to calm the nation’s internal tensions between North and South. Paul Dickson says the death of Secretary of State Abel Parker Upshur is a particular loss on that front.

“He was a man who was trying to do the best he could for the country. And he had a heroic cast about him. He was trying to prevent the country from going to war over slavery,” Dickson says.

So if Upshur had lived, what would that have meant for the nation?

“Oscar Handlin, the famous historian, wrote this book in 1955 called "Chance or Destiny." And one of the points Handlin made in his book was that Upshur, who was killed, probably had the wherewithal to prevent the Civil War,” he says.

It’s one of those historical “what-ifs” that can never really be answered. But Dickson still finds this long-forgotten incident on the Potomac, an incident that briefly brought Washingtonians together in mourning, worth revisiting and remembering, 170 years later.

Music: "By the River" by Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Mike Marshall from The Best of Edgar Meyer


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