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February 28, 1844: The Explosion That Shaped American History

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On February 28, 1844, an explosion on the Potomac River changed the course of American history. The USS Princeton was a steam-powered warship designed to showcase the latest technological advancements in naval weaponry. One of its most notable features was the “Peacemaker,” a large naval gun capable of firing a 225-pound cannonball. The ship was considered a marvel of engineering and innovation at the time, attracting widespread attention and interest.

The demonstration was attended by numerous dignitaries, including President John Tyler and his cabinet, as well as other prominent figures in Washington society. The event was intended to showcase the power and capabilities of the USS Princeton, boosting public and political support for the development of the U.S. Navy.

The Slaveholding Crisis: Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War describes the stunning scene that shook the nation.

On a winter day, the dignitaries gathered to celebrate America’s burgeoning naval power. The Princeton’s Peacemaker, described as the largest naval gun in the world, exemplified the growing might of the United States. Most of the political heavyweights mingled below deck, enjoying the festivities and hoping to have a few words with the president. For Secretaries Upshur and Gilmer the cannon provided the real fun. President Tyler had offered a toast halfway through the trip: to the Princeton, its captain, and its Peacemaker. Wanting to pay respects to George Washington, Gilmer talked the captain into firing the gun one last time—a thunderous salute to the Father of the Nation. Calling down to the chattering collection of grandees below deck, he encouraged those in attendance to join him in watching one last blast. As Tyler walked towards the stairs a guest used the opening to speak to him. Grabbing the president’s arm, he urged him to stay for one more drink. Politely, the commander-in-chief acquiesced, missing the spectacle about to go on above. 

Grinning with excitement and ready for the show, Gilmer and Upshur stood near the Peacemaker. They both wanted to see the ship’s largest cannon up close. Gilmer encouraged onlookers to hold their mouths open to avoid a concussion from the shock wave produced by the weapon and then ordered the captain to fire. With a bright flash, the untested gun exploded like a bomb. The secretary of state, the secretary of the Navy, a few members of Congress, along with several sailors, died instantly. The president remained unharmed, saved by his courteousness. 

The USS Princeton disaster had a profound impact on the nation, as it led to a reevaluation of naval safety protocols and the use of experimental weaponry. The incident raised questions about the reliability and safety of the advanced technology featured on the USS Princeton, prompting concerns about the rushed development and testing of new naval systems.

In the aftermath of the disaster, investigations were conducted to determine the cause of the explosion. It was revealed that the Peacemaker’s design and construction had flaws, contributing to the catastrophic failure. 


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