Thursday, February 28, 2013

The USS Princeton’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The USS Princeton was supposed to be the future of the United States Navy.  Fairly bursting with new technology it was likely the most advanced warship of its class in the world, surpassing even anything floated the British Royal Navy, then the undisputed master of the oceans of the globe.
She was the vision of Captain Robert F. Stockton, a politically well-connected former Senator from New Jersey and the beau ideal of a dashing officer.  After resuming a naval career interrupted by years in business and politics, he turned down an offer by President John Tyler to become Secretary of the Navy, preferring an active command, preferably on the new class of war ship he envisioned.
It was Stockton’s passion—and political clout—that convinced the Navy and a notoriously tight-fisted Congress to authorize the construction of a steam powered corvette armed by two heavy guns capable of throwing shot or shell a distance of up to five miles.  Her speed, punch and long range would make her a threat to even the heaviest ship of the line. 
The leadhading naval architect and inventor of the era, Swedish born John Ericsson, who would later win fame as the  designer of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor designed The sleek 969 ton corvette. She would havethree masts with square rigging under sail.  But her breakthrough was her engines and propulsion.  Ericksson designed two vibrating lever steam engines built by Merrick & Towne, of Philadelphia. The advanced engines burned Pennsylvania hard coal rather than bulky and inefficient wood or soft coal.  They were installed totally below the ship’s water line and  turned a six-bladed screw propeller 14 feet in diameter mounted aft.  She would be the first warship in the world to abandon side or stern paddle wheels and be propelled by a screw.  Another innovation the smoke funnel could fold down when she was running under sail to get out of the way of the spars.
The keel to the new ship, named for Captain Stockton’s home town was laid at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on October 20, 1842.  Ericsson personally supervised the construction under the watchful and probably meddlesome eye of Stockton himself.
She was launched and commissioned in September 1843 with Stockton in command.  Following a test run on the Delaware River, the Princeton was taken out for sea trial in October.  After running up the coast to New York City, Stockton matched her in a race against the famed British steam packet SS Great Western which in those years perpetually held the speed records for transatlantic crossings.  It was a sprint rather than a long race, but the Princeton won handily making newspaper headlines and establishing her as a legitimate threat against the lumbering armadas of the world.
In January of 1843 she was read for regular service and Stockton took her to New York to be fitted with her two massive guns.  Both were smooth bore muzzle loading 12” wrought iron cannons capable of firing a 225 pound shot 5 miles with 50 pound charge.  The guns were so impressive that each was given a name.
Despite their similarities, however, there was a critical difference.  The Orator, soon renamed the Oregon as a taunt to the British over the disputed boundary of that territory, was designed by Ericsson and cast at the Mersey Iron Works in England in 1841 and shipped to the states awaiting the ship who could handle it.  Critically, in a dramatic innovation the breech was re-enforced with a built-up construction application red-hot iron hoops which pre-tensioned the gun and greatly increased the charge the breech could withstand.
Unfortunately, the Navy did not have enough money to have two guns manufactured in England.  Instead Stockton sought to duplicate the capabilities of the gun by supervising the creation of the Peacemaker at Hogg and Delamater in New York City.  Stockton never consulted Erickson and did not appreciate the critical importance of the re-enforcing rings.  Instead he attempted to achieve the same results by simply by making the breech thicker.  He did not realize that given the innate brittle nature of wrought iron, the new breech could not withstand the huge sudden build-up of pressure when being fired.  Sooner or later it would fail catastrophically.
Both guns benefited from another Ericson innovation, a re-coil absorption system that would keep the ship from being rolled by the power of its gun blasts.
After they were fitted Stockton on test fired the guns a few times before sailing to Washington to show off and to lobby for funds to build a whole flotilla of Princeton class corvettes.  After arriving in January of 1844, Stockton showed her off on several short cruised on the Potomac in February caring Navy brass and civilians as passengers.  On each occasion she fired her guns at least once.
But the big day was February 28.  On that day she picked up President Tyler, his Cabinet, assorted politicians, and even iconic former First Lady Dolly Madison at Alexandria, Virginia.  The cruise was a gay affair as visitors crowded the deck to witness a firing of the two great guns.  After a break for an elegant lunch below decks most of the visitors returned to the deck for one more thrilling test fire.  President Tyler, who could not abide the noise, remained below.
On the second firing of the Peacemaker the breech exploded.  Killed instantly were Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, Chief of the Bureau of Construction Equipment and Repairs Capt. Beverly Kennon, Virgil Maxcy former ChargĂ© d’Affaires to Belgium, Colonel David Gardiner of New York, the President‘s slave and valet Armistead, and two sailors.  Several others, including Stockton, were injured by shrapnel.
The President and the lovely Miss Julia Gardner rushed to the deck to find a scene of horror and carnage.  When Miss Gardner discovered her father among the dead, she collapsed into the President’s arms.  The two were later married.
There was an understandable public outrage at the accident that had nearly obliterated the whole administration.  Both Congress and the Navy launched investigations.  It would have meant the end of a career to any other officer, but Stockton was well protected politically.  A Court of Inquiry investigating the cause of the explosion exonerated Stockton blaming the explosion on Ericsson who had nothing to do with the design or construction of the Peacemaker.  This understandably embittered Ericsson who refused to work again for the Navy until the emergency of the Civil War.
Stockton was promoted to Commodore and won fame in the Mexican War as the commander of the Navy squadron that helped seize California.  He was subsequently named first military governor and had a town named after him.  He later served as a Democratic Senator from New Jersey and attempted to mediate a peaceful solution to southern secession.  He was named commander of the New Jersey Militia when fears of a Southern invasion were at their height.  He died full of honors in 1866.
The once proud Princeton fared worse.  She served in the Home Squadron until 1847 and was then assigned duty in the Mediterranean which caused her to miss action in the Mexican war.  Upon return to the United States in 1849 her timbers were found rotting from poor maintenance.  She was decommissioned and broken up for scrap at the Boston Navy Yard on June 17, 1849 after less than six years active service.

Congress never approved plans for a flotilla of Princeton class ships, which would have been invaluable in maintaining the blockade of the South during the Civil War.

Two years later her innovative twin engines were used in a new Princeton, the first of five successors bearing that name including a guided missile cruiser commissioned in 1989, currently in active service.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Urgent Alert on Marriage Equality—Call Jack Franks

Now that the Marriage Equality bill has cleared the Illinois House Executive Committee, it is heading for consideration on the House floor.  And the battle for the hearts and minds of individual legislators is heating up.  

Here in McHenry County that battle is focusing on Democratic Representative Jack Franks of the 63rd District which encompasses about half of the county.  Jack is considered a swing vote but leaning against.   The rest of the county’s representatives are all Republicans and are unanimously expected to vote against gender equal marriage.  

The Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry and our allies from PFLAG have lobbied Jack with a personal visit in mass to his district office.  On Monday, opponents of the bill countered with a well publicized demonstration outside that office—although their total numbers including children did not equal our delegation.  

Now we learn that robo-calls targeting voters in Jack’s district are being made by the notorious right wing American Family Association, which has been identified by the Hatewatch program of the Southern Poverty Law Center as a Hate Group urging people to call him and oppose the legislation.  He may get a ton of calls in response. It is critical that we counter that.  

Call Jack Franks Today!  Call him tomorrow!  Contact your friends and relations to call him.  Leave a brief, polite, but firm message that you support marriage equality and 1 good reason.  If you have previously supported Jack, it doesn’t hurt to mention that as well.  Call the Woodstock office at 815 334-0063 or Springfield at 217 782-1717.

Dan Sickles--First Person to be Acquitted by Reason of Insanity

By any measure, Daniel Sickles was a colorful character.  He was in his second term as a Democratic Congressman from New York City when he hunted down and shot in cold blood the District Attorney of the District of Columbia on February 27, 1859.   Sickles fired a second shot as the man laid on the ground pleading for his life.  The victim, Philip Barton Key, was the son of Francis Scott Key, composer of the Star Spangled Banner and the son in law of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.
Now for most folks, this kind of thing can lead to real trouble.  Maybe even tarnish a career.  Not Dan Sickles.  He seemed to thrive on the surrounding hubbub.
Born in New York in 1819, Sickles was the son of a patent lawyer and small time politician.  After trying his hand as a printer, he attended the University of the City of New York.  He threw his lot with the rising Tammany political organization.  By 1843 he was serving in the state Assembly.  He was also reading law in Benjamin Butler’s politically powerful firm and was admitted to the bar in 1846. 
Sickles rose even as he garnered a reputation as a hard drinking ladies man and a pugnacious political scrapper.  He was censured by the Assembly for bringing a known prostitute to the chamber.  Later, when appointed Secretary of the American Legation in London by President Franklin Pierce, he arranged to introduce the same woman, Fanny White, to Queen Victoria under the last name of a political opponent back home.  That’s the kind of guy Sickles was.
That was in 1853.  A year earlier Sickles had married a 15 year old beauty, Teresa Bagioli,  the charming daughter of a well known Italian music teacher and rumored to have been the “natural child”  of another musician, the son of Lorenzo da Ponte, the librettist for Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and other operas.  Sensitive to charges that he “robbed the cradle” Sickles began lying about his age, absurdly claiming to be born in 1825.  This fooled no one but a few sloppy historians.
Despite his own continued affairs and dalliance, Sickles was extremely jealous of his child bride. 
After a turn in the New York Senate, Sickles was elected to Congress in 1856.  Charming and accomplished the couple became leaders in Capital city society.  But Sickles continued his extra-marital affairs. Lonely, Teresa solace found with Key, a frequent visitor to social occasions in their home.  Romance bloomed.
After receiving an anonymous letter exposing the dalliance, Sickles confronted his wife who, after initial denials, wrote out an extraordinary detailed confession of the affair that included dates of assignations and the fact that Key rented a house in a mixed race neighborhood for their afternoon rendezvous.  On February 27, 1859 Sickles said he saw Key outside his home signaling his wife with a waved handkerchief, he armed himself with multiple pistols and pursued Key.  He caught up with him in Lafayette Park right across the park from the White House.  After wounding the man, Sickles aimed his second shot at Key’s groin as he lay on the ground.
Sickles calmly turned himself into Attorney General.  He was allowed to return home in the company of a constable where he took his wife’s wedding ring.  In jail he was allowed to keep a “personal weapon” and received a string of admiring visitors in the jailer’s private apartment.
Sickles masterfully manipulated the frantic press coverage of the event.  Far from protecting his wife’s reputation, he let it be known that she had been involved in an adulterous affair.  Sympathy was almost unanimously with the cuckolded husband out to avenge a depredation on the “sanctity of the home.”  He secured the top lawyers in the city, including Edwin Stanton, a Republican and future Secretary of War.
The trial began on April 4.  Defense attorney John Graham launched into a three day opening statement which simultaneously painted Key as the real villain, flooded with Biblical allusions, and argued that Sickles was so consumed in justifiable rage that he was deprived of reason.  The prosecution presented a straight forward case based on testimony of numerous eyewitnesses.  They never bought up any of Sickles’s own numerous affairs, many with married ladies.
Although the judge ruled the written admission of Mrs. Sickles inadmissible, it was leaked to the press and published in full during the trial.
On April 26 the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.  The first plea of temporary insanity in an American court had succeeded.
After the trial Sickle “withdrew” from public life for a few months, but did not resign his seat in Congress.  Eventually he resumed his duties.  The sharpest criticism he received in the press was not for the murder, but for reconciling with his adulterous wife.
Despite his Democratic loyalties, Sickles personally raised four regiments in New York State when the Civil War broke out.  He was commissioned Colonel of one of them.  Political opponents blocked the appointment, but allies, probably Edwin Stanton himself, intervened and he was restored to his command.  Sickles rose rapidly as a “political general.”  He served with some distinction in several battles.
At Chancellorsville, in command of the Army of the Potomac’s III Corps, Sickles clashed with his close friend and sponsor in the army Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.  He wanted to pursue a large force in his sector, which turned out to be Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate corps which was making a flanking maneuver that would take the army by surprise.  He also objected to later orders that caused him to evacuate a strong defensive position.
That these judgments proved, in retrospect, entirely correct, only confirmed Sickles’s determination to follow his own instincts despite orders on the next opportunity.  That opportunity came on July 2, day two at Gettysburg.
Ordered by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to use his III Corps to anchor the southern end of Cemetery Ridge, Sickles instead advanced his men well ahead the line to a position in the Peach Orchard.  The exposed salient was open to attack on three sides.  III Corps was effectively destroyed as a fighting force by troops under Lt. General James Longstreet. 
In the thick of the fight, Sickles was struck by a cannon ball which shattered his right leg.  He had to be carried from the field.  Surgeons amputated his leg, which he preserved in a small casket.  Later, he donated the leg to the Army Medical Museum in Washington which put it on display.  Sickles would visit the leg annually on July 2 for the rest of his life.  The bone can still be seen in the successor institution, National Museum of Health and Medicine.
Despite his injuries and wide spread criticism of his disastrous decision at Gettysburg, Sickles remained in the service and indeed received a commission in the Regular Army although he never again got a combat command.
He served in the Reconstruction South in several high command positions before retiring from the Army in 1867.  The same year his wife died.
In 1869 Sickles was named Minister to Spain. In that capacity he urged war with Spain over the seizure of the Virginius, a ship under the American flag caught running guns to Cuban rebels, when the Spanish executed the captain and several other Americans as well as Cubans found on board.  Despite this he was popular at court.  And he continued to pursue the ladies.  The deposed Queen Isabella II was said to be among his conquests. 
In 1871 Sickles married Senorita Carmina Creagh, the daughter of Chevalier de Creagh, a Spanish Councilor of State and a descendent of one the Wild Geese Irish soldiers who fought against the English for Catholic powers.  He would father two more children with his second wife.
Back in the United Sates after concluding his foreign service in 1874, Sickles became head of New York Monuments Commission where he raised funds for a monument to New York troops at Gettysburg.  He later played a key role in preserving the battlefield for the public.  He also, apparently, embezzled about $27,000 of money raised by the Commission for the Gettysburg monument.  The monument was eventually erected, but without a planned bust of Sickles himself, leaving him the only senior commander on either side of that battle not to be honored with a statue there.
He served in a succession of posts, including on President of the New York Civil Service Commission and as Sheriff of New York.  In 1893 he was returned to another term in Congress.  While there he renewed his campaign for recognition of his Civil War service.  The charm campaign worked.  In 1897 after leaving Congress for the last time, Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire at Gettysburg.
Sickles lived quietly, or as quietly as any old rogue can, in retirement in New York until his death in 1914 at the age of 93.  His flag draped coffin was loaded on a caisson and escorted to funeral services at St. Patrick Cathedral with full military honors.  He was interned at Arlington National Cemetery, where you can view his grave after seeing his leg in the medical museum if you want to make a day of it.