By Frank R. Stockton
Originally published in 1896
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003
In later cruises, Stockton sailed about in the West Indies, capturing several slavers, and also making a vigorous war on pirates and freebooters, who at that time made the vicinity of these islands very dangerous for peaceable vessels.
In 1838 our commander was made a captain. There was no war now in which he might engage, but his mind was very busily occupied in regard to the proper construction of war vessels. In 1841 the United States Navy did not possess a single steamship. They were all old-style sailing vessels. Several steamers had been planned : one had blown up, and two others were still on the stocks. But Captain Stockton did not believe that if these were finished they would be effective as vessels of war. One great reason for this was the fact that their engines were situated so near the upper deck, that a shot from an enemy might easily destroy them, and so render the vessel worthless. Another objection was that they were side-wheelers, and it would be a very easy thing for a cannon ball to knock an exposed side-wheel into a worthless condition.
Stockton's idea was to put the engines and machinery deep down in the vessel, below the water line, where it would be almost impossible to injure them, and to have the ship moved by means of a submerged screw in the stern, instead of by paddle wheels. The naval constructors and authorities opposed this newfangled scheme; but our New Jersey sailor was an energetic man in whatever he had to do, and he fought the naval constructors as vigorously as he ever fought a pirate. Consequently he got authority from Congress to build a war ship after his own plan, and arm it with cannon, which he thought would be much better than the guns then in use in the navy.
Under Stockton's directions, there was built at Philadelphia a vessel of war, which he named the " Princeton," and which was constructed according to his plans. On her deck were two great guns of wrought iron, which were also devised by him ; and each of these carried a two hundred and twenty-five pound shot, much heavier than those then used in naval warfare.
Great public interest was excited in the " Princeton," the first steamship of our navy, and on her trial trip she was found to be an excellent seagoing vessel. She went to Washington, and there started out on an excursion, during which her great guns were to be tried. There was a very distinguished company on board, officers of the army and navy, and several members of the Cabinet, and other guests.
It was found, however, that the ship was much superior to her great guns; for when one of them, named the "Peacemaker," was fired, it exploded, killing several people, among whom were the secretary of war, the President; while others, including Captain Stockton, were wounded.
This terrible event shocked the whole nation ; but although there were no more wrought-iron cannon made, the building of naval steamships, which began with Stockton's " Princeton," went steadily on, growing and improving, until it reached the high point shown by the swift and powerful ironclad men-of-war which now fly the stars and stripes.
In 1846 Stockton found himself on the coast of California, with the rank of commodore, and in command of a squadron. Since he had started from the United States, war had been declared with Mexico; and when he arrived, the towns of Monterey and San Francisco had been taken by Commodore Sloat, who had preceded him. A state of war exactly suited Stockton's disposition ; and as there was no more immediate need of fighting on the seacoast, he organized a little army of marines and sailors from his ships, which was afterwards joined by a body of adventurers and hunters of the United States, and also by Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont, an officer of the United States Army, who had been sent into that region to explore the country, and who had already done some fighting with the little band under his command.
Los Angeles, the Mexican capital of California, was i attacked and taken. Commodore Stockton now declared himself the conqueror of California, and organized a provisional government for the captured territory, appointing John C. Fremont as governor.
At the same time, however, there was another Jerseyman in the field intent upon the capture of California. This was General Stephen Kearney, an army officer who had made a wonderful march across the plains and mountains towards the coast. After he arrived on the scene, there were several battles with the Mexican forces and with the Indians; but the contest ended in a complete victory for the land forces commanded by Kearney from Newark, and the naval forces by Stockton from Princeton, under whom Fremont held his position
But now arose a dispute between the general and the commodore. When Kearney arrived at Los Angeles, he would not recognize the authority of Fremont, who had been appointed governor by Stockton, because he considered that an army officer is higher in rank than one in the navy; and he took the governorship himself. A court-martial was convened for the purpose of deciding the question, and it was settled that Kearney was of the higher rank, and he therefore retained the governorship. But between the two Jerseymen the United States obtained the land of gold.
A year or two after this, Commodore Stockton resigned from the navy, and subsequently went to Congress as a senator from New Jersey. But although no longer in the navy, he did not cease to work for the benefit of the brave sailors he had so often commanded and led; and he obtained the passage of a bill abolishing the punishment of flogging in the navy, thus adding another great gift to his country and civilization.
When the country which had been captured from Mexico was discovered to be not only a fertile and pleasant land, but a land filled with rich treasures of gold, the true value of the gift made to the United States by our two Jerseymen became known and appreciated ; and the names of Stockton and Kearney, with that of the brave Fremont, will ever be associated with that State whose principal water portal is well called the "Golden Gate."
"Biographical Encyclopaedia of New Jersey."