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Texas | Columns | Notes From Over Here

Robert F. Stockton

by Byron Browne

I had been as inactive as the couch cushions that supported me. If I had stopped breathing, the couch and I could have been mistaken for relatives. However, I was watching the high-dive event of some summer Olympics and that was pumping some animation into my sack of bones. I listened while the announcers described each diver as he or she took their place atop the broad, flat tarmac before throwing themselves into space. Many of them, backs to the pool, balanced on the platform only by the clutch of their toes. Every dive was preceded by a short biography, delivered by the television’s announcer, such as: Chip Rutherford is about to attempt a triple reverse backward somersault, half-pike. He is a sophomore at Yale University majoring in astro-physics. Then, the second announcer, might add: He’s also a Naval pilot, flying F-16s from the deck of the USS Kittyhawk. And so, as I sat eating a tuna fish sandwich and drinking the last half of the last beer in the house, I pondered on my own accomplishments to that point. I thought of Julius Caesar who is said to have cried while inspecting the Pyramids in Egypt because he was thinking of Alexander who had accomplished world domination (Caesar’s own, slightly-tacit, ambition) at half his (Caesar’s) age. Luckily, the phone rang and interrupted what was sure to be a short list when I focused my attention on my own career. It was my little sister. “Are you watching this?” she asked. She too had been watching the Supermen of the Olympics. “These people are unbelievable!” she exclaimed. While we spoke about the super human efforts we were witnessing Chip nailed his triple-reverse backwards somersault half-pike, leaving barely a ripple in the pool’s surface as his lithe, trim body knifed through the water. Of course.

I recently had a very similar experience while doing some research about southwest Texas. I was reading about Fort Stockton, Texas and its namesake, one Robert Field Stockton. Robert Stockton’s life was one of those extraordinary events that persuades and affects the lives of, not only those who were contemporaries, but also the generations that follow.

Robert Field Stockton
Robert Field Stockton

Robert Stockton was born August 20, 1795 into a prominent and political New Jersey family. His father, Richard Stockton had been the Senator from New Jersey from 1796-1799 and then later served as congressman, again representing New Jersey, in the House. Stockton’s grandfather, Richard Sr., was not only a close friend of George Washington’s but also served in the Second Continental Congress. After Judge Stockton endured imprisonment and very brutal treatment by the British, he was later a signer of the Declaration of Independence as the representative of the state of New Jersey.

Robert F. Stockton enrolled at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1808, at the age of 13. In 1811, at the green age of sixteen, he joined the U.S. Navy as a midshipman and saw action during the War of 1812. In fact, Stockton was aboard the USS President during this phase of his naval career. This was the vessel, with Commodore John Rodgers at the helm, that “fired the first shot of the War of 1812” during an engagement with HMS Belvidera. While in this service Stockton began devising plans for an under-hull, screw propeller that allowed larger war ships more speed and maneuverability.

After these war years Stockton was assigned duty in the Mediterranean Sea. He saw action in the war in Algiers and against the infamous Barbary pirates. Presumably it was during this time in and near Africa that Stockton became concerned with the slavery issue back in the United States. In the early 1820s Stockton became involved with the American Colonization Society or, more fully, the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America. This organization was founded with the stated intent of allowing “Free Blacks” to return to Africa where there was potential for a better quality of life than in the U.S. In fact, this organization also saw slaveholders amongst its ranks since several of them felt threatened by free African-Americans. The slaveholders saw this as a way to part company with a group that might be diametrically opposed to themselves. Along with founding member and famous Kentucky statesman, Henry Clay, Stockton was instrumental in the creation of the colony of Liberia and the township of Monrovia (the only city in the world, outside of America, named for a U.S. president). Indeed, one story has Stockton involved with trying to persuade an African chieftain, one King Peter, to appropriate and offer land for this effort…from the business end of a pistol.

Around 1840 Stockton assisted engineer John Ericsson in overseeing the building of a sail and steam war ship, the first U.S. ship with a screw propeller blade that, due to its powerful and therefore smaller diameter, operated under the water line. The ship was named in honor of the Stockton family as Robert had been instrumental in securing federal funds for its construction. Commissioned in 1843, the USS Princeton saw several years of service however, it came to be better known for a horrific accident than any other occurrence.

Explosion of Peacemaker Aboard US Steam Frigate Princeton, 1844
“Awful Explosion of the Peace-maker Aboard the US Steam Frigate Princeton” 1844
Currier and Ives Lithograph

Credit: Department of the Navy, Historical Center
Then Captain Robert Stockton, namesake of Fort Stockton, Texas wasn’t the only person aboard the Princeton that fatal day to be honored by Texas. Secretary of the Navy Thomas Walker Gilmer and Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, both killed in the mishap, were remembered. Gilmer, Texas is the County Seat of Upshur County. President John Tyler, who missed the explosion by seconds, had Tyler, Texas named in his honor.

The USS Princeton had two enormous cannons on board, an attribute that Stockton had been very eager to accomplish and even assisted in the construction of one of the giant guns. As was the custom then, the cannons came complete with monikers. The gun designed by Ericsson was initially named the “Orator” and then changed to “Oregon”. The other cannon, the “Peacemaker”, designed by Stockton, was to be the cause of the Princeton’s infamy.

Ericsson’s “Oregon” had iron bands around the breech end of the barrel, an invention that reinforced the mechanism. Stockton’s gun, equally large at just over 12 tons, simply relied on a thicker casing for the barrel rather than the hoops that Ericsson had used. As one writer wrote years ago the cannon was, “certain to burst” at some point because of its design flaw. Burst it did on February 28, 1844 during an inspection tour on the Potomac River. Present on deck and killed instantly by the red-hot shrapnel were Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer who had been the one to ask for the Peacemaker’s firing (the mammoth gun had already been fired three times during the course of the afternoon. Stockton had initially refused the request for the fourth blast until he learned that it had been Gilmer’s request.) Because the ship was sailing on a decorative mission, as it were, the vessel was filled with Washington dignitaries and socialites. After the explosion of the enormous weapon these same socialites were covered in blood, viscera and body parts. In fact, one female debutante was knocked unconscious by the flying arm of one of the blast’s victims. President Tyler was almost one of the victims himself but had been detained just below deck, and just before the cannon’s firing, by his son-in-law. In all nine people died that afternoon. Stockton was also wounded and hospitalized by the explosion and was spared further injury when he was absolved of any malfeasance. Ericsson, who had missed the afternoon’s trip because he did not trust the Peacemaker’s design, ended his relationship with both Stockton and the U.S. Navy, for a while. During the Civil War, Ericsson designed the Monitor ships, those metal flotillas that lay close to the water’s surface thereby utilizing the water as another protective layer.

Stockton’s fame however, was not to be diminished or determined by this single event. While the tragedy did have a deleterious effect on him for some time, Stockton was soon aboard another Navy ship. This time he headed to Texas with sealed orders from then President Polk to request that Texas agree to annexation by the United States. Stockton arrived in Galveston aboard the Princeton in 1845. By now known for his brashness, Stockton was warned by his superiors to not behave “rashly” with Texas President Anson Jones. Stockton, well aware that Texas’ annexation would likely cause the Mexican government to declare war on the United States (ownership of the area was still a dispute nine years after the Alamo battle) confided to Jones that Texas should, after accepting the annexation deal, invade Mexico in a sort of first-blow effort.

Texas was annexed and Mexico did declare war, just as Stockton had guessed. Stockton’s next move was to California where he relieved Commodore John Sloat at Monterey. Having arrived with marines, infantry and artillery the Mexican Californios troops quickly retreated in the face of Stockton’s superior forces. In true form, Stockton proclaimed himself the first Military Governor of California.

There is much more to the role Stockton played during the Mexican-American War and his acquisition of Alta California. He and his forces were instrumental in re-capturing Los Angeles. Monterey and San Diego also were reinforced and supplied through Stockton’s efforts. The Mexican General JosÈ Castro who, up to Stockton’s arrival, had been the Governor of Alta California, retreated and left that position open for Stockton. However, the U.S. Naval command objected to Stockton’s self-promotion and replaced him with General Stephen Kearney in 1850, coincidently the same year that Stockton “resigned” from the Navy.

Robert F. Stockton then served as senator from New Jersey from 1851-1853. During his tenure he passed a bill forbidding the naval custom of flogging as a punishment method. Later still, in 1863, Stockton was appointed as head of the New Jersey Militia during the Civil War. He died three years later, in 1866, and is buried at Princeton, New Jersey.
* * *

While I was reading through several different websites and articles about Stockton, I came upon an auction house’s offerings of some old Americana. The item I noticed was a nineteenth century flag with Henry Clay, Sam Houston and Robert Stockton’s names embroidered across the face. The note on Stockton’s name stated something about him not being a “Big Name” in American politics but one of those that “had a hand in many pivotal events”. Indeed. From designing a style of ship that would revolutionize naval battles to helping secure enormous reaches of land for his country Robert Stockton was one of those individuals like ____________ (insert your own favorite icon’s name here) who shaped the portrait of this country through the sheer power of his character. (I found I was usually inserting Douglas McArthur’s name in the above blank while reading about Stockton).

I suppose we all need to be able to hear and read about such people while we sit on our couches, drink our beer and consider our own accomplishments, otherwise we might never get up. But, Robert F. Stockton, as so many men and women connected with Texas’ history, seems larger than life when trying to absorb his story all at one sitting. Stockton left an enormous legacy behind. Not only are Camp Fort Stockton and subsequently, Fort Stockton, Texas named in his honor but Stockton, California is also his namesake. Additionally, there is the Stockton Borough of New Jersey, Stockton Street in San Francisco, a Fort Stockton in San Diego (from the nineteenth century) that is today, a ruin and even a Stockton rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Personally, I have not accomplished too much as to warrant a town’s naming in my honor I might, however, settle for a rest stop on I-35.

© Byron Browne
Notes From Over Here
February 1, 2011 Column
Byron Browne can be reached at Byron.Browne@gmail.com

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