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New Jersey And The Land Of Gold

Chapter 24
Page 246

There was another famous American sailor who came out of New Jersey, who was perhaps of as much value to his country as any other naval commander, although he was not the hero of any great sea fights.

This was Robert F. Stockton, who was born in Princeton, and who entered the navy early in life. He became an excellent officer and a great fighter. His disposition to do battle showed itself not only in leading men into action, but in doing a great deal of fighting himself. He distinguished himself in several naval combats during the war with Algiers. He commanded the "Spitfire" during this war, and, besides taking one of the enemy's vessels in an ordinary naval combat, he captured an Algerine brig, one might almost say, with his own hands. With as many men as a small boat could carry, he left his vessel, rowed to this brig, and at the head of his bold sailors boarded her, vanquished the crew, and carried her off as a prize.

He was afterwards transferred to a larger vessel, and was stationed for a time at Gibraltar. There was a very bad feeling at that time between the American naval officers and those of Great Britain. The War

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of 1812 was over; but the British were not inclined to treat the officers of the United States Navy with the respect which the latter thought was due to them. Stockton was not a man to stand still and allow himself to be treated disrespectfully; and whenever he received anything that seemed like an insult from a British officer, he was ready to fight that officer, whoever he might be. It is said that at one time he challenged all the officers in Gibraltar to meet him in single combat, one after another, and he actually did engage in duels with several of them.

During the British war and the Algerine war, Stockton distinguished himself in various ways, both on land and sea. But in 1821 he undertook a very important enterprise in Africa. Many naval vessels had gone from the United States to Africa, but none of them on an errand such as this. Our gallant Jersey captain did not sail to pay tribute, bombard cities, sink vessels, humble African potentates, or to shed African blood; he went on an errand of charity and humanity.

He sailed from America in the interests of the Colonization Society, and his object was to make arrangements on the west coast of Africa for the establishment of a colony, to be composed of Negroes who had been slaves in the United States, but who had obtained their freedom. There were many humane people in the United States who believed that the Negroes who had been set free from slavery would be much happier and more likely to prosper in their native land, or in the land of their ancestors, than in the United States.

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In company with an agent of this society, Stockton sailed for the west coast of Africa in command of an armed schooner called the "Alligator;" and when he arrived at his destination, he took upon himself nearly all the difficult work of selecting territory suitable for the purposes desired, of buying land from the savage natives, of making them understand the character of the settlers who were coming to Africa and of the powerful nation who intended to protect them. He made treaties of commerce and friendship with the ignorant Africans, who, until he came, scarcely knew what was meant by a treaty.

The performance of these complicated and difficult duties required a man of courage and diplomatic ability, who could take things as they came, and who was always ready to act promptly in sudden emergencies. Stockton proved himself to be that man, and he established in the native land of the negro a country to which the Africans who had once been slaves in the United States might freely go, carrying with them all that they had learned of civilization in this country, and where they might live without fear of reënslavement by the warlike tribes, whose principal business in life then was to capture their fellow-countrymen, and sell them into slavery.

This new country, which was called Liberia, was at first a colony of the United States. It grew and prospered, and in 1847 it became an independent nation, and soon after was recognized as such by Great Britain and the United States; and since then it has made treaties with most of the European countries.

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Thus was established the new nation of Liberia, and it is not likely that there was a man in the United States who could have accomplished this great work better than the fighting sailor from Princeton.

After having finished the Liberian business on land, Stockton did some work at sea more in the line of a naval commander. While sailing along the coast, the "Alligator" was sighted by a Portuguese war vessel, the "Marianna Flora," who mistook her for a pirate, and determined to capture her. But when the "Marianna" got near enough, and opened fire on the supposed pirate, she found that the work she had undertaken was very different from what she had expected. To speak figuratively, the "Alligator" lashed her tail, opened her jaws, and began to fight with such fury, that in twenty minutes the "Marianna" was beaten and captured. Stockton put her under the command of one of his own officers with an American crew, and sent her away as a prize to America.

The government of Portugal, when it heard what had happened, declared, that, as their country and the United States were not at war, our Jersey sailor had no right to take one of their vessels; but, as it was asserted on the other side that one of their vessels had first tried to take his, there seemed to be a good deal of justice in what had been done. However, the matter was settled by his exoneration from all blame in the matter, and the return of the "Marianna" to Portugal.

Some time later, the "Alligator" fell in with a French slave ship and captured her; and it is stated

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that the legal proceedings which followed this capture established the point of international law, that war vessels of all nations have a perfect right to capture a slave ship, wherever it may be found. This was the first step in the work of breaking up the slave trade, which was then carried on by many of the civilized nations of the world.

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,

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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 new-fangled 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 secretary of the navy, and the father-in-law of

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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 Frémont, 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 attacked and taken. Commodore Stockton now declared himself the conqueror of California, and organized a provisional government for the captured territory, appointing John C. Frémont as governor.

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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 Frémont held his position.

But now arose a dispute between the general and the commodore. When Kearney arrived at Los

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Angeles, he would not recognize the authority of Frémont, 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 Frémont, will ever be associated with that State whose principal water portal is well called the "Golden Gate."

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