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Stephen Decatur



By Elisabeth Wilson, copyright 2004

In 1820, America had many heroic men, but one was considered the greatest hero of all. He had helped define a new and growing U.S. Navy, fought heroically through four wars, battled pirates, dueled with fellow officers to protect his honor, and received the fame, fortune, and recognition for his great deeds from the country he loved so well. He was Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr.

Stephen Decatur was born in Sinepuxent, Maryland on January 5, 1779. His father, a merchant shipman, was fighting as a captain in the hastily gathered patriot navy in the Revolutionary War. His mother lived in a two-room cabin close to the sea while her husband was away and the British occupied their native home of Philadelphia. A few months after his birth, Decatur, his brothers and sisters and his mother moved back to Philadelphia to wait for his father to come home. When Decatur was four years old, the Revolutionary War officially ended, and his father returned to once again work at the business he later co-owned, Gurney and Smith of Philadelphia, which traded with Europe and East India.

When Decatur was eight years old, his father took him on a voyage to Europe to recover from a severe attack of whooping cough. It was during this voyage that Decatur fell in love with the sea. He recovered from his illness, but not from his dreams of becoming a sailor. His mother would not allow him to go on any more cruises with his father; she wanted him to become a scholar and have a career in the ministry. He studied at the Protestant Episcopal Academy, but he did not study his books. He spent more time at the wharfs, diving from jib booms at the age of 14. He also showed an early sense of honor, protecting his mother from a drunken hooligan declaring, “That is my mother; she must be treated with respect”.

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Upon finishing his studies at the academy, to please his parents, he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania. Again he neglected his studies, especially mathematics.

At the age of 17, Decatur left the university to work as a clerk alongside his father at Gurney and Smith. He enjoyed this occupation near the wharf, with the ships and the cargoes he sent out to sea in his place. He took up mathematics again in his spare time, this time making a success of it. He liked building model ships.

At the end of the American Revolution, three ships were left in the newborn United States Navy. By 1785, they had been sold and the country was left without a naval defense for ten years. But as exportation grew, so did piracy. Pirates from the Barbary Coast of Northern Africa, who had been looting ships in the Mediterranean since the 1500’s, took advantage of the lack of protection to begin attacks on American merchant vessels.

In 1784, a Moroccan raider incarcerated the American brig, Betsy. Though her sailors were not enslaved and were eventually recovered along with the ship, this incident led to a general scare among traders. The United States signed a treaty in 1786 with Morocco. Though no tribute was given to the Sultan of Morocco, he did receive three hundred thousand dollars in gifts.

Algiers and Tripoli were harder to deal with. Their piracy and enslaving of American crews continued. Algiers had already captured eleven ships. By 1792, Congress voted to buy peace from the Dey of Algiers with $40,000 and to pay an annual tribute of $25,000 to protect American trade ships. David Humphries, U.S. Minister to Portugal, sent as envoy to negotiate with the Dey, knew of the damage Algiers and Portugal would inflict on American commerce. He wrote, “It appears absurd to trust to the fleets of Portugal, or any other nation, to protect or convoy our trade. If we mean to have a commerce, we must have a naval force, to a certain extent, to defend it.”

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Despite beliefs that a navy was a non-democratic enterprise, a bill was finally passed allowing the president “to provide, by purchase or otherwise, equip and employ, four ships to carry forty-four guns and two ships to carry thirty-six guns each.” A sum of $688,888.82 was granted for the construction of the ships, unless peace with Algiers was achieved, at which point all work on the naval project would cease.

Negotiations with the Dey were eventually successful; he accepted gifts estimated at a total value of one million dollars: $525,000 in ransom money for the kidnapped sailors, a 36 gun frigate, the Crescent, and presents, plus $25,000 in naval stores for annual tribute. The next year the captives were released, though largely reduced in number by deaths. Still, the treaty had been signed the preceding year, and money was given for the original amount of sailors.

By now, construction on the ships ordered by Congress was partially finished. In order to avoid wasting money, President George Washington was allowed to finish two of the forty-four gun frigates and one thirty-six gun frigate, to be known as United States, Constitution, and Constellation. United States was contracted to be built by Gurney and Smith. Stephen Decatur, Jr. was one of the proud men who worked on the construction of this ship.

In 1793, French minister Edmond Charles Genet was sent from revolutionary France to America to convince the United States to fight France’s enemies, the British and the Spanish, with whom France was at war. Landing in Charleston, South Carolina and without first contacting President Washington, Genet tried to enlist men into the French service on privateering commissions. He then enlisted citizens for an expedition down the Mississippi River to capture New Orleans, which was under Spanish rule. Finally he fitted out a cruiser, La Petite Democrate, which he sent to sea as a battle ship.

Because of this insulting behavior, President Washington continued his policy of neutrality and refused to ally himself with the French. Some Americans sympathized with the French, openly and loudly expressing their feelings in the streets of what was then the nation’s capitol, Philadelphia. French supporters wore French liberty caps, while those who upheld Washington’s neutrality wore blue cockades in their hats.

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As Decatur returned from a fishing trip one day, he and his friends passed a crowd of French supporters, who demanded that Decatur’s group remove their cockades and substitute them with liberty caps. When Decatur refused, the French sympathizers attempted to take his hat by force. Decatur and his friends, though greatly out numbered, fought back. Colleagues from Gurney and Smith appeared to take up Decatur’s side and proudly led him away, with his blue cockade firmly placed on his head.

During this period of his life, Decatur established his first romantic relationship with a young lady who may have been the granddaughter or Rufus King, a Federalist politician. No records show any definite engagement between the two, but the relationship apparently lasted until early 1806.

America was finding neutrality was an effective policy, but only in theory. The war in Europe had its effect. England and France constantly stepped on American neutrality rights, until John Jay’s treaty with Great Britain in November of 1794. England paid $1,000,000 reparation for previously captured U.S. ships and agreed to other restrictions involving neutral trade.

The French felt they had been unfairly dealt with by the treaty. They started a systematic sabotage of American shipping. Thirty-two ships were captured by the French, hundreds of trading ships were forced to wait in French harbors for periods as long as a year, more U.S. ships and their cargoes were taken in the West Indies and in 1798, the French even tried to capture ships in American harbors. All negotiations with France to stop these attacks failed, and public opinion turned against the French. On July 9, 1798, Congress passed an act allowing seizure of French vessels “within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, or elsewhere on the high seas.” This began, because it involved only naval conflicts, the war known as the Quasi-War with France.

At the beginning of this Quasi-War, Decatur’s good friend Captain John Barry, an American Revolutionary hero, obtained an appointment as midshipman for Decatur. Decatur was to sail on the frigate United States under Barry’s command. Decatur’s father was given command of Delaware, which sailed along with United States. To ensure his son’s success in his career, Decatur, Sr., hired a tutor, Talbot Hamilton, a former officer of the Royal Navy, to instruct his son in nautical sciences.

Decatur did not lack friends on his first voyage in the Navy. Also on board was Richard Somers, a good friend from Decatur’s early academy days. Together the two learned the ropes of being a midshipman. Their duties varied: making sure officer’s orders were carried out on deck, directing the crew who handled the sails, making sure all boats that left the ship when in port returned, making weekly inspections of the clothes and crew, sometimes issuing provisions and food rations, keeping journals and during drills and battles, making sure all orders were heard and hastily carried out.

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Decatur’s supervising officer, trainer and mentor on United States was the ship’s First Lieutenant, James Barron, ten years older than Decatur, and native of the Virginia Tidewater who entered the Virginia Naval Service before his twelfth birthday. Later describing his relationship with Barron, Decatur said, “I was more indebted to him than to my own father.”

United States and Delaware set sail from Philadelphia for West Indian waters in June of 1798. While on the journey, Somers jokingly teased Decatur about his inattention to his dress, at which point Decatur replied, equally in a playful mood, calling Somers a fool. Several days later, in Decatur’s absence, some of Somers’ fellow messmates refused to drink a toast with him until he challenged Decatur to a duel in exchange for the reckless comments. Instead, Somers challenged all of the messmates and asked Decatur to serve as his second. Although Decatur tried to persuade Somers to allow him to clear the matter, Somers refused and planned to meet each officer at subsequent hours. “They have allowed themselves to suspect my courage. I must convince them that they are mistaken; and my only course is to fight them all.”

After the duel with the first officer, Somers was wounded in his right arm; after the second, wounded in the thigh. Decatur offered to take his friend’s place, but after recovering from a fainting fit brought on by a loss of blood, Somers refused. He was forced to take aim from a sitting position, his right arm so shaky that he required the support of his friend’s arm. Still, Somers wounded the third officer, at which point the remaining duelists gave recognition to his courage, and the dueling ended.

During this first voyage, United States captured two French vessels, Le Jaloux and Sans Pareil. The United States later was caught in a storm, so badly damaged she had to return home for repairs.

In December United States set out to patrol once more, this time in the Caribbean. In February of 1779, United States fought and won a battle with L’Amour de la Patrie, hurtling a 20-pound shot through the sides of her hull. Decatur was in charge of pulling the French sailors out of the sea to take them back to his ship. He managed to pull the captain of L’Amour de la Patrie into his boat. When the captain inquired, “Is that a ship of the United States?” Decatur replied that it was. The French captain stated, “I am very much astonished, sir. I did not know the United States was at war with the French Republic.” Decatur answered, “No, sir, but you knew that the French Republic was at war with the United States; that you were taking our merchant vessels every day, and crowding our countrymen into prison at Basseterre to die like sheep.”

United States returned to Philadelphia in May of 1799. On the 21st of that month, Decatur was promoted to lieutenant. One of his first duties was to enlist recruits for the Navy from Philadelphia. Three of his recruits failed to report to Decatur’s ship, instead joining a ship bound for India. When Decatur went on board to inquire after these men, the ship’s first officer insulted him. Receiving no apology, Decatur challenged the officer to a duel. They met on the banks of the Delaware River, where the officer was wounded in the hip. Decatur was unharmed.

United States needed many repairs. Decatur was temporarily transferred to Norfolk, commanded by Thomas Calvert, sailing for the West Indies.

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Next assigned to Essex as her First Lieutenant in 1801, Decatur served under Captain William Bainbridge, a former merchant marine commander who had been in the Navy since 1798. He later served as Captain of U.S.S. Constitution and of Philadelphia. In 1801, his ship was part of a squadron of four ships sent by President Thomas Jefferson in response to the Bashaw of Tunis’ unreasonable demand for “ten thousand stands of arms.” Essex, on independent duty in Barcelona, was ordered to protect a convoy of merchantmen.

After surviving a gale off the Virginia Capes, Essex arrived in Gibraltar, where Decatur was met with the sad news of the death of his brother in law, Captain James McKnight, U.S.M.C., who had been killed while serving on the U.S.S. Constellation in a duel with the ship’s Second Lieutenant, Richard H.L. Lawson.

As captain of Essex, William Bainbridge had a reputation of running a severely strict ship, but under the supervision of Decatur, the men were trusting and loyal, responding to his method of command. He earned their respect and their confidence; he did not have to use harsh discipline because the men liked him and believed in his leadership.

Excellently fulfilling his duty as liaison between the captain, the officers and the crew, Decatur was always an honorable but firm colleague. On March 26, 1802, while off the coast of Spain at Algeciras, he notified his captain sadly that, “Mr. Higgenbothom & Mr. Swarthwout Midshipmen with several others had permission to go onshore & that the above-named Gentlemen had fought without [my] knowledge & Mr. Swarthwout was brought on board dead.”

In July, when several sailors protested against a return to Washington, Bainbridge and Decatur simply slapped eighteen members of the crew into shackles and set sail.

One evening, while Captain Bainbridge was returning from shore to the Essex, he was fired upon by a Spanish guard ship. The next night, more American officers were harassed by the same ship. As ranking officer, Decatur attempted an inquiry into these events, asking to speak to the commanding officer of the Spanish ship. When told that the officer was ashore, Decatur snapped, “Tell him that Lieutenant Decatur of the Frigate Essex pronounces him a scoundrel and that when they meet on shore, he will cut his ears off.” Following this, Bainbridge was asked by the Spanish Minister of State to keep his officers on board his ship, but replied that it was impossible, since they were loading supplies onto Essex. Decatur sent no challenge when he received an apology from the commander of the guard ship, and an order went out from the Spanish Minister for all his men to “treat all officers of the United States with courtesy and respect, and more particularly those attached to the United States Frigate Essex.”

As early as 1796, paying tribute to Algiers had become tiresome and expensive. In 1800, when the tribute was delivered to him, the Dey of Algiers had remarked smugly, “You pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves.” The Bey of Tripoli was also becoming quarrelsome, declaring he would not stop any piracy against American ships until he received a frigate like the one given to the Dey of Algiers.

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Once again serving under now-Captain James Barron on the frigate New York, Decatur was a part of a mission sent to Algiers to pay the annual tribute to the Dey in 1802. New York was then sent to join a squadron of ships at Malta, authorized by Congress to settle the matter with force, if peace with Tripoli was impossible. As war broke out between Tripoli and the United States, New York was delayed at Malta, which led to tension between the Americans and their British hosts.

One night in a theater, two British officers insulted Midshipman Joseph Bainbridge and a friend from New York. When the two Americans went into the lobby to discuss a plan of action, one British officer, the secretary for the governor of Malta, continually, intentionally jostled Bainbridge. After the third time Bainbridge knocked the British officer flat. The next day a challenge came from the officer, known for his dueling skills, to Bainbridge, a novice in dueling. Decatur volunteered to act as the young boy’s second. As second, his job was to establish the rules.

Bainbridge and the officer were to be four paces apart (the standard was ten) using pistols. The Englishman’s second stated, “This looks like murder, sir.” Decatur replied, “No sir, this looks like death, but not like murder. Your friend is a professed duelist; mine is wholly inexperienced. I am no duelist, but I am of an acquaintance with the use of a pistol. If you insist on ten paces, I will fight your friend at that distance.” The Englishman’s second hastily replied, “We have no quarrel with you, sir.”

The duel took place, Bainbridge killing the Englishman. Decatur and Bainbridge were turned over to the authorities at the insistence of the British Governor, Rear Admiral Sir Alexander J. Ball and ordered to the United States as a precaution to avoid possible prosecution. Decatur objected, threatening to resign his commission, but Captain Barron calmed his resentment and convinced Decatur to give up all thoughts of leaving the Navy. Decatur and Bainbridge were sent home, where they were subjected to a Naval inquiry at which they were both promptly cleared.

In 1803, the Navy led a blockade on all ports in Tripoli. Philadelphia, commanded by William Bainbridge, was captured by the Tripolitans and kept in Tripoli Bay to be used against American ships. The captain and crew were housed in the Tripoli jail. To prevent Philadelphia from being used by the Tripolotians when the Americans attacked the city, Decatur, now serving on Constitution, took a smaller ship, the expendable Intrepid, and loaded her with gunpowder. On the night of February 16, 1804, Intrepid snuck into the Tripoli harbor. Climbing aboard Philadelphia, Decatur and his men set fire to the ship, killing nearly 20 Tripolitions, but injuring only one American. Decatur escaped victorious into the night. The burning of Philadelphia was called “the most bold and daring act of the age,” earning Decatur a promotion to Captain (at 25, the youngest in the Navy) and a sword issued by Congress.

On August 3, 1804, Decatur, still stationed in Tripoli, was a part of an attack led in Tripoli Harbor. Throughout the battle he captured several ships, climbing on board and fighting in hand-to-hand combat. Decatur’s younger brother, James, was also in the fight. James had just pulled up beside a surrendered Tripolitan ship, but was killed as he started to board. Decatur heard the news, and leaving his own Tripolitan prize and taking eleven of his crew, searched for the ship that killed his brother. Finding it, he boarded, and began to a hand-to-hand fight with her captain. From behind, a Tripolitan fighter moved to attack Decatur. Seeing this, one of his men, Daniel Frazier, put his head above Decatur’s to receive the blow, so his captain could live and conquer. Though he lost a brother, Decatur won his battle.

On September 4, 1804, Richard Somers, now a Master Commandant commanding Intrepid, snuck into Tripoli Harbor in order to blow up as many gun boats as he could. His ship, loaded with gunpowder, exploded without warning, killing Somers and his men. Within two months Decatur had lost his dear brother and his close friend.

Decatur commanded several other ships during the war, including Argus, Constitution, and Congress until peace was declared between Tripoli and the United States on June 3, 1805. The crew of Philadelphia was released for the sum of $60,000.

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Decatur sailed back to America in the Congress with the Ambassador of Tunis and several presents destined for President Jefferson. They anchored at Hampton Roads. While Decatur and the ambassador were ashore, several visitors came to view the gifts, including the mayor of Norfolk and his daughter Susan Wheeler. Susan, once the object of pursuit by Vice-President Aaron Burr and the younger brother of Napoleon, Jerome Bonaparte, was fascinated by the ship’s treasures, but mostly by a miniature of Captain Decatur. The next day Decatur and the ambassador called on the Mayor of Norfolk, staying to dinner and later attending a ball. This was a chance for Susan to study Decatur more closely. He, in turn, became entranced by the talented, educated, graceful young woman. From the beginning, it became clear that this was a serious romance.

Decatur took to traveling to Norfolk as often as possible, “not on government service,” as his friends said. Meeting James Barron and several other friends on a street in Norfolk, Decatur was taunted about his relationship with Susan. One friend teased, asking if there was a “particular attraction” which kept Decatur in Norfolk. Barron, aware of Decatur’s relationship with the young woman in Philadelphia, but unaware of his more serious attachment with Susan Wheeler, thought the comments were inappropriate. He gently hinted this to his companions, unfortunately offending Decatur, who had already determined to end his relationship with his Philadelphia sweetheart, but did not, for obvious reasons, want the details of that relationship known to the people of Norfolk.

Barron, unaware that he had embarrassed Decatur, sailed from Norfolk without realizing that he had seriously offended his friend and changed their relationship forever.

Decatur continued to court Susan Wheeler. He called her his “paragon” and by the time he left Norfolk for Washington, they were engaged.

Taking leave from Washington, Decatur traveled home to Frankford, Pennsylvania, six miles from Philadelphia. There he received the sword commissioned to him from Congress, presented by his father, who was toasted at the banquet as “The gallant father of a gallant son.” Decatur, senior, remembering the son he lost in Tripoli and honoring the son he had given to the Navy replied, “Our children are our country’s property.”

Richard Rush, son of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a friend of the Decatur family since Decatur’s childhood, later reported a conversation in February, 1806 between his father and Decatur, who, inspired by his future wife’s intelligence and education, dreamed of furthering his own. “By good fortune I have risen fast in my profession, but my rank is ahead of my requirements. I went young into the Navy; my education was cut short, and I neglected the opportunities of improvement I had when a boy. For professional knowledge, I hope to get along, expecting to increase it as I grow older; but for other kinds of knowledge, I feel my deficiencies, and want your friendly aid towards getting the better of them. Will you favor me with a list of such books, historical, and others of a standard nature, as you think will best answer my purpose, that I may devote myself at all intervals to the perusal of them?”

Dr. Rush gladly agreed, and with his help, Decatur became an enthusiastic reader for the rest of his life.

Stephen Decatur and Susan Wheeler were married on March 8, 1806. The newlyweds moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where Decatur oversaw construction of four gunboats. They were a happy couple, though often separated by Decatur’s naval duties. Susan would often travel to where he was stationed to be close to her husband.

In the spring of 1806, Commodore John Rodgers returned with his fleet from the Mediterranean, to answer rumors about his reputation being spread, he believed, by James Barron. In 1805, Barron’s older brother Samuel was given command of the Mediterranean Squadron, ordered to lead a land attack on Tripoli. Rodgers, second in command, felt that Samuel Barron, who was in ill health, was not up to leading the attack. Rodgers was also aware that, if Samuel Barron returned home, the command would be his. President Jefferson had sent along a negotiator, Tobias Lear, who advised Samuel Barron to negotiate peace with the Bashed of Tripoli, rather than attack. Samuel Barron’s health grew worse, and, in the middle of the peace negotiations, his command was turned over to John Rodgers. Rodgers disapproved of the negotiations. He also resented James Barron, whom he thought had hypocritically urged his brother to stay in command while at the same time offering his support to Rodgers.

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Before he left the Mediterranean in 1806, Rodgers had received a message from Barron, delivered by William Bainbridge, who later reported “That he [Barron] had heard that he [Rodgers] had spoken in a disrespectful manner of his brother’s character, for which aspersion he should call on him to answer in a proper place and time and that Commodore Barron’s illness prevented him from doing so immediately.”

Rodgers arrived, ready to defend his honor, sending to Barron a note, “From an honorable motive I am induced to acquaint you that I have at length arrived in America. I am now on passage to Washington, and as it is full likely that I shall not remain many weeks in the United States, in justice to your reputation, I take this method to inform you that I shall hold myself ready to account to you at any time from the present immediate epoch to the same date of the ensuing month.”

Rodgers, prepared to fight Barron and any other officers who had shadowed his honor, went on to say, “I therefore must request that you will not delay, as I consider myself bound by honor to answer to your demands before I can make any positive engagements with any other persons who may have similar claims.”

Barron, ill with ague, a recurrence of the malaria he may have contracted while serving in the West Indies in 1800, was never well enough to answer Rodger’s challenge, and Rodgers, who often issued challenges without fighting the follow-up duels, let his temper cool after seven months of waiting, cautioned to ease tensions by the Secretary of the Navy and several other friends, including his second, Captain Thomas Tingey. The duel never took place.

One officer took exception to this unsettled conclusion to an affair of honor. Stephen Decatur, already angry with Barron due to his comments in Norfolk, was disgusted with Barron’s avoidance of the accepted method of resolution and voiced his objections publicly. From this time on, Decatur could find no value in the character of James Barron.

In 1807, the British Consul had requested the return of three British deserters from the H.M.S. Milliamps, who were thought to be enlisted in the crew of U.S.S. Chesapeake. He made his request to Captain Stephen Decatur, who was then in command of the Gasport Shipyard. Decatur refused to deal with the request, pointing out that enlistments were not under his jurisdiction. The British Consul took his request to the captain of Chesapeake, Commodore James Barron. Barron interrogated the men, determined that they were American citizens, refused the Consul’s request, and went on fitting out his ship for a voyage to the Mediterranean.

The British Consul then complained to Vice Admirable the Honorable Sir George Berkeley, K.B., commander in chief of His Majesty’s Navy on the North American Atlantic station, who in a moment of temper, signed an unprecedented and illegal order directing any British ship encountering Chesapeake at sea was to search her and claim any deserters.

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In June of 1807, Barron was ready to set out to sea from Norfolk, carrying much-needed supplies to the fleet in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean was a fleet without base; its nearest friendly port was Norfolk, so any supplies had to be carried and delivered across 3,000 miles of empty sea. Chesapeake was heavily loaded with food, ammunition, and other necessities. Barron had been ill before the trip, and, since his mission was one of delivery, had not properly readied his ship for a sea voyage and possible battle.

A British frigate, Leopard, was waiting as Chesapeake officially left American waters. Leopard, standing only twenty yards away from Chesapeake, hailed Barron’s ship, and sent Lieutenant John Meade, R.N. on board, carrying a polite letter from her captain, Salusbury Pryce Humphries, enclosing Berkeley’s order to search the ship for British Navy deserters. When Barron politely refused, Meade politely left, and as Barron and his captain, Master Commandant Charles Gordon, stood at the gangway, he noticed with surprise Leopard’s opened gun ports, with her guns positioned to fire on Chesapeake. He ordered Gordon to clear the ship for action.

Almost immediately, Leopard fired on Chesapeake. Barron confirmed this astounding attack was not accidental, when through the clouds of smoke, he could hear the commands of Leopard’s officers and her guns reverberating into position to fire again.

Barron’s ship, heavily loaded with supplies that he had not thrown overboard in standard preparation for battle, since a battle was not expected, was not ready for the fight. Sick seamen were asleep in their hammocks, which hung over the guns. Gun ports were not open, guns were not loaded, powder horns were not filled and there were no matches to be found. Chesapeake was carrying several passengers, whose luggage still crowded the decks. Even the galley fire was still lit, which enabled Third Lieutenant William Henry Allen to light one gun with a live coal, discharging the only shot fired by Chesapeake during the fifteen-minute battle.

Leopard continued to fire on Chesapeake. After three sailors were killed, and eighteen wounded, Barron, wounded in his right leg and thigh, faced the inevitable and struck his colors. The British then climbed aboard, claiming four soldiers as deserters. Though Barron repeatedly asked for his ship to be captured as a prize, which would designate the attack as an act of war, but the captain of Leopard refused, and Barron, disgracefully returned his ship to Norfolk. Leopard, amazingly, returned to lie in American waters.

Thomas Jefferson, receiving news of the attack, called a cabinet meeting, and issued the Chesapeake Proclamation, ordering all armed British vessels to leave American waters immediately and forbidding any communication with any remaining ships. The British Cabinet was forced to return the remaining abducted sailors (two had died) and forced to disavow Berkeley’s command. He was transferred to another position.

The day after the attack, six of Barron’s officers sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith, demanding Barron’s arrest and an official court inquiry. This letter improperly ignored the usual chain of command, but the officers received only a polite response from Smith.

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Barron was detained to appear at the October 1807 Court of Inquiry, while Decatur took command of Chesapeake to ready her for sea. Decatur was also asked to serve on the jury for Barron’s January Court Martial. He asked to be excused from this responsibility:

“…I cannot in justice to Commodore Barron and my own feelings sit on this court without stating to you my opinion of the case. When the unfortunate affair of the 22nd of June occurred, I formed an opinion that Commodore Barron had not done his duty; during the court inquiry, I was present when the evidence was given in. I have since seen the opinion of the court, which opinion I think lenient. It is possible that I am prejudiced against Commodore Barron and view his conduct in the case with more severity than it deserves; previous to her sailing, my opinion of him as a solider was not favorable. Although, sir, I hope and trust I should most conscientiously decide on Commodore Barron’s case, still, sir, there is no circumstance that would occasion me so much regret as to be compelled to serve on the court-martial that tries him. I have, therefore, to solicit that I may be excused from this duty."

But the Secretary of the Navy refused, stating, “It does you honor; but if I were to excuse you from being a member of the court-martial, I should not be able to form a court.”

Decatur, forced into serving against his wishes, did send his previously formed opinions to Barron’s counsel, so Barron could protest his presence in the court. However Barron did nothing with this information, and after the hearing was found guilty of “neglecting, on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action,” and “for not doing his utmost to take or destroy the Leopard, which vessel it was his duty to encounter.” He was “to be suspended from all command in the Navy of the United States, and this without any pay or official emoluments of any kind for the period and term of five years, from this day the 8th of February, 1808.” Barron ventured back into civilian life, trying his hand in trade, commanding a merchantman, which sailed to Brazil in 1809. He did not command another ship until 1812, when he sailed a merchantman to Copenhagen, Denmark, were he took up residence. His only friend at this time was a young midshipman, Jesse D. Elliott.

Decatur, still in command of Chesapeake, was made Commodore of Naval Forces on the southern coast of the United States, with the purpose of enforcing the embargo against England. America was tired of her sailors being impressed into the British Navy. While Decatur was in charge of this operation, which would soon lead to another war with Britain, a hero from the last great war with Britain died. Stephen Decatur, Sr., the “gallant father of a gallant son”, died on November 11, 1808. (He was followed four years later by his wife, Ann Pine Decatur, who died on March 27, 1812.)

In 1809, Decatur gained command of United States, the ship upon which he began his naval career, after the embargo was replaced by a non-intercourse act with Great Britain. Decatur drilled and trained his crew for battle while a country anxiously waited and watched for another war.

On June 18, 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain. Decatur sailed in United States to the east hoping to attack an East India Company merchantman or escort of the British. On October 25, 1812, the United States came across HMS Macedonia. United States, a more powerful ship with more men, firearms, and ammunition than Macedonia opened fire on the smaller frigate. Macedonia and her crew were ripped to shreds. United States stopped firing and Macedonia surrendered. Thirty-six of her crew (including impressed American sailors) were killed, and sixty-eight were wounded, while only 13 of United States’ crew were killed or wounded. Captain Carden of Macedonia went aboard United States to give up his sword to Decatur, who was casually dressed in homespun cloth and a straw hat. But Decatur told him, “Sir, I cannot receive the sword of a man, who so bravely defended his ship.” Decatur tried to make the Captain’s surrender as pleasant as possible, assuring him he was not the first to give up a ship and generally trying to lift his spirits. United States returned to New York with its prize, where they were greeted with much rejoicing and a song:

Then quickly met our nation’s eyes
The noblest sight in nature-
A first-rate frigate as a prize
Brought home by brave Decatur.

Decatur’s first thoughts were for his wife. He wrote to her:

My Beloved Susan,
    -I have had the good fortune to capture His Britannic Majesty’s Frigate Macedonia, Captain Carden, by which I have gained a small sprig of laurel, which I shall hasten to lay at your feet. I tried burning on a former occasion, which might do for a very young man; but now that I have a precious little wife, I wish to have something more substantial to offer in case she should become weary of love and glory… Do not be anxious about me, my beloved, I shall soon press you to my heart.

      Your devoted,
      - S. Decatur

      Love turns aside the balls which round me fly
      Lest precious tears should drop from Susan’s eye.

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By late spring of 1813, Britain had blockaded all the important ports from New York to the south. Stephen Decatur had to wait in New London where the blockade was tightest, canceling plans to sneak through the British lines at night when he saw lights on shore, indicating the British were aware of his plans. Decatur moved Macedonia and United States to safety, then took command of President and sailed for New York, where he was to protect against invasion from the British. When it became apparent the British would not invade, President sailed for a short cruise on January 14, 1815. She struck a bar, where she pounded for an hour and a half in attempts to free herself, only to spring, or split, her masts before she escaped. The wind prevented Decatur from returning to New York, so he kept on sailing.

The next day four British ships were sighted and followed President. The ships caught up with Decatur whose sprung masts barred his ship from going any faster. Though he fired and defeated one ship, the other three overpowered him, damaging his ship, killing 24 and wounding 55 of his men. The twice-wounded Decatur surrendered his ship. Because of Decatur’s earlier kindness to Captain Carden of Macedonia, he and his crew were treated with equal kindness. They were returned to New London in February of 1815, two months after the war with Britain ceased.

When he arrived in New York he was treated as a hero, but still he requested a court inquiry to investigate the loss of President. The court concluded that President was captured due to striking the bar, which was not Decatur’s fault. In fact he was said to have “…evinced great judgment and skill, perfect coolness, the most determined resolution and heroic courage…”

But as the war with Britain ended, Congress declared war with Algiers in March of 1815. The Dey of Algiers, Hadji Ali, had been claiming extra tribute, based on the argument that his calendar only had 354 days in a year. He had threatened war, so the sum was paid, and throughout the War of 1812, ships stayed away from the Mediterranean. But in the course of that war, the Dey managed to capture the brig Edwin and enslave her crew.

Decatur was in command of a squadron sent on May 20, 1815 to negotiate with the Dey. He captured two ships, Mashuda and Estedio off the coast of Spain, then sailed on to Algiers, where he met with the Dey Omar (Hadji Ali had been murdered by his own soldiers a few months earlier). A treaty was constructed ending all tribute paid to Algiers, the release of all captives held by each side, with $10,000 paid to the Dey for Edwin and previously captured Algerian ships restored to their country. Decatur then sailed to Tunis to demand $46,000 in return for two prize ships taken during the war. The Bey of Tunis yielded when he learned it was Commodore Decatur demanding the money. Decatur proceeded to Tripoli for the same reason and again was successful.

Commodore William Bainbridge’s arrival opened a door for Decatur’s long-awaited departure for home. Bainbridge, left in charge of his small squadron in the wake of Decatur’s glories, felt bitterly overshadowed and from that day, refused to speak to or acknowledge Decatur’s existence.

Decatur at last returned to his home and his Susan on November 12, 1815. He accepted a position in the Board of Navy Commissioners where he would decide Navy regulations, determining class of ships and personnel requirements. This would mean a move to Washington, D.C. Before the move, Decatur and Susan returned to Norfolk, where a dinner party was held in Decatur’s honor. There he gave the toasts he is remembered for, “Our country! In her intercourse with other nations, may she always be in the right; and always successful, right or wrong.”

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In 1818, Decatur served as second in a duel for his dear friend, Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of the Battle of Lake Erie. The duel between Perry and Marine Captain John Heath, whom Perry had struck in a moment of temper, ended without injury to either party because of Decatur’s foresight in bringing along a letter Perry had written to him earlier, declaring Perry’s intention of throwing away his fire. Heath, who had fired and missed, agreed that his grievance had been satisfied.

At the same time, Perry, who had learned from his mistake, was refusing to be enticed into a duel with his former second in command, Jesse D. Elliott. They had served together when, in March of 1813, 27 year old Master Commandant Perry was sent with a force of men to construct an American fleet to thwart the British control of Lake Erie. He was replacing Elliott, the lieutenant who had befriended James Barron after his court-martial. Elliott, unpopular and resentful, was described by those who knew him as an “egotistical malcontent.”

Elliott, bitter at being replaced, at first refused to serve under Perry, and returned to Lake Ontario, where he was given command of a flagship, Madison. Shortly after, he returned as Perry’s second in command.

Following the Battle of Lake Erie in September, Elliott, over-sensitive regarding the fact that he had lagged behind during the battle, requested an official inquiry to clear his name, which found in his favor, but did not stop the rumors and insinuations about him. Elliott felt Perry owed him continual defense; Perry, who had provided several testimonials at first, refused to continue them, and the two men took to exchanging angry letters. Elliott never forgot his bitterness, waited patiently for a time to seek his revenge. He repeatedly challenged Perry to a duel, but Perry just as often refused, pointing out that official inquiry had answered Elliott’s quest for honor.

In 1819, using his prize money from captured ships, Decatur bought eleven lots near the newly-constructed White House. The Decaturs acquired Benjamin H. Latrobe, architect of the Capitol, as their designer, requesting he build them a house “suitable for a foreign ministers” and “impressive entertainments” on the northwest corner of Lafayette Square. Here Decatur, Susan, and his sister’s daughters, who frequently visited them, lived in a fashionably comfortable state, entertaining frequently.

One visitor was Oliver Perry, en route to his assigned diplomatic mission in South America. Still plagued by Elliott, Perry, a year earlier, had grown weary of Elliott’s demands and complaints and requested a court martial against Elliott. For reasons not stated in any official record, the charges were never formally brought against Elliott. But Perry still had them, and in 1819, asked Decatur to take possession of the articles, letters and records concerning Elliott.

Susan Decatur wrote later, “So soon Perry left the room, I observed to my husband that as Elliott was considered so destitute of principle, I was afraid he might get himself into some difficulty. He replied that it was his duty to watch over the reputation of his brother officers; and that I need not make myself uneasy, that Elliott was too great a coward to approach him in any way, and he did not believe there was an officer in the Navy whom he could make use of as a cat’s paw.”

By this time James Barron had returned to the United States, but had been refused a reenlistment in the Navy. As a member of the Navy Commission, Decatur made it known that he did not feel Barron deserved to return to the Navy after staying in a foreign country during a war. Barron’s ban from the Navy had ended in February of 1813, and he had made only one attempt to return to the U.S. on John Adams, a cartel ship used for peace commissioners to carry propositions from one enemy to another, and not used for passengers. He had made no other attempt due to lack of funds.

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But Jesse Elliott, now a captain, supported Barron on his return to America as he had supported him during his court-martial. Elliott, who now had a special dislike of Stephen Decatur, knowing he possessed numerous documents that could damage him if made public, still hoped to exact some of his revenge by killing Perry in a duel. He cannily fanned Barron’s anger with Decatur by reporting all Decatur’s negative comments to Barron, knowing a challenge would be issued from one to the other. The duel that would inevitably follow would both remove Decatur and create a precedent for dueling among ranking officers, protecting Elliott from harsh Naval prosecution should he kill Perry as he intended.

Barron and Decatur took up a correspondence in June of 1819 with Barron accusing Decatur of maliciously wounding his career. The first exchange of letters ended quickly, when Barron wrote on June 25th, “Your declaration, if I understand it correctly, relieves my mind from the apprehension, that you had so degraded my character, as I had been induced to allege.” Decatur wrote back on the 29th, a dismissive note clarifying, “I request you to understand distinctly, that I meant no more than to disclaim the specific and particular expression to which our inquiry was directed…”

Barron made no further response until October 23rd, when he wrote a long letter, listing his charges against Decatur for maligning his name and destroying his career. He never explained why he decided to write again after four months without complaint (he vaguely hinted that he had been ill), but Edward L. Beach, writing in The United States Navy, described Barron’s letters as communications “in which the fine hand of Jesse Elliott is evident.” By now, Elliott had lost his chance for revenge on Perry, since Perry had died of Yellow Fever in August. By manipulating Barron, he could still hope to destroy Stephen Decatur.

In his In Memorium, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, a friend and neighbor of the Decaturs, wrote, “It has been said that Elliott used Barron as an instrument wherewith to wreak his own vengeance on Decatur for being the friend of Commodore Perry, and for holding in his hands a correspondence intrusted to him by the latter and reflecting severely on Elliott.”

All of his life, Decatur saw himself and carried himself as a hero. No hypocrite, he lived up to the high expectations he demanded of others, and seemed unable to understand why others did not. Decatur House Museum Curator Bruce Whitmarsh described him as a man who “…thought of himself in those terms, in the big terms, …but it was part of his ideal and belief of putting nation ahead of self, and…that’s how he thought of himself, that he was more important as somebody serving the nation than somebody serving himself. And it ended up sort of Decatur the hero became Decatur the man as well.”

Decatur’s great flaw was a lack of tact, which grew out of his intolerance, or maybe his incomprehension of human weakness. About this aspect of Decatur’s character, Curator Whitmarsh said simply, “ of the things we have known much about Stephen Decatur is that he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.”

Decatur’s tactlessness was obvious in his dealings with Barron. He did not hesitate to voice his disapproval of Barron on any occasion. In the letters they exchanged, he was as harsh and sarcastic as Barron was to him. By the end of thirteen letters exchanged, it was clear a duel would ensue.

According to the Code Duello, the official rules of dueling, Decatur required a second, who had to be his peer. He asked each of his fellow naval commissioners, John Rodgers and David Porter to act as second on his behalf. Rodgers, who had earlier challenged Barron, but never fought him, and Porter, former captain of Essex (and later, step-father of Admiral Farragut of Civil War fame) both refused to act as seconds, saying Decatur did not need to fight the duel to preserve his honor. As they were the only choices, besides one other, they may have thought their refusal to appear at his side would stop the duel from happening. But Decatur had already agreed to meet Barron.

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And there was one unlikely man in Washington, who could serve as Decatur’s second. Commodore William Bainbridge, a visitor to Washington, suddenly jumped from his carriage, accosted Decatur on the street, offered his apologies and his services as Decatur’s second. Decatur, gratefully believing that Bainbridge was no longer bitter about the affairs at Algiers and that their friendship was now restored, accepted his offer.

Decatur promptly wrote to James Barron:


    I have received your communication of the 16th, and am at a loss to know what your intention is. If you intend it as a challenge, I accept it, and refer you to my friend Commodore Bainbridge, who is fully authorized by me to make any arrangements he pleases, as regards weapons, mode, or distance.

      Your obedient servant
      Stephen Decatur

Susan Decatur was not so trusting. Years later, she wrote, “I said to my husband that it seemed to me to an act of great assurance to invite himself to be our guest after allowing five years to elapse without speaking or writing to him when there had been no cause of offense…I was afraid he had some other motive than that of true repentance!”

Decatur did not inform Susan of this correspondence with Barron nor of the ensuing duel. The Saturday before the duel, he and Susan hosted a ball in honor of the marriage of President James Monroe’s daughter, Maria. Benjamin Olge Tayloe noted, “The Saturday before I was at a party at his house. He seemed out of spirits and I was particularly struck with the solemnity of his manor and his devotion to his wife and her music, as she played upon the harp, the company forming a semi-circle in front of her. Decatur himself, in uniform, the center of the semi-circle, his eyes riveted upon his wife.”

On the morning of March 22, 1820, Decatur made a vague excuse to his wife and left his house. He had breakfast at Beale’s Hotel with Bainbridge and Bainbridge’s assistant, Samuel Hambleton, then left in a hired carriage for Bladensburg, Maryland, where dueling was not outlawed. Close behind him, traveling separately and in secret, were his friends and peers, John Rodgers and David Porter.

Decatur met Barron in the “Valley of Chance” where duelists often came. Seconds Elliott and Bainbridge had agreed to the use of pistols at a distance of eight paces, on the excuse that Barron had poor eyesight. They were to stand and fire sideways, in order to provide the smallest possible target to each other. In such a situation, the custom was to aim for the hip, which was the best possible target, allowing for the greatest possible margin of error in either direction.

Before they commenced the duel, Barron said to Decatur, “I hope, sir, that when we meet in another world, we shall be better friends than we have been in this.” “I have never been your enemy, sir!” replied Decatur. According to the accepted etiquette of dueling, after a challenge was issued and accepted, the opponents could not exchange words or acknowledge each other’s existence until they were ordered to fire upon each other. Still, these surprising words were enough to compel the seconds to stop the duel and attempt reconciliation. But neither man, each a canny enemy of Stephen Decatur, spoke.

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Decatur and Barron paced off eight steps and turned. Decatur, known for his ability to hit whatever mark he chose, as well as never aiming to kill his opponent, directed his fire at Barron’s hip, expecting Barron would fall, but not be killed. Barron, a lesser shot, did the same. The two men fired, and both fell to the ground.

Rodgers and Porter, arriving simultaneously, rushed forward to help the injured men. Jesse Elliott, ignoring the man for whom he had stood as second, fled the scene in Barron’s carriage, leaving Barron in pain on the ground. Porter ran back to his hidden horse to chase Elliott, eventually catching him. Elliott, apparently afraid of arrest or even retaliation by an angry public that loved Decatur, inquired, “How fares it on the ground?” Porter replied, “So bad, sir, that you left your friend weltering in his blood. Go back, you coward, and do what you can!” He rode back toward the field, and Elliott followed, as slowly as possible.

Barron had been struck in the hip, which deflected the bullet down into his thigh. Decatur was struck in the hip as well, but the bullet had bounced up into his abdomen, slashing several blood vessels. Decatur was dying.

Stephen Decatur, in agony, was loaded into the remaining carriage. Barron refused to share the carriage, due to lack of space. Since Elliott still had not arrived, Porter stopped a passing carriage, which took Barron back toward Washington. Elliott came upon the retreating carriage and was forced to move into it by Porter. Barron and Elliott found sanctuary at a friend’s house in Washington, where they remained while Barron slowly recovered, and they waited to see if prosecution was imminent.

Stephen Decatur was taken back to his house, where death slowly overtook him. Lying on a couch, he refused to see his anxious Susan, because he couldn’t bear to witness her suffering. As the hours dragged by, he remarked he did not think it possible to bear so much pain, but never once cried out in pain. Later, he said he would not mind death if it had come on the quarterdeck. “If it were the cause of my country, it would be nothing.” Weakly, he thanked the friends who anxiously waited around him, but told his father-in-law, whom he had summoned earlier in the week, “You can do me no service; go to my wife and do what you can to console her.”

After twelve hours of suffering, forty-one year old Stephen Decatur, Jr. died at ten-thirty p.m., on March 22, 1820.

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The National Intelligencer Newspaper wrote:

    “A hero has fallen! Commodore Stephen Decatur, one of the first officers of our Navy--the pride of his country--the gallant and noble-hearted gentleman--is no more! He expired a few minutes ago of the mortal wound received in the duel yesterday. Of the origin of the feud which led to this disastrous result we know but what rumor tells. The event, we are sure, will fill the country with grief. Mourn, Columbia! For one of the brightest stars is set--a son ‘without fear and without reproach’--in the freshness of his fame--in the prime of his usefulness-has descended into the tomb,”

There was no official response to Decatur’s death. No charges were pressed; no questions were asked. In the House of Representatives, on March 23, Congressman John Randolph moved for an adjournment to attend the funeral and suggested “members should wear crape on the left arm for the remainder of the session…” Randolph withdrew his motion, which he had wanted to be unanimous, when Congressman Taylor of New York pointed out Decatur had “died in violation of the laws of God and his country.” The next day Randolph renewed his attempt by moving that everyone should attend the funeral that afternoon. Speaker Holmes moved for adjournment, and the motion carried. The Senate also adjourned, without mentioning Decatur, but in order to allow its members to attend the memorial service.

Decatur’s funeral was attended by officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps of the United States, Commodore Rogers and Commodore Porter, President James Monroe, former President James Madison, the Cabinet, members of the Senate, House, Supreme Court, Foreign ministers, consuls of foreign powers, citizens, family, men who had served under him, and Susan, the one who loved him most. As she later wrote, “A poor sailor as he wept over him exclaimed that ‘the Navy had lost her mainmast.’ With me it is far worse; it is a total, total wreck.”

There was never an inquiry by the Navy into the death of Stephen Decatur or into the actions of the man who had ended his life. This official blind eye was detrimental to the honor of the Navy, since two of her ranking officers, Rodgers and Porter, had not prevented the duel and two others, Bainbridge and Elliott, had not only acted as seconds, but had actively pushed the duel forward. The discredit this delivered to the reputation of the Navy was embarrassing and long lasting.

Susan Decatur never remarried. When her husband died, he left an estate worth one hundred thousand dollars, but declines in property values soon reduced it to a meager sum. She rented out Decatur House, and then later sold it. When she appealed to him for help, Andrew Jackson very kindly purchased some of her French china and her silver serving dishes. But to survive she needed Decatur’s never-received prize money from Philadelphia. Though she begged Congress, she was never granted the money, although she did receive a small pension, and later, land in Kansas as reward for Decatur’s service in the War of 1812.

Susan never forgave Bainbridge and Elliott, and refused to socialize with them. She watched as Bainbridge wallowed in serious drug addiction until his death in 1833, and Elliott, revenged, but never respected, died a bitter man. She watched helplessly as James Barron recovered from his wounds and was reinstated to Naval service in 1824. Though he never received another sea command, at his death he was one of the highest ranking Naval officers in the branch of service to which he had brought shame by killing her beloved hero and receiving no punishment for his deed.

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Susan later became a devoted Catholic, living in a convent for some time until she took up a tiny house near Georgetown University campus, where students looked on her as “a venerable and stately lady.” She never stopped writing letters in praise of her husband and disparagement of his enemies. She was Decatur’s greatest devotee and worked for the rest of her life to keep his memory alive and his image intact. The woman Decatur called his “paragon” died on July 21, 1860.

Stephen Decatur was a true hero. A man of honor, he joined the young United States Navy to be near the sea he loved so much, fighting continually and successfully on behalf of his country and protecting her from any unjust wrongs. He was modest, kind, considerate, even to his enemies in battle. Despite his inability to tolerate or be tactful about the failings of others, he was a man who believed only the best of most people, even to his own detriment. He loved his “little wife” passionately, and his honor and his country just as much. It was his tactlessness that led to his quarrel with Barron, his stubborn honor that led him to the dueling field and his willingness to have faith in Bainbridge’s character that led him to accept Bainbridge as his second, and so cost him his life. For honor he gave up all: his life, his beloved wife, and his chance to continue serving the county he so loved.

Decatur was a man who formed our country, who fought to take her from a weak and struggling nation to a superior force in the world. During his life, he changed the face of history by winning battles and protecting American rights at sea, directly contributing to America’s victories over Great Britain, France and the Barbary States. After the wars, his career was far from over, and there were many paths he might have followed, perhaps even into the White House as our first Naval President. When he died, he also changed the face history by choosing honor over service, a helpless choice enabled by a conspiracy to remove him from what would most likely have been continued success in his service to America. He changed the face of history by disappearing from it.

In 1820, America lost her one great hero. As his good friend Washington Irving once said of him: “A gallanter fellow never stepped a quarter deck…God bless him.”

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Excerpts from the Correspondence Between Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr. And Commodore James Barron

James Barron to Stephen Decatur June 12th, 1819

    I have been informed in Norfolk, that you have said that you could insult me with impunity, or words to that effect. If you have said so, you will, no doubt, avow it, and I shall expect to hear from you.

Stephen Decatur to James Barron June 17th, 1819

    Whatever I may have thought, or said, in the very frequent and free conversations I have had respecting you and your conduct, I feel a thorough conviction that I never could have been guilty of so much egotism as to say, that “I could insult you” (or any other man) “with impunity.”

James Barron to Stephen Decatur. June 25th, 1819

    Your declaration, if I understand it correctly, relieves my mind from the apprehension, that you had so degraded my character, as I had been induced to allege.

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Stephen Decatur to James Barron June 29th, 1819

    I request you to understand distinctly, that I meant no more than to disclaim the specific and particular expression to which our inquiry was directed…”

James Barron to Stephen Decatur October 23rd, 1819

    …Such conduct, Sir, on the part of any one, but especially one occupying the influential station under government which you hold, towards an individual situated as I am, and oppressed as I have been, and that chiefly by your means, is unbecoming you as an officer and a gentleman, and shows a want of magnanimity, which, hostile as I have found you to be towards me, I had hoped, for your own reputation, you possessed.

Stephen Decatur to James Barron October 31st, 1819

    Nearly four months having elapsed since the date of our last correspondence, your letter was unexpected to me, particularly as the terms used by you in the conclusion of your letter to me of the 25th of June, and your silence since receiving my letter of the 29th of June indicated, as I though, satisfaction on your part.

    I have entertained, and do still entertain, the opinion that your conduct as an officer, since the affair of the Chesapeake, has been such as ought to forever bar your readmission into the service.

    I do not think that fighting duels, under any circumstances, can raise the reputation of any man, and have long since discovered, that it is not even an unerring criterion of personal courage. Should regret the necessity of fighting with any man, but, in my opinion, the man who makes arms his profession is not at liberty to decline an invitation from any person, who is not so far degraded, as to be beneath his notice.

    …it appears to me, that you have come to the determination to fight some one, and that you have selected me for that purpose; and I must take leave to observe, that you object would have been better attained, had you made this decision during our late war, when your fighting might have benefited your country, as well as yourself.

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James Barron to Stephen Decatur November 30th, 1819

    Your last voluminous letters is alone sufficient proof, if none other existed, of the rancorous disposition you entertain towards me, and the extent to which you have carried it.

    It is a source of great consolation to me, Sir, to know, that I have more friends, both in and out of the navy, than you are aware of and that it is not in your power, great as you may imagine your official influence to be, to deprive me of their good opinion and affection.

Barron to Decatur November 30th, 1819 (Cont’d)

    It is true, the President of the United States did approve of my sentence, and that it was carried into full effect; full and complete effect, which I should have supposed ought to have glutted the envious and vengeful disposition of your heart…

    For my not returning home during the late war, I do not hold myself, to use your own expressions, “in any way accountable to you,” Sir.

    I have not received, to your knowledge, even a reprimand; but I presume, if I have not, it is not your fault.

    Was it because your inflated pride was greater than that of any officer of the navy, or that you were more tenacious, of its honor and “respectability,” than the rest of the officers were?

    It is because, I suppose, you are most commonly attended by a train of dependents, who, to enjoy the sunshine of your favor, act as caterers for your vanity, and, revolving round you like satellites, borrow their chief consequence from the countenance you may condescend to bestow upon them.

    Upon the subject of dueling, I perfectly coincide with the opinions you have expressed. I consider it as a barbarous practice which ought to be exploded from civilized society.

    …the vanity you display, and the importance you seem to attach to yourself, in thus intimating that, being resolved to fight myself into favor, I could no otherwise do so than by fixing on you, the very reverse of which you infer is the fact, I have never wished to fight in this way; and had you permitted me to remain at rest, I should not have disturbed you.

    You have hunted me out, have persecuted me with all the power and influence of your office…and for what purpose, or from what other motive than to obtain my rank, I know not. If my life will give it you, you shall have an opportunity of obtaining it.

    And now, Sir, I have only to add, that if you will make known your determination, and the name of your friend, I will give that of mine, in order to complete the necessary arrangements to a final close of this affair.

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Stephen Decatur to James Barron December 29th, 1819

    I ought not to leave the false coloring and calumnies, which you have introduced into your letter, unanswered.

    Instead of calling me out for injuries, which you chose to insist that I have heaped upon you, you have thought fit to enter upon this war of words.

    I reiterated to you, that I have not challenged, nor do I intend to challenge you…when you declare your sole object, in wishing to draw the challenge from me, is, that you may avail yourself of the advantages which rest with the challenged. It is evident you think, or your friends for you, that a fight will help you; but, in fighting, you wish to incur the least possible risk.

    If we fight, it must be of your seeking; and you must take all the risk and all the inconvenience, which usually attend the challenger in such cases.

    You offer, as your excuse for permitting four months to intervene between our June correspondence, (with which, from your letter, you appeared to be satisfied,) and your letter of the 23d of October, your indisposition. I am authorized in saying, that, for the greater part of four months, you were out attending to your usual occupations.

    Your offering your life to me would be quite affecting, and might (as you evidently intend) excite sympathy, if it were not ridiculous.

    I have now to inform you, that I shall pay no further attention to any communication you may make to me, other than a direct call to the field.

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James Barron to Stephen Decatur January 16th, 1820

    …in answer…I have only to reply, that whenever you will consent to meet me on fair and equal grounds, that is, such as two honourable men may consider just and proper, you are at liberty to view this as that call.

    As for your charges and remarks, I regard them not; particularly your sympathy. You know not such a feeling.

Stephen Decatur to James Barron January 24th, 1820

    I have received your communication of the 16th, and am at a loss to know what your intention is. If you intend it as a challenge, I accept it, and refer you to my friend Commodore Bainbridge, who is fully authorized by me to make any arrangements he pleases, as regards weapons, mode, or distance.

    March 8, 1820
    On board Frigate Columbus
      It is agreed by the undersigned, as friends of Commodore Decatur and Commodore Barron, that the meeting shall take place at nine a.m., on the 22d instant, at Bladensburg, near the District of Columbia, and that the weapons shall be pistols; the distance, eight paces, or yards; that, previously to firing, the parties shall be directed to present, and shall not fire before the word ‘one’ is given, or after the word ‘three’; and that the words, one, two, three, shall be given by Commodore Bainbridge.


          Joseph Bainbridge
            J. D. Elliott

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