Stephen Decatur was born in 1779 to a seafaring family that had fled the British occupation of Philadelphia and relocated to Maryland. Following family tradition there was no question that the young man would go to sea and in 1795 he enlisted in the fledgling American navy. He served with distinction during the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800) but it was the First Barbary War that gained him national recognition.
The various Muslim corsair states of North Africa (modern day Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) had been capturing European ships and enslaving crews and passengers for centuries. In the 18th century, their depredations extended to American ships traversing the Mediterranean with captives being held to ransom. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson received authorization from Congress to dispatch a fleet to deal with the worst of these states, Tripoli, which almost simultaneously declared war on the U.S.
In 1803, Decatur served as captain of USS Enterprise, a 14-gun schooner and later of USS Intrepid, a larger vessel renamed after he had captured it from the corsairs. Late that year a large American frigate, USS Philadelphia, ran aground in Tripoli harbor. The crew was imprisoned by the Tripolitans and the ship refloated by the corsairs leaving the US navy worried that it would be used against it. Decatur volunteered to lead a party to try to recover or destroy the ship. On the night of February 16, 1804, disguised as Maltese sailors, his party entered the harbor. Decatur led the boarding party onto the captured ship overpowering the guards. Unable to get the ship away, Decatur had it set afire resulting in its explosion when the fire reached the powder magazine. Decatur and his men escaped without suffering any fatalities. British Admiral Horatio Nelson declared it "the most bold and daring act of the Age" and reported widely in the American press, the exploit made the young sailor a national hero.
In August 1804, Decatur played an instrumental role in the American attack on Tripoli. During the action his youngest brother was killed by a Tripolitan captain who had feigned surrender. Stephen led an assault on the corsair ship, boarding it and killing the captain in hand to hand combat.
For his accomplishments Decatur was formally granted the rank of captain, the youngest in American naval history.
With the War of 1812, Decatur returned to action. Commanding USS United States on October 25, 1812 he fought one of the most famous sea engagements of the war, defeating the British frigate HMS Macedonian. In 1814 he became captain of USS President, flagship of the American fleet, and outgunned and outnumbered in a fight against British ships in January 1815 (after the peace treaty ending the war had been signed) he was forced to surrender the President, being held prisoner for a month in Bermuda before returning to America.
(United States v Macedonian)
Immediately upon the end of the War of 1812, President James Madison embarked upon the Second Barbary War, this time against Algiers which had continued to harass and capture American ships and citizens. Decatur commanded the American fleet, capturing the Algerian flagship and negotiating a treaty with the Dey of Algiers, bringing an end to the Barbary Wars.
Returning to the United States, he settled in Washington, serving on the Board of the Naval Commission until his death. He built the first private home on Lafayette Square, near the White House and it was at an 1816 dinner party in the District that he gave the toast for which he is still known:
Our country - in her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong.The origins of the duel in which was to die go back to 1807 when Decatur commanded the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia. A British fleet showed up at the harbor entrance demanding the return of three alleged deserters who were serving on the USS Chesapeake, commanded by James Barron. The Chesapeake set sail and encountered HMS Leopard which leveled a broadside killing three American sailors and forcing the surrender of the ship. It was a humiliating experience for the young country and navy and one of the incidents that eventually led to the War of 1812. Decatur served on the court-martial board which found Barron guilty and suspended him from the navy prompting the disgraced captain to leave America to live in Denmark. At the start of the War of 1812, Barron petitioned to be readmitted to the Navy. The petition was denied but Decatur unaware of the petition, publicly referred to Barron as a coward for remaining in Denmark during time of war.
Barron finally returned to the United States in 1819 and he and Decatur engaged in bitter correspondence resulting in Barron demanding a duel. Decatur accepted and it was agreed that the duel would take place in Bladensburg, Maryland.
Why was dueling and the preservation of honor so significant a part of American culture in the early 19th century. The concept of the duel goes back to ancient literature (see, The Iliad) and in the West was revitalized and formalized in medieval Europe. For background see this piece from, of all places, the office of the Secretary of State for Missouri. Some excerpts:
The duel usually developed out of the desire of a gentleman to rectify a perceived insult to his honor. It was thought better to die respectably in a duel over an insult than to live on without honor. The goal of the duel was not necessarily to kill the opponent, as much as it was to gain satisfaction. This meant restoring one’s honor by demonstrating a willingness to face death. Duels began as a way to settle personal disagreements outside of a court of law. A gentleman did not go to the courts with a personal issue, but took care of it himself.It was this gentleman's code that led in 1804 to the most famous duel in American history at Weehawken, New Jersey where the Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr, mortally wounded the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Other prominent duels of the age include Andrew Jackson's in 1806 with Charles Dickinson in which Jackson was shot in the chest and then calmly aimed and fired, killing his opponent and Secretary of State Henry Clay's 1825 duel with Senator John Randolph which ended with both combatants unharmed after an exchange of shots.
Only gentlemen were thought to have honor, and therefore eligible to duel. To maintain status and social standing a gentleman had to be willing to take his chances on the field of honor. On the other hand, the Code Duello frowned upon men of unequal social class settling their differences by dueling. If a gentleman was insulted by a person of lower class he would not duel him, but might proceed with a caning or cowhiding to humiliate his opponent.
However, any man who refused to duel could be “posted,” in an attempt to goad him into accepting a challenge. The dueling tradition of posting was unique to the United States. A statement or accusation of cowardice would be hung in public places or be published as a handbill or appear in a newspaper. Tame language by today’s standards, such slurs as rascal, scoundrel, liar, coward, and puppy were considered extremely disrespectful and were sure to prompt a duel.
Why Bladensburg? For about twenty years beginning in 1819 the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds were the favored terrain for duellists in the region though dueling was illegal in Maryland. Just outside Washington, easy to reach, secluded and with level terrain it was an ideal location. In the first duel known to have taken place there a former US Senator from Virginia was killed. One of the sons of Francis Scott Key, composer of the Star Spangled Banner died in an 1836 duel. In 1838 a duel between two sitting Congressman in which one died led Congress to ban dueling within the District of Columbia but it was only with the coming of the Civil War that the Bladensburg duels ended.
It is the role of the seconds that has raised the most interest about the duel. In dueling the seconds negotiated the terms of the duel on behalf of the aggrieved parties; location, weapons, procedures and rules. Among their obligations was an initial responsibility to try to mediate a settlement of grievances and apologies prior to a duel or, in some cases, during a duel, after the combatants initially failed to kill one or the other. As we'll see, in Decatur's case that obligation was not fulfilled.
Barron's second was Captain Jesse Elliot. It was Elliot who had reported Decatur's public remarks about cowardice to Barron and who worked continually to agitate him about it. Elliot had his own, albeit bizarre, motives to hate Decatur. During the War of 1812, Elliot had been accused of negligence by Oliver Hazard Perry, the American commander at the Battle of Lake Erie. Though Perry had since died, Elliot was convinced he had passed on letters with incriminating evidence of his actions to Decatur and Elliot worried that they could be released at any time (in reality, it appears Decatur had no such correspondence).
Decatur's second was Commodore William Bainbridge. Bainbridge and Decatur had been friends for years until Decatur had been given command of the American fleet in the Second Barbary War. Bainbridge, who'd had a distinguished career including commanding the USS Constitution in its famous victory over HMS Java (he was also captain of Philadelphia when it ran aground in Tripoli harbor), was convinced Decatur had unfairly connived to deprive him of the command of the fleet and he became his self-declared enemy. Conveniently, Bainbridge reconciled with Decatur just before the duel and was thus available as a second when Decatur's initial choice declined because of his opposition to dueling.
There appears to have been no attempt by the seconds to reconcile their principals and the rules of engagement they agreed on maximized the potential lethality of the encounter. Most duels with pistols started with the combatants standing back to back, taking ten paces with firearms by their sides and then turning, raising their pistols and firing. With all of that movement and turning the firing was often inaccurate. In contrast, Decatur and Barron were carefully stationed facing each other eight paces apart, took time to level and aim their pistols and then, with the count by their seconds, fired simultaneously. The outcome was predictable as described in this excerpt from a longer account that can be found here:
After the shots were fired, both men were wounded severely. Afraid of dying, they made peace with one other. Barron explained his reasons for staying in Denmark (a sense of honor had kept him from expressing it before) and Decatur regretted his careless words. Barron forgave Decatur “from the bottom of his heart” and Decatur returned the sentiment, declaring that he did not fault Barron for his death. There was a sense between the two that they might have been able to be friends, had they been clear with each other and not advised so fervently to violence.The funeral was attended by President James Monroe, justices of the Supreme Court and most members of Congress.
Barron survived his wounds and lived to be 83. Decatur was brought back to his home and died in “terrible agony” ten hours later.
Five U.S. navy ships have been named USS Decatur.