Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr. was an officer in the United States Navy in the early part of the 19th century, remembered for his daring exploit in the burning of a captured American frigate during the Barbary Wars, and his capture of HMS Macedonian during the War of 1812. A dashing and bold individual, Decatur was the first genuine American war hero to come after the Revolution.
Decatur was born in Sinepuxent, Maryland, on January 5, 1779. His father, also named Stephen Decatur, had commanded several privateers during the American Revolution and served as a Captain in the Navy during 1798-1801. The younger Decatur had also joined the Navy in 1798 as a midshipman, being active during the undeclared Quasi-War with France during the next two years. By 1799 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
The Bashaw of Tripoli, expecting tribute from the United States for safe passage of its merchant vessels and given none, declared war by taking over the embassy, chopping down the flag pole, and holding the American ambassador and his staff hostage. After a U.S. Navy fleet was sent there and failed to resolve the situation beyond a weak blockade, a second fleet was dispatched under the command of Commodore Edward Preble; upon arrival in the Mediterranean, Lieutenant Decatur, commanding the brig USS Enterprise, captured the enemy galley Mastico on December 23, 1803.
In October 1803, responding to a Tripolitan vessel making a run to break the blockade, the frigate USS Philadelphia struck an uncharted reef and heeled over. Seeing that she was unable to bring her guns to bear, the Tripolitans swarmed over the ship, capturing it intact and imprisoning the crew. A fully-armed and powerful American frigate now in enemy hands was something Commodore Preble was not willing to tolerate, so he asked for volunteers to sail into the harbor and destroy the frigate; Decatur jumped at the chance. When asked how many men he would need to do the job, Decatur reportedly said “The fewer the men, the greater the glory.” With just over 80 men and an Arabic speaker at the wheel, the Mastico, now bearing the name USS Intrepid, sailed into Tripoli harbor on February 16, 1804, successfully recaptured Philadelphia without the loss of a single man, and set fire to her. Upon hearing of Decatur’s exploit, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson pronounced it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Commodore Preble sent word back to Washington of the exploit with the recommendation of promoting Lieutenant Decatur up two grades to Captain, who at age 25 was the youngest officer in the Navy to hold that rank.
This daring and extremely successful operation made Decatur an immediate national hero, a status that was enhanced by his courageous conduct during the August 3, 1804 bombardment of Tripoli. In that action, he led his men in hand-to-hand fighting while boarding and capturing an enemy gunboat, believing it was the one that had treacherously killed his brother James just hours before while pretending to surrender. Grappling with the leader, Decatur was forced to the deck, almost getting killed himself by a sword-wielding Tripolitan (who was body-blocked from doing so by sailor Reuben James). Decatur managed to reach his pistol, firing through his pocket to kill his opponent.
Between the wars
Upon arrival home he found himself the toast of the nation, and given a position on the Supervisory Board, which he held for several years. Among his most unpleasant duties was to serve on the court marshal against Captain James Barron, who had commanded the frigate USS Chesapeake when it sailed out of Norfolk, Virginia in 1807, unready for sea and the guns unloaded, to be forcibly stopped by a British warship, HMS Leopard, with the result that four crewmen whom the British claimed were deserters were forcibly removed from the ship. Barron’s court marshal would have repercussions in the future for Decatur.
War of 1812
The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair and the impressment of sailors on the high seas were also catalysts for the War of 1812, and Decatur was in command of USS United States, a powerful 44-gun frigate affectionately called “the Old Wagon” for its slow sailing abilities. On October 25, 1812, the United States, with Decatur wearing a civilian suit topped with a straw hat, engaged in battle with the equally-powerful British frigate Macedonian, capturing it after a four-hour battle; the British captain, reporting to the Admiralty afterwards, was aghast that he had to surrender to a man “who was dressed like a farmer!” (Captain John Carden presented a beaver hat instead of a sword to Decatur, the results of a friendly bet the two had made in 1810 should they meet in battle). By the beginning of 1813 a British blockade of American ports kept Decatur in port as well, and he clamored a new ship to command from a port he could slip out of. Both wishes were granted, and by mid-January he was able to slip out of New York while in command of USS President. The trip lasted only two days. Having damaged her keel on a sandbar, the President could not make sufficient speed, and a British squadron eventually caught up to and captured the ship. Put ashore with his crew at Bermuda, Decatur made his way home that February. By then, the War of 1812 had ended.
While the war was going on, the Barbary States had resumed their piratical ways, causing the United States to deal with them once more. Commodore Decatur sailed his squadron to the Mediterranean Sea in May 1815, almost immediately capturing the Algerian frigate Mashuda and forcing Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli to sign humiliating treaties of peace which were dictated, he said, “by the mouths of our cannon.” After returning home, he became a member of the Board of Navy Commissioners in Washington, D.C. In April 1816 he made a toast that would become a standard expression of American patriotism: "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong."
In 1820 the strong-willed and spirited Decatur was challenged to a duel by James Barron, who unsuccessfully tried to be re-instated in the Navy and felt Decatur was to blame for it. The contest, which took place at Bladensburg, Maryland, on March 22, 1820, resulted in wounds to both men. Barron survived, but Stephen Decatur died of his injuries shortly afterwards. The death of a popular hero resulted in a public outcry against dueling, leading to legislation outlawing it in many states.
- De Kay, James T. A Rage for Glory: The Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur, USN. Free Press, New York (2004)
- Leiner, Frederick C. The End of Barbary Terror, Oxford University Press, New York (2006)
- London, Joshua E. Victory in Tripoli: How America's War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Jersey City, New Jersey (2005).