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Stephen Decatur

naval hero of three wars

Stephen Decatur

Stephen Decatur was born in Sinnepuxent, Maryland, on January 5, 1779. The son of a merchant seaman, he made his first voyage with his father in 1787. At the age of seventeen he was employed to supervise the laying of the keel for the frigate United States, the ship he would later successfully command during the War of 1812. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1798 and was promoted from midshipman to acting Lieutenant in May 1799.

In November 1803, as commander of the Enterprise, Decatur captured the ketch Mastico off Tripoli. He then used this ship, which was renamed the Intrepid, to destroy the American frigate Philadelphia, which had been captured by the Tripolitans. On the night of February 16, 1804, he led a hand-picked group of men into the harbor of Tripoli and set fire to the Philadelphia, without losing a single man. On May 22, in reward for this action, he was commissioned a Captain. He served the remainder of the Tripolitan War at Tripoli, first in command of the Constitution and then of the Congress.

In 1810 Decatur took command of the United States and became Commodore of the Southern Station, the command he held when the War of 1812 broke out. On October 25, 1812, while sailing off the coast of Morocco, the United States engaged the British frigate Macedonian, capturing it after a short battle in which the Macedonian's masts were completely shot away.

In the spring of 1814 he took command of the frigate President and a squadron consisting of three ships. While attempting to run the British blockade of New York Harbor, the President was engaged by four British frigates. Although the President managed to destroy one of the British ships (the Endymion), she was eventually forced to surrender after being surrounded by the other three. Despite the loss of his ship, Decatur won high praise for his defeat of the Endymion.

In 1815 Decatur took command of a nine-ship squadron bound for Algiers to settle long-standing conflicts with the Barbary States. Soon after arriving in the Mediterranean Decatur captured the Algerian frigate Mashouda, as well as the Algerian brig-of-war Estedio. He arrived off Algiers on June 28, 1815, where peace was soon concluded on terms quite favorable to the United States. It was during a celebration of this peace that Decatur declared: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country right or wrong."

After returning to the United States, Decatur was named to the Board of Navy Commissioners. While serving on that board Decatur made some less-than-flattering remarks against Captain John Barron, who had been suspended from service. Barron responded to Decatur's remarks by challenging Decatur to a duel. The two men met at Bladensburg, Maryland, on March 22, 1820. Out of respect for Barron's poor eyesight and seniority in age, Decatur allowed only a short distance of eight paces -- instead of the more common ten -- and claimed that he would not fire to kill. At the first exchange, Barron was wounded in the thigh, but Decatur received a fatal wound.

Like many naval heroes of his time, Decatur was rewarded financially for his exploits during the War of 1812. He used his prize money to build a substantial home in Washington, D.C., the Decatur House, which still stands today.

SEE ALSO
USS Constitution
War of 1812

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Revolution to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Middle 19th Century, 1845-1861 >> James Madison's Administration, 1809-1817

This page was last updated on February 16, 2017.