|Birth name||Stephen Decatur, Jr.|
January 5, 1779|
(now Berlin), Worcester County, Maryland, U.S.
|Died||March 22, 1820
Washington, D.C., U.S.[a]
|Buried||St. Peter's Churchyard, Philadelphia|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
||United States Navy|
|Years of service||1798–1820|
|Awards||Congressional Gold Medal|
|Other work||Board of Navy Commissioners|
Stephen Decatur, Jr. (January 5, 1779 – March 22, 1820) was a United States naval officer and commodore. He was born on the eastern shore of Maryland in Worcester County, the son of a U.S. naval officer who served during the Revolutionary War. His father Stephen Decatur Sr. was a commodore in the U.S. Navy who introduced him to the world of ships and sailing at an early age. Decatur followed in his father's footsteps and joined the U.S. Navy after college at age 19 as a midshipman.
Decatur supervised the construction of several U.S. naval vessels, one of which he later commanded. He is the youngest man to reach the rank of captain in the history of the United States Navy. He served under three presidents and played a major role in the early development of the American navy. In almost every theater of operation, Decatur's service was characterized by acts of heroism and exceptional performance. His service in the Navy took him through both Barbary Wars in North Africa, the Quasi-War with France, and the War of 1812 with Britain. He was renowned for his natural ability to lead and for his genuine concern for the seamen under his command. His numerous naval victories against Britain, France, and the Barbary states established the United States Navy as a rising power.
Decatur served aboard and commanded many naval vessels and ultimately became a member of the Board of Navy Commissioners. He built a large home in Washington, D.C. known as Decatur House on Lafayette Square, and he was at the center of Washington society in the early 19th century. He became an affluent member of Washington society and counted James Monroe and other Washington dignitaries among his personal friends.
Decatur's career came to an early end when he was killed in a duel with a rival officer. He emerged as a national hero in his own lifetime, becoming the first post-Revolutionary War hero. His name and legacy became identified with the United States Navy, like that of John Paul Jones.
Decatur was born on January 5, 1779 in Sinepuxent, Maryland[b] to Stephen Decatur Sr., a merchant captain and later an officer in the American navy during the American Revolution, and his wife Ann (Pine) Decatur. His parents had arrived from Philadelphia just three months before Stephen was born, fleeing the British occupation of that city during the American Revolution. The family returned to Philadelphia shortly after Stephen's birth, and he grew up there and eventually graduated from the Episcopal Academy.
Decatur came to love the sea and sailing in a roundabout manner. He developed a severe case of whooping cough when he was 8, and a supposed tonic for this condition was exposure to the salt air of the sea. His parents determined that he would accompany his father aboard a merchant ship on his next voyage to Europe. Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean and back proved to be an effective remedy, and Decatur came home completely recovered and with a newfound love for the sea.
Decatur attended the Episcopal Academy, an all-boys school that specialized in Latin, mathematics, and religion. He did not apply himself adequately, however, and barely graduated. He then enrolled for one year at the University of Pennsylvania in 1795, where he applied himself and focused on his studies. At the university, he became friends with Charles Stewart and Richard Somers, who became naval officers.
Decatur found study of the classics to be prosaic and life at the university to be disagreeable, and he discontinued his studies there at age 17, with his heart and mind set on ships and the sea. He gained employment at the shipbuilding firm of Gurney and Smith, business associates of his father, acting as supervisor of the early construction of the frigate United States. He was serving on board this vessel as a midshipman when it was launched on May 10, 1797, under the command of Commodore John Barry.
The United States Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794 which called for six frigates for the Navy; it was promptly signed by George Washington that same day. There was much opposition to the bill, however, and it ultimately passed with the condition that work would stop on the proposed ships if peace was attained with the Pasha of Algiers. Construction was progressing slowly on the frigates when work was halted altogether because of a peace accord with Algiers in March 1796. Congress passed an act on April 20, 1796 at the insistence of President Washington, allowing the construction to resume on the three ships nearest to completion at the time: USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution.
John Barry was a hero of the Revolutionary War and was Decatur's good friend and mentor, and he obtained Decatur's appointment as midshipman on United States in 1798. Decatur's father hired Talbot Hamilton, a former officer of the Royal Navy, to instruct his son in navigational and nautical sciences, and he also received naval training through active service aboard a commissioned ship, which is something that distinguished him from many of his contemporaries. He also had a talent for drawing ships and designing and building ship models.
The United States was faced with the task of protecting its own ships and interests, and there were few ships capable of defending the American coastline and protecting American merchant vessels at sea and abroad, and the few warships that were available had been converted into merchant ships. The French, in the meantime, were angry that America was carrying on trade with Britain so soon after being at war, so France began intercepting American ships that were involved in trading with Britain. This provocation prompted President John Adams to appoint Benjamin Stoddert as the first Secretary of the Navy, and Stoddert immediately ordered his senior commanders to "subdue, seize, and take" any French vessels that they encountered. At this time, America was not even ranked with European naval forces.
On May 22, 1799, Decatur was promoted to lieutenant by President Adams after serving more than a year as midshipman aboard the frigate United States. He received orders to remain in Philadelphia while United States was undergoing repairs, in order to recruit and assemble a crew for the vessel. While there, the chief mate of an East Indiaman made several derogatory remarks about Decatur and the U.S. Navy, apparently because he had lost some of his crew to Decatur's recruiting efforts. Decatur remained calm and left the scene without further incident. When he related the matter to his father, however, Captain Decatur stressed that the honor of the family and of the Navy had been insulted and that his son should return and challenge the chief mate to a duel. Stephen's friend and shipmate Lieutenant Somers was sent ahead with a letter from Decatur demanding an apology, but the chief mate instead accepted Decatur's challenge and secured a location for the duel. Decatur was an expert shot with a pistol and told his friend Lieutenant Charles Stewart that he would try to only wound his opponent in the hip—which is exactly how the duel culminated, and the matter was resolved without a fatality.
United States commenced its mission of patrolling the south Atlantic and West Indies in search of French ships which were preying on American merchant vessels in July, 1799. After several missions, it was discovered that United States had incurred damage from storms at sea, and she was taken up the Delaware to Chester, Pennsylvania for repairs in April 1800. Decatur did not want to remain with United States during the months of repairs and outfitting, so he obtained a transfer to the brig USS Norfolk under the command of Thomas Calvert. In May, the Norfolk sailed to the West Indies to patrol its waters looking for French privateers and men-of-war and 25 armed enemy craft were captured or destroyed over the following months.
Following the Quasi-War, the U.S. Navy underwent a significant reduction of active ships and officers, but Decatur was one of the few selected to remain commissioned.
The first war against the Barbary States was in response to the frequent piracy of American vessels in the Mediterranean Sea and the capture and enslavement of American crews for huge ransoms. Decatur was assigned duty aboard the frigate USS Essex to serve as the first lieutenant on May 13, 1801 at the beginning of the war, and his squadron was the first American naval squadron to cross the Atlantic, departing for the Mediterranean on June 1.
In September 1802, Decatur transferred to the 36-gun frigate USS New York as 1st Lieutenant under Commodore James Barron. In Malta, Decatur and another American officer were involved in a personal confrontation with a British officer which resulted in Decatur returning to the United States. There he took temporary command of the newly built 18-gun brig USS Argus which he sailed to Gibraltar, relinquishing command of the ship upon arrival to Lieutenant Isaac Hull. In exchange, Decatur was given command of the 12-gun schooner Enterprise.
On December 23, 1803, Enterprise and USS Constitution confronted the Tripolitan ketch Mastico sailing under Turkish colors. Decatur and his crew captured the ship and took it to Syracuse, where it was condemned by Commodore Edward Preble as a legitimate prize of war and given the name USS Intrepid.
Commodore William Bainbridge was in command of Philadelphia when she ran aground near Tripoli's harbor on October 31, 1803, whereupon she was captured and her crew were imprisoned by Tripolitan forces. Decatur sailed for Tripoli with 80 volunteers intending to enter the harbor with Intrepid in order to burn Philadelphia, denying its use to the corsairs. USS Syren[c] accompanied Intrepid under the command of Lieutenant Charles Stewart.
Intrepid sailed into Tripoli harbor on February 16, 1804, disguised as a common merchant ship from Malta and flying a British flag. Decatur and his men boarded and reclaimed Philadelphia in less than 10 minutes, killing at least 20 of the Tripolitan crew, capturing one wounded crewman, and forcing the rest to flee by jumping overboard. Only one of Decatur's men was wounded by a saber blade. There was hope that the small boarding crew could launch the captured ship, but the Philadelphia was in no condition to set sail, and the small Intrepid could not tow the larger and heavier warship out of the harbor, so Decatur's crew set her ablaze.
Decatur and his men left the burning vessel in Tripoli's harbor and set sail, and Intrepid and Syren arrived in Syracuse on February 18. British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson said that Decatur's feat was "the most bold and daring act of the Age", and the burning of Philadelphia made Decatur a national hero in the US. Pope Pius VII declared that the United States had done more to "humble and humiliate the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast in one night than all the European states had done for a long period of time."
Commodore Edward Preble led his squadron in attacks against Tripoli throughout August 1804, during which time Decatur was promoted to the rank of captain. During one battle, Decatur's younger brother James Decatur was mortally wounded by a Tripolitan captain who had pretended to surrender his ship. Stephen Decatur then set out to avenge his brother's treacherous death. Decatur pulled his ship alongside the Tripolitan ship and led a boarding party, personally singling out the enemy captain who had killed James. He was a large man armed with a pike, and he thrust his weapon at Decatur's chest. Decatur deflected the lunge, breaking his own cutlass at the hilt. During the fight, Decatur was almost killed by another Tripolitan crew member, but one of his own crewmen threw himself over Decatur. The struggle continued with the Tripolitan captain, who attempted to stab Decatur in the heart, but Decatur managed to draw his pistol and fire point-blank, immediately killing his foe.
Decatur was promoted to captain with the date of rank February 16, 1804 at age 25, largely for his daring capture and destruction of Philadelphia, making him the youngest man ever to hold the rank. He commanded the frigate Constitution from October 28 to November 9, 1804. when he relinquished command of Constitution to Commodore John Rodgers in exchange for the smaller vessel Congress.
On March 8, 1806, Decatur married Susan Wheeler, the daughter of Luke Wheeler, the mayor of Norfolk, Virginia. She was well known for her beauty and intelligence among Norfolk and Washington society. They had met at a dinner and ball held by the mayor for a Tunisian ambassador who was in the United States negotiating peace terms for his country's recent defea. For several months after their marriage, the couple resided with her parents in Norfolk, after which he received orders sending him to Newport to supervise the building of gunboats. The couple never had children during their 14 years of marriage.
Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith ordered Decatur in June 1806 to supervise the building of four gunboats at Newport, Rhode Island and four others in Connecticut of which he would later take command. Decatur was a natural choice for this new position, as he had experience as a ship builder and designer when he was employed at Gurney and Smith in 1797 while overseeing the construction of the frigate United States.
On June 26, 1807, Decatur was appointed to command Chesapeake, a 44-gun frigate, along with command of all gunboats at Norfolk. Chesapeake had just returned to Norfolk after repairs to damage incurred during the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair, and Commodore Barron had been relieved of command following his court martial over the incident. Decatur was a member of that court martial which had found Barron guilty of "unpreparedness", barring him from command for five years. Chesapeake was assigned to Commodore Decatur with a squadron of gunboats to patrol the New England coast enforcing the Embargo Act of 1807 throughout 1809.
In May 1810, Decatur was appointed commander of the heavy frigate United States, the same vessel whose construction he had supervised, and the same ship on which he had commenced his naval career as midshipman in 1798. Decatur sailed the United States along with the USS Hornet on May 21, 1811 to patrol the American coast, returning to Norfolk on November 23. In 1812, he sailed with Argus and Congress, but they were recalled upon the outbreak of war with Britain. Decatur then joined Captain John Rodgers, commander of President and his squadron. On August 31, Decatur sailed United States to Boston, and he sailed a second cruise with Rodgers' squadron on October 8.
The United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, and Britain committed nearly 100 warships along the American coast and other points. President James Madison ordered several naval vessels to be dispatched to patrol the American coastline. Three days later, a squadron departed from New York harbor under the command of Commodore John Rodgers in President, with Commodore Stephen Decatur commanding United States, and others commanding Argus, Essex, and Hornet. The squadron patrolled the waters off the American upper east coast until the end of August, their first objective being a British fleet reported to have recently departed from the West Indies.
The British frigate HMS Macedonian had been berthed next to the United States in Norfolk, Virginia in 1810, and British captain John Surman Carden had bet a fur beaver hat that, if the two ships ever met in battle, Macedonian would emerge victorious. That day came on October 25, 1812 when the two ships encountered one another 500 miles south of the Azores in a heavy sea. During the engagement, Decatur was struck in the chest by a flying splinter and knocked down, almost unconscious, but he recovered and resumed command.
The United States began firing on Macedonian from long-range because her guns had a greater range, firing 70 broadsides with Macedonian only getting off 30. The United States emerged from the battle relatively unscathed, but Macedonian was dismasted and had no option but to surrender, and Decatur took her as a prize.
The United States was part of a small squadron that departed New York on May 24, 1813, including the newly captured USS Macedonian and the sloop of war Hornet, and they encountered a British squadron under the command of Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy on June 1. Hardy's squadron emerged from behind Montauk Point, consisting of ships of the line HMS Ramillies and HMS Valiant along with the frigates HMS Acasta and HMS Orpheus. Decatur was forced to flee and take refuge at New London, Connecticut, where the United States remained blockaded until the end of the war.
Decatur attempted to sneak out of New London harbor at night on December 18 in an effort to elude the British blockading squadron. While attempting to leave the Thames River, however, he saw blue lights burning near the mouth of the river in sight of the British blockaders. Decatur was furious, believing that local residents had set the signals to betray his plans; he abandoned the project and returned to New London. He wrote a letter to the Navy Secretary dated December 20 and charged that traitors in the New London area were in collusion with the British to capture United States, Hornet, and Macedonian. The allegations of treason became public, causing controversy and debate among New London residents and others, and a congressional investigation was called. Decatur made efforts to discover who was responsible but was not successful. The exact nature and meaning of the blue lights remains uncertain, including whether they were an optical illusion or were signals made by a spy. Democratic-Republicans (the future Democratic Party) immediately blamed their political opponents, who were adamantly against the war from the beginning, dubbing them "Blue light federalists".
Decatur wrote a letter to Captain Hardy offering to negotiate a resolution of the situation at a prearranged meeting. He proposed that matched ships from each side meet in a duel to settle their otherwise idle situation. The letter was sent under a white flag of truce but was in violation of orders, as Navy Secretary Jones had forbidden commanders from "giving or receiving a Challenge, to or from, an Enemy's vessel." The next day, Hardy answered Decatur's proposal and agreed to have Statira engage Macedonian "as they are sister ships, carrying the same number of guns, and weight of metal." After further deliberation, Decatur wanted assurance that Macedonian would not be recaptured should the ship emerge victorious, as he suspected it would be. The two captains exchanged several more communications, but neither side trusted the other and so the proposal floundered.
Decatur transferred his commodore's pennant to President in May 1814, a frigate with 44 guns. Secretary of the Navy William Jones was a staunch proponent of coastal defense, and he appointed Decatur on December 1 to lead a squadron consisting of President as flagship, Hornet (a 20-gun sloop), USS Peacock (22 guns), and USS Tom Bowline (12 guns). The squadron was assigned a mission in the East Indies the following January, but the British had established a strict blockade in the squadron's port of New York, restricting any cruises. Decatur attempted to break through the blockade in President, but he encountered the British Squadron composed of razee HMS Majestic under the command of Captain John Hayes, along with the frigates HMS Endymion, HMS Pomone, and HMS Tenedos. Decatur had made arrangements for pilot boats to mark the way for clear passage out to sea, but they took made a piloting error and President consequently ran aground. The ship broke free after an hour on the sandbar, with damage to the copper and pintles. Decatur continued the attempt to evade his pursuers and set course along the southerly coast of Long Island.
Endymion was the fastest ship in the engagement, and she was the only ship to catch up to President and engage her. A fierce fight ensued which lasted several hours, during which both ships were severely damaged. Decatur finally surrendered to Endymion, as there were four more British ships that he would have to fight. President suffered 35 men killed and 70 wounded; Decatur himself was wounded by a large flying splinter.
Endymion had sustained severe damage to the rigging, and her captain decided to carry out repairs before tying up President—and Decatur took advantage of the confusion to attempt escape. President was finally overtaken by Pomone but was unaware that Decatur had surrendered, and she fired two broadsides into President before they realized that the battle was over.
Decatur and his crew were taken prisoner and held captive in a Bermuda prison. News reached Bermuda that the war had ended, and Decatur was paroled to New London, Connecticut on February 8. He traveled aboard HMS Narcissus, landing in New London on February 21. At war's end, he received a sword as a reward and thanks from Congress for his service in Tripoli, and he was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for distinguished service in the War of 1812.
The situation remained unchanged in the Mediterranean after the War of 1812 in that American merchant ships and crews were being seized and held for large ransoms as had occurred during the First Barbary War. Two squadrons were assembled, one at New York under the command of Stephen Decatur, and one at Boston under the command of Commodore William Bainbridge. Decatur's squadron of ten ships was ready first and set sail for Algiers on May 20, 1815. Decatur was in command of the flagship USS Guerriere.[d]
William Shaler was aboard, who had just been appointed by President Madison as the consul-general for the Barbary States, and he was authorized to negotiate terms of peace with the Algerian government. The US was demanding the release of Americans held captive as slaves, an end of annual payments of tribute, and favorable prize agreements.
On May 20, 1815, Commodore Decatur received instructions from President James Madison to take command of the frigate Guerriere and lead a squadron of ten ships to the Mediterranean Sea to conduct the Second Barbary War, which would put an end to the international practice of paying tribute to the Barbary pirate states. His squadron arrived at Gibraltar on June 14.
Before committing himself to the Mediterranean, Decatur learned from the American consuls at Cadiz and Tangier of any squadrons passing by along the Atlantic coast or through the Strait of Gibraltar. To avoid making known the presence of an American squadron, Decatur did not enter the ports but instead dispatched a messenger in a small boat to communicate with the consuls. He learned from observers there that a squadron under the command of the notorious Rais Hamidou had passed by into the Mediterranean, most likely off Cape Gata. Decatur's squadron arrived at Gibraltar on June 15, 1815. This attracted much attention and prompted the departure of several dispatch vessels to warn Hammida of the squadron's arrival. Decatur's visit was brief with the consul and lasted only for as long as it took to communicate with a short letter to the Secretary of the Navy informing him of earlier weather problems and that he was about to "proceed in search of the enemy forthwith", where he at once set off in search of Hamidou hoping to take him by surprise.
On June 17, while sailing in Guerriere for Algiers, Decatur's fleet encountered near Cape Palos the frigate Mashouda, commanded by Hamidou and the Algerian brig Estedio, which were also en route to Algeria. After overtaking the Mashouda, Decatur fired two broadsides, crippling the ship, killing 30 of the crew, including Hamidou himself, and taking more than 400 prisoners. Lloyd's List reported that the Algerine frigate Mezoura, which had been under the command of the Algerine admiral, had arrived at Carthagena on June 20 as a prize to Decatur's squadron. The newspaper also reported that Decatur's squadron had run another Spanish frigate onshore near Carthagena.
Capturing the flagship of the Algerian fleet at the Battle off Cape Gata Decatur was able to secure sufficient levying power to bargain with the Dey of Algiers. Upon arrival, Decatur exhibited an early use of gunboat diplomacy on behalf of American interests as a reminder that this was the only alternative if the Dey decided to decline signing a treaty. Consequently, a new treaty was agreed upon within 48 hours of Decatur's arrival, confirming the success of his objectives.
After bringing the government in Algiers to terms, Decatur's squadron set sail to Tunis and Tripoli to demand reimbursement for proceeds withheld by those governments during the War of 1812. With a similar show of force exhibited at Algiers Decatur received all of his demands and promptly sailed home victorious. Upon his arrival Decatur boasted to the Secretary of the Navy that the settlement had "been dictated at the mouths of our cannon." For this campaign, he became known as "the Conqueror of the Barbary Pirates".
After his victory in the Mediterranean over the Barbary states who had terrorized and enslaved Christian merchants for centuries, Decatur returned to the United States, arriving at New York on November 12, 1815, with the brig Enterprise, along with Bainbridge of Guerriere who arrived three days later. He was met with a wide reception from dignitaries and countrymen. Among the more notable salutations was a letter Decatur received from the Secretary of State James Monroe that related the following tidings of appreciation: "I take much interest in informing you that the result of this expedition, so glorious to your country and honorable to yourself and the officers and men under your command, has been very satisfactory to the President."
The Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin W. Crowninshield, was equally gracious and thankful. Since a vacancy was about to occur in the board of Navy commissioners with the retirement of Commodore Isaac Hull, the Secretary was most anxious to offer the position to Decatur, which he gladly accepted. Upon his appointment Decatur made his journey to Washington, where he was again received with cordial receptions from various dignitaries and countrymen. He served on the Board of Navy Commissioners from 1816 to 1820. One of his more notable decisions as a commissioner involved his strong objection to the reinstatement of James Barron upon his return to the United States after being barred from command for five years for his questionable handling of the Chesapeake, an action that would soon lead to Barron challenging him to a duel.
During his tenure as a Commissioner, Decatur also became active in the Washington social scene. At a social gathering in April 1816, Decatur uttered an after-dinner toast that would become famous:
Now that Decatur was Naval Commissioner he had settled into a routine life in Washington working at the Navy Department during the day, with many evenings spent as an honorary guest at social gatherings, as both he and his wife were the toast of Washington society. Decatur's first home in Washington was 1903 Pennsylvania Avenue (one of the "Seven Buildings"), purchased in 1817. In 1818, Decatur built a three-story red brick house in Washington on Lafayette Square, designed by the famous English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the same man who designed the U.S. Capitol building and Saint John's Church. Decatur specified that his house had to be suitable for "impressive entertainments". The house was the first private residence to be built near the White House. Decatur House is now a museum that exhibits a large collection of Decatur memorabilia and is managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Located on President's Square (Lafayette Square), it was built in grand style to accommodate large social gatherings, which in the wake of Decatur's many naval victories were an almost routine affair in the lives of Decatur and his wife.
In October 1818, at the request of Oliver Hazard Perry, a very close friend, Decatur arrived at New York to act as his second in a duel between Perry and Captain John Heath, commander of Marines on USS Java. The two officers were involved in a personal disagreement while aboard that ship, that resulted in Heath challenging Perry to a duel. Perry had written to Decatur nearly a year previously, revealing that he had no intention of firing any shot at Heath. After the two duelists and their seconds assembled the duel took place. One shot was fired; Heath missed his opponent while Perry, keeping his word, returned no fire. At this point Decatur approached Heath with Perry's letter in hand, relating to Heath that Perry all along had no intention of returning fire and asking Heath if his honor had thus been satisfied. Heath admitted that it had. Decatur was relieved to finally see the matter resolved with no loss of life or limb to either of his friends, urging both to now put the matter behind them.
Decatur's life and distinguished service in the U.S. Navy came to an early end when in 1820, Commodore James Barron challenged Decatur to a duel, related in part to comments Decatur had made over Barron's conduct in the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair of 1807. Because of Barron's loss of Chesapeake to the British he faced a court-martial and was barred from command for a term of five years. Decatur had served on the court-martial that had found Barron guilty of "unpreparedness". Barron had just returned to the United States from Copenhagen after being away for six years and was seeking reinstatement. He was met with much criticism among fellow naval officers, among whom Decatur was one of the most outspoken. Decatur, who was now on the board of naval commissioners, strongly opposed Barron's reinstatement and was notably critical about the prospect in communications with other naval officers and government officials. As a result, Barron became embittered towards Decatur and challenged him to a duel. Barron's challenge to Decatur occurred during a period when duels between officers were so common that it was creating a shortage of experienced officers, forcing the War Department to threaten to discharge those who attempted to pursue the practice.
Barron's second was Captain Jesse Elliott, known for his jaunty mannerisms and antagonism toward Decatur. Decatur had first asked his friend Thomas Macdonough to be his second, but Macdonough, who had always opposed dueling, accordingly declined his request. Decatur then turned to his supposed friend Commodore William Bainbridge to act as his second, to which Bainbridge consented. However, according to naval historian Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, Decatur made a poor choice: Bainbridge, who was five years his senior, had long been jealous of the younger and more famous Decatur.
The seconds met on March 8 to establish the time and place for the duel and the rules to be followed. The arrangements were exact. The duel was to take place at nine o'clock in the morning on March 22, at Bladensburg, Maryland, near Washington, at a distance of only eight paces. Decatur, an expert pistol shot, planned only to wound Barron in the hip.
Decatur did not tell his wife, Susan, about the forthcoming duel but instead wrote to her father asking that he come to Washington to stay with her, using language that suggested that he was facing a duel and that he might lose his life. On the morning of the 22nd the dueling party assembled. The conference between the two seconds lasted three-quarters of an hour. Just before the duel, Barron spoke to Decatur of conciliation; however, the men's seconds did not attempt to halt the proceedings.
The duel was arranged by Bainbridge with Elliott in a way that made the wounding or death of both duelists very likely. The shooters would be standing close to each other, face to face; there would be no back-to-back pacing away and turning to fire, a procedure that often resulted in the missing of one's opponent. Upon taking their places the duelists were instructed by Bainbridge, "I shall give the word quickly – 'Present, one, two, three' – You are neither to fire before the word 'one', nor after the word 'three'. Now in their positions, each duelist raised his pistol, cocked the flintlock and while taking aim stood in silence. Bainbridge called out, 'One', Decatur and Barron both firing before the count of 'two'. Decatur's shot hit Barron in the lower abdomen and ricocheted into his thigh. Barron's shot hit Decatur in the pelvic area, severing arteries. Both of the duelists fell almost at the same instant. Decatur, mortally wounded and clutching his side, exclaimed, "Oh, Lord, I am a dead man." Lying wounded, Commodore Barron (who ultimately survived) declared that the duel was carried out properly and honorably and told Decatur that he forgave him from the bottom of his heart.
By then other men who had known about the duel were arriving at the scene, including Decatur's friend and mentor, the senior officer John Rodgers. In excruciating pain, Decatur was carefully lifted by the surgeons and placed in Rodgers' carriage and was carried back to his home on Lafayette Square. Before they departed Decatur called out to Barron that he should also be taken along, but Rodgers and the surgeons calmly shook their heads in disapproval. Barron cried back "God bless you, Decatur" – and with a weak voice Decatur called back "Farewell, farewell, Barron." Upon arrival at his home Decatur was taken in to the front room just left of the front entrance, still conscious. Before allowing himself to be carried in he insisted that his wife and nieces be taken upstairs, sparing them the sight of his grave condition. A Dr. Thomas Simms arrived from his home nearby to give his assistance to the naval physicians. However, for reasons not entirely clear to historians, Decatur refused to have the ball extracted from his wound.[f] At this point Decatur requested that his will be brought forward so as to receive his signature, granting his wife all his worldly possessions, with directives as to who would be the executors of his will. Decatur died at approximately 10:30 pm that night. While wounded, he is said to have cried out, "I did not know that any man could suffer such pain!"
Washington society and the nation were shocked upon learning that Decatur had been killed at the age of forty-one in a duel with a rival navy captain. Decatur's funeral was attended by Washington's elite, including President James Monroe and the justices of the Supreme Court, as well as most of Congress. Over 10,000 citizens of Washington and the surrounding area attended to pay their last respects to a national hero. The pallbearers were Commodores Rodgers, Chauncey, Tingey, Porter and Macdonough; captains Ballard and Cassin; and Lieutenant Macpherson. Following were naval officers and seamen. At the funeral service a grieving seaman unexpectedly came forward and proclaimed, "He was the friend of the flag, the sailor's friend; the navy has lost its mainmast." Stephen Decatur died childless. Though he left his widow $75,000, a fortune at the time, she died virtually penniless in 1860.
Decatur's body was temporarily placed in the tomb of Joel Barlow at Washington. It was later moved to Philadelphia, where he was buried at St. Peter's Church in 1846, alongside his mother and father.
After the funeral, rumors circulated of a last-minute conversation between the duelists that could have avoided the deadly outcome of the duel, moreover, that the seconds involved might have been planning for such an outcome and accordingly made no real attempts to stop the duel. Decatur's wife Susan held an even more damning view of the matter and spent much of her remaining life pursuing justice for what she termed "the assassins" involved.
Decatur's widow, Susan, tried for several years to receive a pension from the U.S. Government. By an act of Congress on March 3, 1837, she was granted a pension retroactive to Decatur's death.
Although he died at a relatively young age, Decatur helped determine the direction of the new nation and played a significant role establishing its identity. For his heroism in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 Decatur emerged as an icon of American naval history and was roundly admired by most of his contemporaries as well as the citizenry:
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