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Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr (5 January 1779 – 22 March 1820) was an American naval officer notable for his heroism in the Barbary Wars and in the War of 1812. He was the youngest man to reach the rank of captain in the history of the United States Navy, and the first American celebrated as a national military hero who had not played a role in the American Revolution.
Decatur was born on January 5 1779, in Berlin, Maryland, to Stephen Decatur, Sr. and his wife Ann (Pine) Decatur. He attended the Episcopal Academy and then studied at the University of Pennsylvania with future naval heroes Richard Somers and Charles Stewart. He married Susan Wheeler, daughter of the mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, on March 8, 1806.
Decatur was employed at the age of 17 in the firm of Gurney and Smith, acting as the company's supervisor to the early construction of the frigate United States. He was one of "Preble's Boys" and friends with Charles Stewart and Richard Rush.
Decatur saw service throughout the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war with France. In 1798, Decatur secured commission as a midshipman aboard the United States. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in 1799. For a brief period, Decatur served aboard the sloop Norfolk but soon transferred back to the United States. Following the Quasi-War, the US Navy underwent a significant reduction of active ships and officers; Decatur was one of the few selected to remain commissioned.
Given command of the brig Argus in 1803, he took it to the Mediterranean for service in the First Barbary War against Tripoli. Once in the combat zone, Lieutenant Decatur commanded the schooner Enterprise and, on 23 December 1803, captured the enemy ketch Mastico. That vessel, taken into the U.S. Navy under the name Intrepid, was used by Decatur on 16 February 1804 to execute a night raid into Tripoli harbor to destroy the U.S. frigate Philadelphia, which had been captured after running aground at the end of October 1803. Admiral Lord Nelson is said to have called this "the most bold and daring act of the age".
This daring and extremely successful operation made Lieutenant Decatur an immediate national hero, a status that was enhanced by his courageous conduct during the 3 August 1804 bombardment of Tripoli. In that action, he led his men in hand-to-hand fighting while boarding and capturing an enemy gunboat. Decatur was subsequently promoted to the rank of captain, and over the next eight years had command of several frigates.
The United States declared war on Great Britain on 14 June 1812. United States, commanded by Decatur, the frigate Congress (36), and the brig Argus (18) joined Commodore John Rodgers' squadron at New York City and put to sea immediately, cruising off the east coast until the end of August. The squadron again sailed on 8 October 1812, this time from Boston. Three days later, after capturing Mandarin, United States parted company and continued to cruise eastward. At dawn on 25 October, five hundred miles south of the Azores, lookouts on board United States reported seeing a sail 12 miles (19 km) to windward. As the ship rose over the horizon, Captain Decatur made out the fine, familiar lines of HMS Macedonian.
In 1810, the Macedonian and the United States had been berthed next to one another in port at Norfolk, Virginia. The British captain John Carden wagered a beaver hat that if the two ever met in battle, the Macedonian would emerge victorious. However, the engagement in a heavy swell proved otherwise as the United States pounded the Macedonian into a dismasted wreck from long range. The Macedonian had no option but surrender, and thus was taken as a prize by Decatur. Eager to present the nation with a prize, Decatur spent a fortnight refitting the captured British frigate so as to make it able to travel back across the Atlantic.
After repairs, United States—accompanied by USS Macedonian and the brig Hornet—sailed from New York on 24 May 1813. On 1 June, the three vessels were driven into New London, Connecticut, by a powerful British squadron, and United States and Macedonian were kept blocked there until the end of the war.
Decatur attempted to sneak out of New London harbor at night in an effort to elude the British blockading squadron. While attempting to leave the Thames River Decatur saw blue lights burning near the mouth of the river in sight of the British blockaders. Convinced that these were signals to betray his plans he abandoned the project. Suspicion was directed against the "peace men" and the odious epithet of "Bluelight Federalists" long was applied to extreme Federalists. In the spring of 1814, Decatur transferred his commodore's pennant to the President (44), flagship of his new squadron consisting of Hornet (20), Peacock (22), and Tom Bowline (12). However, the British had established a strict blockade in the squadron's port of New York, therefore restricting any cruises.
In January 1815, Decatur's squadron was assigned a mission in the East Indies. Shortly thereafter, Decatur attempted to break through the blockade alone in the President and make for the appointed rendezvous at Tristan da Cunha. On January 15, a day after setting sail from New York, he encountered the British West Indies Squadron comprised of Razee HMS Majestic (56 guns, Captain John Hayes) and the frigates HMS Endymion (40 guns, Captain Henry Hope), HMS Pomone (38 guns, Captain John Richard Lumley) and HMS Tenedos (38 guns, Captain Hyde Parker). After the President was accidentally run aground, Decatur continued to attempt to evade his pursuers. Endymion was the first to come up and after a fierce fight, he managed to disable the British frigate. But due to the damage sustained from Endymion, Decatur's frigate was finally overhauled by Pomone and Tenedos, causing him to surrender his command. However, his hail of surrender was not heard by Pomone, firing two broadsides into the President until she hauled down a light to signify surrender. As Decatur himself termed it, "my ship crippled, and more than a four-fold force opposed to me, without a chance of escape left, I deemed it my duty to surrender". Decatur's command suffered 24 men killed and 55 wounded, including Decatur himself who was wounded by a large flying splinter.
Decatur and his men were transported as prisoners to Bermuda until February 1815. On February 8, with news of the cessation of hostilities, Decatur traveled aboard HMS Narcissus (32), landing in New London, Connecticut. On February 26, Decatur arrived in New York City, where he convalesced in a boarding house.
In May 1815, Commodore Decatur sailed his squadron of ten ships to the Mediterranean Sea to conduct the Second Barbary War, which put an end to the international practice of paying tribute to pirate states. Decatur was dispatched to Algiers to secure the release of American slaves, to obtain an end to tribute, and finally, to procure favorable prize agreements.
Capturing the Algerian fleet flagship Mashouda as well as the Algerian brig Estedio in route to Algeria, Decatur secured an amount of levying power with which to bargain with the Dey of Algiers. Upon arrival, Decatur exhibited an early use of gunboat diplomacy on behalf of American interests. A new treaty was agreed to within 48 hours of his arrival, confirming the success of his objectives.
After resolving the disputes in Algiers, Decatur sailed his squadron to Tunis and Tripoli to demand reimbursement for proceeds withheld by those governments in the War of 1812. In a similar fashion, Decatur received all of the demands he asked of them, and promptly sailed home victorious.
For this campaign, he became known as "the Conqueror of the Barbary Pirates".
Between 1816 and 1820, Decatur served as a Navy Commissioner. During his tenure as a Commissioner, Decatur became active in the Washington social scene. At one of his social gatherings, Decatur uttered an after-dinner toast that would become famous: "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!" This toast is often misquoted as "My country, right or wrong!" and then attacked as a straw man by those who believe it to be an enduring and official statement of US foreign policy.
In 1818, in Washington, D.C., he built a house designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. The Decatur House, now a museum, was located on President's Square (Lafayette Square).
In 1820, Commodore James Barron challenged Decatur to a duel, relating in part to comments Decatur had made over Barron's conduct in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807. Decatur had served on the court-martial that had found Barron guilty of unpreparedness, and had barred him from a command for the next five years.
Barron's second was Captain Jesse Elliott, known for his antagonism to Decatur. Decatur asked his supposed friend Commodore William Bainbridge to be his second, to which Bainbridge consented. However, Decatur made a poor choice: Bainbridge had long been jealous of Decatur.
The duel was fought at Bladensburg Duelling Field in Bladensburg, Maryland (now in Colmar Manor, Maryland), on 22 March 1820. Just before the duel, Barron spoke to Decatur of suggestive conciliation; regrettably, the men's seconds did not attempt to halt the proceedings. Decatur, an expert pistol shot, planned only to wound Barron. He inflicted a serious, though not mortal, wound to Barron's hip. However, Barron's shot mortally wounded Decatur in the abdomen. Decatur took 2 days to die in his home on Lafayette Square. He is said to have cried out, "I did not know that any man could suffer such pain!"
Ironically, as Decatur lay dying at his home in Lafayette Square, there was a party at his house in honor of the recent marriage of First Daughter Maria Hester Monroe and her first cousin and White House staffer Samuel L. Gouverneur.
Stephen 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 attended to pay their last respects to a national hero.
His remains were temporarily deposited in the tomb of Joel Barlow at Washington, but later moved to Philadelphia, where they were interred at St. Peter's Church.
Stephen Decatur died childless. Though he left his widow $75,000, a fortune at the time, she died penniless in 1860.
Five U.S. Navy ships have been named USS Decatur in his honor, along with numerous locations. Many schools also bear his name.
An engraved portrait of Decatur appears on U.S. paper money on series 1886 $20 silver certificates.
Stephen Decatur's home in Washington, D.C. is a museum owned by the National Trust.
Forty-six communities in the United States have been named after Stephen Decatur, including:
Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Maryland
Stephen Decatur High School in Decatur, Illinois
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