Stephen Decatur, Jr., was born in 1779 in Sinepuxent, Maryland, to parents Stephen and Ann (Pine) Decatur. His grandfather, Étienne (Stephen) Decatur, was French, but renounced that citizenship to marry Priscilla Hill; her family had been in Rhode Island since the early 1600s. Stephen Decatur, Jr., studied at the University of Pennsylvania and was encouraged by his mother not to go to sea; however, both Stephen Decatur's father and grandfather had careers on the sea, and in 1799, during America's Quasi War with France, Decatur became a midshipman on one of the famous six frigates of the United States, the USS United States. A mere month later, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
Decatur was an interesting character in personality as well as his naval career. In his biography of Decatur, Spencer Tucker quotes one man as saying,
"[he] possessed, in an eminent degree, the happy art of governing sailors rather by their affections than their fears. He was averse to punishment, and rarely had occasion to resort to it, being usually able to rely, for the preservation of discipline, on the reluctance of his inferiors to displease him. It was remarked of him at this period, by an officer, that 'he seemed, as if by magic, to hold a boundless sway over the hearts of seamen at first sight.'"
In an age where most leaders found it necessary to resort to floggings and the like to keep their crew out of the rum, free of mutinous thoughts, and on their proper ship, a man who could run his crew merely by the effect his own person had on them is an interesting one to study.
What is probably the most famous event in Decatur's career came during the first Barbary War, or the Tripolitan War, when he, still a lieutenant, commanded the USS Enterprize during the commodore-ship of Edward Preble. After the massive USS Philadelphia ran aground off the bay of Tripoli and its crew and officers were taken by the Tripolitans, Decatur led a night expedition in the converted Tripolitan boat Intrepid to burn the Philadelphia before the enemy could make use of it. He was successful, surprisingly so, and the event soon earned him a two-rung promotion to the rank of captain that bypassed the rank of master commandant.
Just a few years after the end of the first Barbary War, Decatur served in the War of 1812, during which he commanded his old ship, the USS United States. In October he captured the HMS Macedonian, fulfilling a bet that had been made by the Macedonian's captain, Carden, years before that if the two ships were to meet in battle, Carden would win; but he lost, and Decatur refitted the Macedonian to return to the United States. Both ships were driven into a Connecticut port by a British blockade and stayed there for the rest of the war.
British blockades during the war made it difficult for individual ships, and certainly larger squadrons, to leave their home ports. After Decatur moved his command to the frigate President, stationed at New York, he and his small squadron were commanded to sail to the Caribbean; attempting to run the blockade, he was forced to surrender to the massive ships outside port. He spent the rest of the war in Bermuda as a prisoner and then was released in February of 1815. That May, he commanded a squadron that sailed to the Mediterranean again to positively show the Barbary nations that the United States would not pay tribute; he was successful in his mission and earned himself the title of "Conqueror of the Barbary Pirates."
Perhaps the next most famous event of Decatur's life came in 1820 - his duel with Commodore James Barron, and his death as a result. Barron had commanded the USS Chesapeake (thought to be an unlucky ship) during the famous Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, when Barron had not ordered his men into readiness and had subsequently been captured by the British in the Leopard with no fight. Due to criticism Decatur gave on the subject and the fact that he had served on the court martial that found Barron guilty of unpreparedness, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel. Dueling was technically illegal in the United States at the time (Alexander Hamilton had died in his duel with Aaron Burr in 1804), but it was a matter of honor, and Decatur accepted.
His plan, apparently, was only to wound Barron; Barron had bitterness on his side, however, and he shot Decatur in the abdomen. Decatur soon died, only forty-one years old.
My coming novel The White Sail's Shaking takes place during the First Barbary War, and while it doesn't follow Decatur, the main character serves aboard his ship, the Enterprize.
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