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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,145

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This is the grave of Stephen Decatur.

Born in 1779 in Sinepuxent, Maryland, Decatur grew up in a key naval family of the Early Republic. His father was a Revolutionary War naval officer and also a big merchant captain. When the young boy got whooping cough in 1787, the family decided he would accompany his dad on his next voyage to Europe to get some of that fresh sea air. This made young Stephen love the sea as his father did. His parents weren’t necessarily that thrilled. They wanted the young boy to have a more stable career, particularly the ministry. But that was not to be.

Decatur was a highly mediocre student at his private schools and did attend the University of Pennsylvania for awhile, but finally dropped out after his freshman year to work in the sailing industry. Acquiescing to their son’s desire, the family got him a position with a shipbuilding firm that his father was close to and then he served as a midshipman on the new ship in 1797. But if he was going to do this, his father was determined it happen the right way, so he hired private tutors to get the kid a real education on naval matters so that he could be a successful captain and potentially officer in the Navy. And in fact, Decatur joined the Navy in 1798 under the command of John Barry, at the latter’s request.

As the Quasi-War with France developed late in the Adams administration, there was room for a talented young man to rise in the nation’s small Navy and thus Decatur was promoted to lieutenant in 1799. He was immediately in a duel in Philadelphia when the first officer of the ship disparaged him publicly. Decatur’s father actually ordered him into the duel, saying that the honor of both the family and the Navy was at stake here. Decatur was by far the better shot and ended up only winging the guy in the hip on purpose, which satisfied both sides and boy was dueling culture stupid.

Well, Decatur might have been a dumb man, but he was a good Naval officer at a time when the nation needed them. He was quite active through the Quasi-War, volunteering for new assignments when whatever ship he was on needed repair or was out of commission for awhile. Most of the Navy was basically scrapped by 1800, but Decatur managed to retain his commission. Meanwhile, Americans were outraged at the Barbary Pirates. The Europeans just paid them off, but the idea of paying off Muslims to not capture American sailors was outrageous to American leaders on a number of levels. So we had the Barbary Wars. Decatur was critical to both of them.

Decatur became one of the early military heroes of the United States. Yes there was the American Revolution of course with no shortage of them. But the War of 1812 happened at a point when that generation was largely gone or dying. Decatur, Andrew Jackson, and a few others provided a new generation of military heroes. Moreover, it was important that Decatur was associated with the Navy, which was so underfunded before the war. Probably his biggest contribution was leading the recapture of the Philadelphia, which he and his men burned after a sneak attack surprised the Tripoli sailors. This made Decatur’s reputation in the U.S. Even British naval officers were impressed by the daring of it and doing it without losing a single man. Then in the main attack on Tripoli, Decatur was told his brother, also part of the attack, was severely wounded. He left his command (which I guess was OK, he didn’t get in trouble for it) and led volunteers onto that ship to avenge his brother. He nearly died in this brave but pretty stupid action and it was largely successful in that they killed 21 Tripoli soldiers and lost only 3 themselves. His brother died anyway.

Shortly after the Philadelphia capture, Decatur got command of the Constitution and was promoted to captain, still only 25 years old. After he returned from the Mediterranean, Decatur was stationed in Norfolk and then Newport, where he was in charge of building some new ships. He then took over the Chesapeake after Barron surrendered it to the British when the Leonard fired on it in 1807 to take back the people it claimed were deserters. Barron was court-martialed for this and Decatur was part of those taking part in the court-martial. The ship needed serious repair but Barron was relieved of his command so it went to Decatur. He was part of the crew patrolling to enforce Jefferson’s Embargo, possibly the single stupidest idea in the history of American foreign policy.

Then in 1810, he got command of the United States. He still ran this ship when the War of 1812 started. Decatur immediately sailed across the Atlantic to attack and captured the British ship Macedonian off the Azores, an early American victory. He got stuck in New London for awhile as the British blockaded his ship in the port. Decatur believed that Federalists there had told the British he was there and this led to a large of charges of treason against that party, some of which were close to true though it’s unclear if any of Decatur’s charges were true. After about a year of relative inaction, he got transferred to the President and commanded that for the rest of the war. After the war was over but before anyone knew about it (in fact, a few days after the Battle of New Orleans), Decatur engaged some British ships in the West Indies and actually lost, having to surrender the ship after losing 35 dead and himself suffered a moderate wound when a big piece of wood after a bomb hit the ship impaled in him. Decatur would have spent the rest of the war in prison if there was a war anymore, but there was not and he was quickly freed and sent home. Shortly after, he went back to the Mediterranean to take on the Barbary Pirates again but this did not last too long after he used the power of American gunboats to cower Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis into paying up.

Decatur was all-in on the violent manhood of the time, as we have discussed already. This got him eventually. He spent the next five years living the elite life in the U.S. and also serving as a second in a duel for his friend Oliver Hazard Perry. He built a gargantuan house in Lafayette Square that would be the center of entertainment for the Washington elite. In 1820, he had another duel, this time with James Barron, a commodore in the Navy and Decatur’s former commander in the First Barbary War. This was a long-running hatred that went back to Barron’s surrender of the Chesapeake to the British. Barron was court-martialed for this and Decatur was part of those taking part in the court-martial. Barron shot and killed him. Decatur was 41 years old. Glad his manhood was upheld. Barron suffered in the sense that he eventually became the senior commander in the Navy.

Stephen Decatur is buried in Saint Peter’s Episcopal Churchyard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit other American naval officers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Chester Nimitz is is San Bruno, California and John Paul Jones is in Annapolis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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