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Stephen Decatur

Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 17791820

Robert J. Allison
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 280
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    Stephen Decatur
    Book Description:

    Born to a prominent Philadelphia family in 1779, Stephen Decatur at age twentyfive became the youngest man ever to serve as a captain in the U.S. Navy. His intrepid heroism, leadership, and devotion to duty made him a perfect symbol of the aspirations of the growing nation. Leading men to victory in Tripoli, the War of 1812, and the Algerian war of 1815, and coining the phrase "Our country, right or wrong," Decatur created an enduring legend of bravery, celebrated in poetry, song, paintings, and the naming of dozens of towns—from Georgia to Alabama to Illinois. After the War of 1812, Decatur moved to Washington to help direct naval policy. His close friendships with James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and other political leaders soon made him a rising star in national politics. He and his wife Susan made their elegant home on Lafayette Square near the White House a center of Washington society. The capital and the entire nation were shocked in 1820 when Decatur died at the age of fortyone in a duel with a rival navy captain. In this carefully researched and wellwritten biography, historian Robert Allison tells the story of Decatur's eventful life at a time when the young republic was developing its own identity—when the American people were deciding what kind of nation they would become. Although he died prematurely, Decatur played a significant role in the shaping of that national identity.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-061-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. PROLOGUE “The navy has lost its mainmast”
    (pp. 1-8)

    The peach blossoms were early in 1820. Just three days after spring began, Friday, March 24, the buds opened, weeks before their usual time. Washington sorely needed spring.

    January had been the coldest in eight years. February brought snow. March had been cold, rainy, and raw. Emotionally and politically it had also been a hard winter. The economy staggered under an economic depression, while Congress considered the fate of the nation itself. The question of Missouri—should it be admitted as a slave state, or could Congress prohibit slavery in this new member of the Union?—had exploded into a...

  4. CHAPTER 1 “To raise his voice to defend the right”
    (pp. 9-16)

    Étienne Decatur’s fever was a stroke of fortune for the U.S. Navy. A lieutenant in the French navy, Étienne nearly died in the West Indies. Too ill to cross the Atlantic, he was fortunate that his fever came during a brief interlude of peace between the French and British empires. His ship dropped him ashore in a British colony—Newport, in Rhode Island—and sailed home without him. Étienne Decatur’s career in the French navy had ended.

    A local family named Hill took in the nearly dead French lieutenant. He recovered sufficiently by September 1751 to marry their daughter Priscilla...

  5. CHAPTER 2 “You knew the French Republic were at war”
    (pp. 17-27)

    Captain John Barry came aboard theUnited Statesat New Castle, Delaware, on the afternoon of July 4, 1798. Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert wanted Barry to cruise between Cape Henry and Nantucket to protect American merchant ships and, if necessary, “to defend this Extent of Coast against the Depredations of the Vessels . . . from the French Republic.”¹ Stoddert would be disappointed in Barry’s cruise. TheUnited Statesdid not stay long at sea and did not attack any French ships. But the cruise began Stephen Decatur’s lifetime in the navy.

    Barry had taken great care in...

  6. CHAPTER 3 “Those Yankees will never stand the smell of powder”
    (pp. 28-38)

    Lieutenant Decatur may have asked himself why he had so eagerly studied the arts of war and command. For years Thomas Jefferson’s party had criticized the navy as a wasteful extravagance, and now the Republicans were determined to cut the federal deficit. They would dismantle and store the frigates and discharge most of the officers and men. Although Decatur would remain in the service, he must have wondered what role this smaller navy would have under the new administration.

    Jefferson soon learned that he needed a navy after all. News came from the Mediterranean that Tripoli was threatening American merchant...

  7. CHAPTER 4 “If it had not been for the Capture of the Philadelphia”
    (pp. 39-46)

    When theChesapeakereached Washington at the end of May 1803, Decatur was ordered to Boston to oversee construction of the sixteen-gun brigArgus. He was to complete the task quickly, enlist a crew of seventy men, and sail to the Mediterranean. There he would deliver theArgusto Isaac Hull and take command of Hull’s schooner, theEnterprise. It would be Decatur’s first command.

    First, though, Secretary Smith, recognizing that Decatur had been “almost constantly in service” for five years, allowed him to spend two weeks “with your friends in Phila.” before proceeding to Boston.¹ Over the five years...

  8. CHAPTER 5 “The great smoke cloud spreads its wings”
    (pp. 47-54)

    An hour after he received Preble’s written orders, Decatur and his men were sailing for Tripoli aboard theIntrepid; Charles Stewart escorted them in theSiren. The men left behind in Syracuse knew only that the two ships were “bound on some Secret Expedition,” though Midshipman Ralph Izard wrote his mother that “I am in hopes we shall have the happiness of seeing the Philadelphia in flames.” All things considered, Izard would have preferred to be “a Soldier in these times in Louisana,” where “there is a chance for distinguishing one’s self” in an anticipated war against Spain. Little did...

  9. CHAPTER 6 “I find hand to hand is not child’s play”
    (pp. 55-65)

    The new hero would have little time to rest on earned laurels. Preble had only a few men, and he needed to use them effectively. The day after Decatur returned to Syracuse, Preble ordered him to sail for Messina to oversee theEnterprise’s refitting. “It is expected that not a moment of time will be lost,” Preble warned, as “in the latter part of March I shall sail with the Squadron on an important expedition, where I shall want your services.” Preble also warned Decatur to stay within a budget: “You are not to expend any money in Ornamenting the...

  10. CHAPTER 7 “The character of a great and rising nation”
    (pp. 66-74)

    Preble and the men under him were now determined to win the war before his replacement arrived. “The officers here are all very anxious that a peace shoud be made before the arrival of Commodore Barron,”John Adamspurser John Darby wrote in his journal, “that Commodore Preble may have the credit of it.” The officers and men of theJohn Adamswere “opposed to it and we are praying for his [Barron’s] arrival before a peace.” They were particularly shocked at how the men of Preble’s fleet, battle-hardened after a week of bloody fighting, “ seem to talk of...

  11. CHAPTER 8 “I neglected the opportunities of improvement”
    (pp. 75-83)

    Alhough two honorary swords presented by Congress awaited him in Philadelphia, and newspapers sang the praises of the “gallant Decatur,” the young captain was not sure he had earned the adulation. He had seen his brother die, had watched Somers and his men sail off to glory, never to return. He had risen to the top, but he could not be certain that the Jefferson administration—long opposed to naval expansion—would maintain the fleet now that the war was over. Would there continue to be a U.S. Navy in which men like Decatur could rise? He had achieved all...

  12. CHAPTER 9 “Give us a man to lead us to glory”
    (pp. 84-92)

    The gunboats were impractical for defense, but the irregular chain of command could be an advantage. When Sinclair returned to Norfolk, he opened a “recruiting Service at this Place” to enlist men for the frigateChesapeake, being fitted out in Washington as part of James Barron’s Mediterranean squadron. The British consul in Norfolk informed Decatur in March 1807 that Sinclair had enlisted four deserters from the Royal Navy, and requested that Decatur return the men. Decatur referred the consul to Lieutenant Sinclair, who was acting not under Decatur’s orders but “under the immediate Orders of the Navy Department.”¹

    These four...

  13. CHAPTER 10 “I cannot suffer men to be taken from me by force”
    (pp. 93-103)

    Decatur set to work restoring discipline and order on the ship. He had two men court-martialed, “one for desertion, the other for mutinous & seditious expressions, & insolence to his officers,” in order, he told Secretary Smith, “that proper punishment will check those evils, which otherwise may become serious.”¹ When he had first stepped aboard theChesapeake, he found Midshipman William Sim under arrest for “ungentlemanly conduct.” Decatur freed Sim, thinking that with war imminent “I should have immediate use for all the officers.” But Sim “unfortunately drinks hard,” and fearing that “his example will be injurious to the younger...

  14. CHAPTER 11 “No ship has better men than she now has”
    (pp. 104-109)

    The embargo expired when Jefferson left office. President Madison did not renew it. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin and Navy Secretary Smith (who now became secretary of state) had opposed the embargo but had been required to enforce it. The embargo had failed to end the troubles with either England or France. Although the United States was at peace in 1809, the rest of the world continued to be at war.

    Decatur took advantage of his long peacetime cruises to continue his exploration of the natural world. He sent back to Philadelphia samples of marine life collected off the Atlantic coast,...

  15. CHAPTER 12 “Aim at the yellow streak”
    (pp. 110-120)

    Decatur and his fine new crew sailed theUnited Statesto Norfolk, where they would spend the winter replacing the ship’s copper. As commander of the navy’s southern squadron, Decatur now had two frigates—theUnited StatesandCongress—under his command, along with the sloopWasp, the brigNautilus, and of course the gunboats. Gunboats aside, the U.S. Navy had fifteen ships in the water: five frigates, four schooners, three brigs, and three sloops. At this moment eighty of the Royal Navy’s five hundred ships were cruising off the American coast and in the Caribbean. A war between the...

  16. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  17. CHAPTER 13 “The trophies won by the Athenians”
    (pp. 121-128)

    While Decatur was laying his laurels at Susan’s feet, Lieutenant Archibald Hamilton continued on to Washington. Hamilton left New London on Friday, December 4, and reached the capital on Tuesday, December 8.

    His timing could not have been better. That night at Tomlinson’s Hotel on Capitol Hill, all of Washington society would gather to honor the nation’s naval heroes.¹ Isaac Hull, Charles Stewart, and Charles Morris were all in town, as was Jacob Jones, captain of theWasp, which had defeated theFrolic. Stewart had hosted a celebration on board theConstellation, moored in the Potomac. President and Mrs. Madison...

  18. CHAPTER 14 “A caged eagle”
    (pp. 129-137)

    During these happy weeks in New York, Decatur also came to know Robert Fulton. Fulton took advantage of the fact that John Rodgers was at sea, and Isaac Chauncey on the Great Lakes, to present his ideas again to the navy, this time in the person of Stephen Decatur.

    Rodgers had regarded Fulton as a madman; Decatur thought he was a genius. Fulton explained why his invention had failed in the 1810 trials and what he had done to correct its defects. Chauncey and James Lawrence had hung underwater netting beneath theArgus’s hull, which easily deflected Fulton’s torpedoes. Fulton...

  19. CHAPTER 15 “To die well”
    (pp. 138-144)

    Susan stayed at Mrs. Bradish’s New York boardinghouse while Stephen was bottled up in New London. She had had no reason to leave the city with him when he first sailed, expecting that he would be at sea for months. When it became apparent that he would not get his ships out of the Thames, he insisted that she remain in New York, much as he wanted her with him. Since there were “more persons in the world disposed to find fault than to approve, it might be said, if he had his family with him, that he did not...

  20. CHAPTER 16 “Every sword should be prepared”
    (pp. 145-151)

    With the squadron out of immediate danger, Jones and his men left for Sackett’s Harbor on Lake Ontario, Biddle waited for a chance to get theHornetto sea, and Decatur went to New York. Stephen was relieved to be back with Susan, in a city where he and the navy had friends, and to have a chance to sail again. He would take command of thePresident, re-copper the bottom, replace the masts, and enlist a crew.

    The term of the fine crew signed aboard in 1811 expired in 1813. After bringing theMacedoniansafely across the ocean, they...

  21. CHAPTER 17 “Let us go down like men”
    (pp. 152-159)

    With New York spared from a British invasion, Decatur prepared to take the war to sea. He suggested to the secretary of the navy that he lead a small squadron to attack British trade in the Mediterranean or in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. Decatur preferred the second plan, which followed the route and strategy Edward Preble had used fifteen years earlier in the French war, taking a squadron around the Cape of Good Hope, prowling against British ships off Bengal, Sumatra, and the Malacca Straits.

    How to provision a fleet so far from home? Fighting ships needed...

  22. CHAPTER 18 “Emerging from the cloud”
    (pp. 160-168)

    The celebrations in New London and New York were a painful reminder to Decatur that he had not returned home a hero. Hoping to clear his name, he requested that Secretary Crowninshield call a court of inquiry into thePresident’s surrender. British officers, eager to clear their own wounded reputations, were spreading an “infamous statement published in Bermuda” thatEndymionalone had captured thePresident. Decatur wanted the truth established. He also requested that Crowninshield grant him “an active & conspicuous employment” as a way to prove “in Europe . . . that my statement had been satisfactory to my...

  23. CHAPTER 19 “Without the assistance of Bainbridge”
    (pp. 169-176)

    After a brief visit to Italy, Decatur sailed on to Tunis. That regency was at peace with the United States, but during the war it had allowed the English to take from its neutral port two British merchants ships captured by an American. The privateerAbaellinohad sent the prizes to Tunis knowing that Tunis was bound by treaty to protect them. The British warshipLyrahappened to be there when the ships arrived. Under international law, this should not have mattered. But theLyra’s captain put his own prize crew aboard the vessels and sent them to Malta.


  24. CHAPTER 20 “Honor to the Name of Commodore Decatur”
    (pp. 177-185)

    “We have not titles or stars to reward you,” theRichmond Enquirerapologized in an editorial addressed to Decatur. “We have no Garters to adorn you, no lordly-sounding names, or munificent pensions to bestow” on the “hero, who returns covered with glory, only to share it with his countrymen.” Decatur had been summoned to war “by justice and not by ambition,” not to “make conquests, but to set the captive free” and to deliver his country from being a tributary to Algiers. On the Barbary Coast he had “revived the terror of the American Nation” among the Algerians “and compelled...

  25. CHAPTER 21 “You will have to pass over my dead body”
    (pp. 186-199)

    Now a public hero, Decatur had already considered his future role in the American service. Even before sailing for the Mediterranean, he had written to Secretary Crowninshield that on his return he “should be glad to have some situation on shore,” deferring to his wife’s wishes. Having experienced the climates, political and otherwise, in New England and in Norfolk, his preference now was to be stationed “in the middle states any where between Washington & New York (should a vacancy occur).” New York, Philadelphia, or Washington would be “more congenial to my health than an Eastern or a Southern station.”¹...

  26. CHAPTER 22 “A duty I owe to the service”
    (pp. 200-211)

    The navy’s effectiveness as a fighting force and the public’s faith in its integrity depended on the good character of its officers. Decatur had advised Secretary Crowninshield to publish court-martial verdicts and other reprimands of officers, “else an innocent man might be supposed to have been guilty, & guilt . . . supposed to be innocent.”¹ The public relied on these men and had a right to know their character. The public also had a right to expect that incompetent officers would not be tolerated in the service. And so it was with some alarm that the commissioners learned James...

  27. CHAPTER 23 “I never was your enemy, sir”
    (pp. 212-215)

    Susan was still asleep when Stephen left the house on the clear cold morning of March 22. He did not wake their guests—her father, their nieces—as he slipped out the door. He walked briskly across President’s Park, past the White House, then quickly up Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill. At Beale’s Hotel, Bainbridge and navy purser Samuel Hambleton met him. Hambleton would recall Decatur’s animation and appetite as the three men ate a large breakfast. Decatur reminded them that he had brought his will for them to witness, but during their conversation he forgot all about it. After...

  28. Afterword
    (pp. 216-222)

    The two surviving navy commissioners reconvened on Saturday, March 25. Their only business was to cancel the board’s subscription toNiles Weekly Register. Rodgers and Porter found that morning’s account of “the late unhappy occurrence near this city” to be “so destitute of even the color of truth that the confidence hitherto felt” in theRegister’s veracity “no longer exists.”¹ In his account of the duel Hezekiah Niles falsely reported that Barron had “recently claimed the command of the Columbus 74, as the senior of com. Bainbridge, which claim was resisted by all the navy board,” particularly Decatur.² This made...

  29. NOTES
    (pp. 223-244)
    (pp. 245-246)
  31. INDEX
    (pp. 247-254)
  32. Back Matter
    (pp. 255-256)