Property of His Country: Stephen Decatur Jr.

Stephen Decatur Jr. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Stephen Decatur Jr. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

On 5 January 1779 Stephen Decatur Jr. was born to Stephen Sr. and Ann (Pine) Decatur in Berlin, Maryland. Stephen Sr. was a merchant mariner who had been a Patriot during the American Revolution. His father before him had also been a sailor. Given this it would seem likely that Stephen Jr. too would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. But no. Stephen Sr. and Ann wanted young Stephen to enter the ministry and saw that he received proper schooling. Stephen Jr. wasn’t enthralled with the studying that came with this and after a year in college left for the sea. At 19 years old Stephen Jr. was appointed midshipman aboard the USS United States. Although they disapproved, his parents didn’t hold Stephen Jr. back.  Stephen Sr. would later state that the Decatur children were the property of their country.

While serving aboard the United States, Decatur met Third Lieutenant James Barron. This was an important acquaintance which would have grave consequences on both men’s lives in much later years.  Up until the time Decatur married, Barron acted as surrogate father to Decatur. But just prior to Decatur’s marriage Barron said a few things that Decatur took offense at, destroying their friendship. Overtime a conglomeration of things would lead both into dire straits.

In 1799 Decatur was recommended for promotion to lieutenant and that same year received the promotion. At this time the United States was being repaired and Decatur was instructed to recruit a crew. His recruiting led a merchant mariner to insult Decatur’s “honor” since Decatur had allegedly taken men away from merchant ships in his recruiting efforts. Decatur challenged the man to a duel. Suffice it to say, neither man was killed in the duel and they went along on their merry way. It wouldn’t be the last duel Decatur would be involved in. Another time while in Malta Decatur was acting as a friend’s second when he ran into trouble with British authorities. Decatur was promptly sent back to the States.

Part of the First Barbary War saw Decatur given command of the USS Enterprise. It was aboard this ship Decatur and the USS Constitution met up with the Mastico, an enemy vessel. Decatur and his men were able to overpower the Mastico’s crew and capture the vessel. On 3 August 1804 Decatur was involved in hand-to-hand combat between American sailors and Tripolitans. During this battle Decatur’s younger brother, James, was mortally wounded while attempting to board an enemy vessel (he would later die aboard the Constitution). When Decatur heard the news of his brother he was incensed. He headed for the vessel and boarded, locating the captain who had killed James. After a struggle with the much larger man Decatur killed the captain. While they were fighting Decatur’s own life would have been snuffed out had it not been for the sacrifice of a fellow crewman. As a Tripolitan attempted to kill Decatur Daniel Frazier stepped in and took the blow. In the end the Decatur and his crew were the victors in this fight. Decatur sustained wounds, but they were not life threatening.

In 1805 Decatur met  Susan Wheeler. In preparation for his upcoming marriage to the cultured and well-learned Susan, Decatur began brushing up on his education. They were married on 8 March 1806 in Norfolk, Virginia. While Decatur was often away at sea their marriage was apparently a happy one. That’s not to say there was a strain on Susan. At one point she went so far as to contact the Secretary of Navy about not allowing Decatur to go on a certain mission. At that time she had just endured a difficult period not knowing what had happened to Decatur or how he was doing. In 1808 Stephen Sr. died, followed by Ann in 1809.

Macedonian and United States (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Decatur kept plenty busy during the War of 1812. In late October 1812 Decatur was in command of the United States when he met up with the HBM Macedonian under John Carden. The United States bombarded the Macedonian with fury so that the British ship suffered numerous casualties. American casualties were far less severe although Decatur received a chest injury which would take some time to recover from. At the time, though, he brushed the wound away and went back to fighting. Eventually Carden was forced to admit surrender. When he went to surrender his sword to Decatur, Decatur refused it because he admired Carden’s bravery. The ship was taken as a prize and in all $200,000 in prize money was awarded to the crew of the United States for the capture of the Macedonian.

It was Decatur’s misfortune to find himself back in the States when the British had set up a blockade. In 1815 while trying to breakout on the USS President (with Decatur in command) ran into four British warships. Not up to any battle as he had sustained damage in a grounding the night before, Decatur attempted to outrun the ships. Decatur had ordered some things thrown overboard to lighten the load, but to no avail. The HMS Endymion easily caught up with the fleeing vessel. After a fight Decatur at last surrendered. But then a last ditch effort was made by Decatur to escape with the President but the HMS Pomone caught up. Decatur finally surrendered aboard the HMS Majestic and he and his crew were taken prisoner

Decatur was later paroled, returning home when the war ended. He saw further action in the Second Barbary War before settling in for a shore-based life. His fame had grown and Decatur had become a well-known public figure—something he relished. He hadn’t quit the navy but was now part of the Board of Navy Commissioners. It was in 1816 during a dinner party that Decatur coined his immortal words, which has been somewhat condensed over time, “Our country—in her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right, but always successful, right or wrong”.

Decatur House (Courtesy Library of Congress

Decatur and Susan led an active social life in Washington D. C. Decatur continued to work at becoming more cultured while dealing with navy problems. Unfortunately he hadn’t much longer to live. James Barron, recently returned to the States, decided to look up his old shipmate. Since their bygone days aboard the United States, Barron had met with some disgrace, going through a court-martial which Decatur had a hand in. Now Decatur was still proving a problem for the older commodore. What to do, what to do…Why duel, of course! On 22 March 1820 the two men met on the field of honor in Bladensburg, Maryland. Other men were present (Decatur had not told Susan of the impending duel) to witness the duel. When the shots were fired both men lay wounded. Barron would survive, however Decatur was mortally wounded. He was taken to his home where suffered for hours before expiring. Stephen Decatur Jr., who had spent nearly a lifetime in the service of the United States, was dead.

Source: Guttridge, Leonard F. Our Country Right or Wrong: The Life of Stephen Decatur.

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31 thoughts on “Property of His Country: Stephen Decatur Jr.

    • To modern eyes (and no doubt to some of Decatur’s contemporaries), yes, dueling was a very foolish way of settling arguments. I’ve never been able to see the sense of it. Thank you for your comment.

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    • Yes, it was, wasn’t it? I doubt either of them could have imagined/accepted that is how Decatur’s life would end if they had been told so while they were serving together on the USS United States.

      Thank you for your kind comment, Catherine.

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  1. I agree that Decatur’s whole life was dramatic! One duel after another, one war after another, one ship after another. I can’t imagine that an “active social life” would have kept him stimulated enough to find contentment in retirement.

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    • Now that you bring it up, I think you’re right! So had he lived I wonder if Decatur would have eventually found himself back at sea…

      Thank your for your comment, Laurie!

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  2. Fascinating! You bring history to life with the most important stories of their lives. I love the way you gave us some clues that wasn’t going to live much longer, yet even so, I wouldn’t have guessed. I bet he did have an active social life. I’m sure he had great stories to tell, and would have been the welcome guest at any dinner party. 🙂 Thanks JG 🙂 Marsha 🙂

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    • Hello, Marsha, thank you for your kind comment. 🙂

      Yes wouldn’t you have loved to have been a fly on the wall (that sounds real elegant, haha) during his many adventures? It makes a person wish that audio recording was available in much earlier years so we could hear, straight from the horse’s mouth, the great stories of people like Decatur.

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  3. Another natural-born rambler and adventurer; there used to be so many in the world! They seem a rare type these days. (And poor Bladensburg, to go down in history as a the favored dueling ground in the U.S.)

    A little bit of trivia: Decatur Island in Puget Sound (near where I live) was named for Stephen, Jr., in 1841 by a U.S. surveying expedition.

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    • Rare, indeed (although you do occasionally here of modern day type personalities). It must’ve been a very exciting life for Decatur. I can only imagine all of the unrecorded events in his life that took place (he wasn’t fond of writing letters; I think this may have troubled his wife somewhat) . Thanks for the “trivia” I didn’t know about that! 🙂

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  4. James Tertius deKay’s biography of Decatur, “A Rage for Glory,” is a wonderful read. I particularly like the sections dealing with the long-simmering antagonisms that led to the duel and his wonderfully detailed account of the duel itself.
    (I liked his book about the Macedonian, too.)
    Best wishes,
    Susan

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    • Hello, Susan. Will have to see if I can get this book—the description sounds interesting. I got the impression “Our Country Right or Wrong” by Leonard Guttridge was written for people who already knew something of Decatur (which I didn’t), so it was a little difficult for me to concentrate on. Thank you for your comment!

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    • I don’t know much about ships, so I really like Tertius de Kay’s writing. He is very good at explaining everything about how they were built and were organized, yet his prose is very easy to read.
      May you flourish in your work, and your burdens be light.
      Susan

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    • Good prose is always helpful. Cut-and-dried stuff is alright sometimes, but for the most part it can put a person to sleep.

      Thank you, mirroring that right back to you! 🙂

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