Stephen Decatur

The American naval officer Stephen Decatur (1779-1820) is best known for his daring exploits in the Tripolitan War and as a successful commander in the War of 1812.

Stephen Decatur was born on Jan. 5, 1779, at Sinepuxent, Md. He studied at the Episcopal Academy and then at the University of Pennsylvania. After working briefly in Philadelphia, Decatur accepted a midshipman's commission at the outset of the naval war with France (1798-1800). He won quick promotion to lieutenant in May 1799.

Decatur saw action in the war with Tripoli and, under Commodore Edward Preble, commanded the 12-gun schooner Enterprise. On Feb. 16, 1804, Decatur led the daring evening expedition that destroyed the captured frigate Philadelphiain the Tripoli harbor. He was quickly promoted to captain, and as such he commanded a division of gunboats in each of Preble's bombardments of Tripoli. In the first attack, on August 3, Decatur and his crew boarded and captured two Tripolitan gunboats; such feats made Decatur the most dashing figure of the war.

In 1806 Decatur married Susan Wheeler, daughter of a wealthy Virginia merchant. Two years later he was made commander of the southeastern naval forces. He also sat on the court-martial board in 1808 that suspended Capt. James Barron after the Chesapeake-Leopard affair. In 1811 he served as president of the court of inquiry following the President-Little-Belt affair.

In the War of 1812 Decatur was in command when the United States scored a victory over the British frigate Macedonian on Oct. 25, 1812, near Madeira off the Moroccan coast. When the United States was blockaded in New London, Conn., in 1814, Decatur and his crew were transferred to the President. In a violent storm on the night of Jan. 14, 1815, the President tried to run the British blockade but was grounded on a sandbar for 2 hours and somewhat damaged; the next morning it was sighted by the blockading fleet. After a lengthy chase and moderate casualties suffered in a brisk fight with the Endymion, the American ship surrendered. A court of inquiry credited Decatur's capture to un-foreseeable ship damage and praised him highly.

Following the War of 1812, Decatur led an expedition to the Mediterranean that successfully exacted payment from Algiers for damages inflicted on Americans during the war by the Barbary pirates. Fetes and dinners followed his return. Decatur gave the much-repeated patriotic response to one toast: "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong." From 1815 until his death Decatur served on the Board of Navy Commissioners. He died on March 22, 1820, in a duel near Bladensburg, Md., with Capt. James Barron, who held Decatur responsible for his own failure to be reinstated to command. First buried near Washington, D.C., Decatur's remains were transferred in 1846 to St. Peter's Churchyard, Philadelphia, beside his parents' grave.

Further Reading on Stephen Decatur

A competent biography is Charles Lee Lewis, The Romantic Decatur (1937). The source materials for Decatur's participation in the Barbary Wars are available in Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers (7 vols., 1939-1944). A critical evaluation of Decatur's participation in the War of 1812 is Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812 (2 vols., 1905).