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Stephen Decatur

1779-1820

In the WAR OF 1812, Decatur captured the British frigate Macedonian.

 
Copyright© 2000 by VirtualologyTM

DECATUR, Stephen, naval officer, born in Newport, R. 1., in 1751; died in Frankford, near Philadelphia, 14 November, 1808. His father was a native of Rochelle, in France, and an officer in the French navy, who had immigrated to the United States, and married an American lady. Stephen was captain of a merchantman at an early age, and during the Revolution commanded the privateers "Royal Louis" and "Fair American," gaining distinction by the capture of English vessels. He was appointed post captain in the navy on 11 May, 1798, at the beginning of hostilities with France, mid in the "Delaware," twenty guns, cruised on the American coast and in the West Indies, and captured the French privateers "Le Croyable" and "Marsuin." He commanded a squadron of thirteen vessels on the Guadeloupe station in 1800, and after his discharge from the service, under the peace establishment of 1801, engaged in business in Philadelphia.  

His son, Stephen Decatur, naval officer, born in Sinnepuxent, Maryland, 5 January 1779; died near Bladensburg, Maryland, 22 March, 1820. He made a voyage with his father in 1787. At the age of seventeen he was employed by Messrs. Gurney and Smith, of Philadelphia (who were agents for the navy), and went to New Jersey to superintend the getting out of the keel pieces for the frigate "United States," m which ship he was launched, and which he successfully commanded in the war of 1812'5. Through the aid of Commander Barry, he obtained a warrant as midshipman, dated 30 April, 1798, and was placed on board the frigate " United States." He was at that time nineteen years of age, well informed" for his age, chivalrous in temper, courteous in his deportment, and adding grace of manner to an attractive person. While attached to the frigate "United States" under Com. Barry, Decatur cruised in the West Indies, capturing several French privateers that were preying upon American Commerce. He labored hard to make himself master of his profession. On one occasion the " United States" chased the French privateer "L'Amour de la Patrie," of six guns, which vessel, in attempting to escape, received a twenty-four pound shot at her waterline from the "United States." She at once shortened sail and surrendered, and Decatur was sent in a boat to take possession. When he got alongside, "L'Amour de la Pattie" was sinking fast, and the crew, stripped of their clothing, were assembled at the side, begging to be taken into the boat. As it was impossible to take on board sixty men, Decatur ordered the French captain to put his helm up and run down to the frigate as the only chance of saving the crew. This was done, and though the vessel sank when within fifty yards of the " United States," the crew was saved to a man.  

In a short time Decatur became a good officer and an excellent sailor. A contemporary said he was a man of an age, an officer of uncommon character and rare promise, one not equaled in a million. Just at the time this remark was made, the cry "Man overboard!" resounded through the ship, and boats were called away. Without hesitation, Decatur sprang from the mizzen chains, and in a few moments his muscular arms were holding the drowning man above the waves, which he continued till the boats reached the spot, when he passed the nearly dying youth into one of them, and then climbed in himself. It is of such men that heroes are made, and the one Decatur saved, while himself gaining celebrity, lived to see his preserver attain a fame unsurpassed by that of any officer of his time in the American navy. In 1799 Decatur was commissioned lieutenant. He sailed again with Com. Barry when he conveyed the commissioners to France. On the return of the " United States" she was laid up for thorough repairs. Decatur obtained orders to the "Norfolk," of eighteen guns, Commander Thomas Calvert, but in September, 1800, again joined his old ship the " United States." When the French war was ended, and the treaty of peace between France and the United States had been ratified by the senate on 3 February, 1801, and promulgated by the president, congress passed a law directing the sale of the whole navy except six ships, and discharging from the service all but nine of the twenty-eight captains, all of the commanders, and all but thirty-six of the one hundred and ten lieutenants. Stephen Decatur was one of those selected to remain in the navy. His brother James also remained as a midshipman, while the gallant commander (the elder Decatur) resigned his commission and returned to private life.  

The discharge of the officers and crews was no sooner effected than the pacha of Tripoli, though the United States paid him yearly tribute most faithfully and shamefully, felt slighted because our government had presented a fine frigate to the dey of Algiers, and had sent him none; and also because one of the ministers of the bay of Tunis had received $40,000 from the United States, whereas he (the paeha) had received but little more. On 10 May, 1801, the impudent pacha declared war against the United States, cut down the American flagstaff, and began hostilities against the American merchant marine, at that time totally unprotected. A squadron of four vessels, under the command of Com. Richard Dale, was fitted out, and Decatur joined the "Essex," one of the squadron, being selected by Captain Bainbridge to fill the important place of first lieutenant when he had been but three years in the navy. After performing effective service in restraining the Barbary powers from molesting American vessels, and convoying American Merchantmen safely into the Atlantic, the "Essex" sailed for New York on 17 June, 1802, reaching that port on 22 July. Decatur joined there the frigate " New York," Captain James Barron, and sailed again for the Mediterranean. He was transferred to the command of the "Norfolk," of eighteen guns, and afterward to the schooner "Enterprise," of twelve guns, under Com. Preble. The latter, hearing of the loss of the "Philadelphia" off Tripoli by striking on a reef, sailed in the frigate "Constitution" for that place, taking Decatur with him.  

On 23 Dec. Decatur captured the ketch "Mastico" off Tripoli, which vessel was named the "intrepid," and afterward was used to destroy the "Philadelphia," then moored under the guns of Tripoli, the Tripolitans having succeeded in getting her afloat and taking her into the harbor. Decatur volunteered for this service, left Syracuse in midwinter, and arrived off Tripoli, 16 February 1804, and, with a picked crew of officers and men, stood into the harbor, boarded the "Philadelphia," and carried her. Then the order was given to set fire to her, and in ten minutes she was ablaze. Decatur and his crew escaped to the "Intrepid," and made their way out of the harbor amid the rapid firing and falling shot of 141 guns. The "Philadelphia" was totally destroyed. Admiral Nelson pronounced this "the most daring act of the age." In the subsequent attack on Tripoli, Decatur took charge of a division, and greatly distinguished himself in taking vengeance on the Tripolitans for the death of his brother James. He received his commission as captain, in reward for his gallant services in destroying, the "Philadelphia," on 22 May, 1804. He served at Tripoli during the war, and in September was appointed by Preble to the command of the "Constitution," from which he was afterward transferred to the frigate "Congress." Peace between Tripoli and the United States having been concluded, 3 June, 1805,  

Decatur returned home, laid up the "Congress," and was received most enthusiastically throughout the country. In February, 1808, he was appointed a member of the court martial that tried Com. James Barron for surrendering the "Chesapeake" to the British man-of-war "Leopard." Decatur was next appointed to command the "Chesapeake." This was during the time that the embargo was laid on British commerce. He was afterward ordered to the frigate " United States," in which ship, in 1810, he hoisted his broad pennant as commodore of the southern station. He held this command when war began between England and the United States in 1812. Putting to sea, he soon fell in with the British frigate "3Iacedonian," which he captured after a short, sharp action, in which the enemy's ship was completely dismasted and much cut to pieces. Jury masts were rigged, and the "Macedonian" brought safely into port. In the spring of 1814 Decatur took command of the frigate " President" and a squadron consisting of the "Peacock," the "Hornet," and the store ship" Tom Bowline."  

He left his squadron in New York to escape the British blockade ; but, having grounded m going to sea and injured his vessel, he decided to return to port for repairs, but fell in with four British frigates, to which the " President " was obliged to surrender after a most obstinate resistance, which one frigate, the "Endymion," was so cut up as to be obliged to haul out (or she drifted out) of action. The "President " was not surrendered until she was surrounded by the three other frigatesthe" Majestic," the "Pomone," and the "Tenedos" and when her decks had the appearance of a slaughterhouse. She had twenty-five killed and sixty wounde done quarter of her crew. While the war of 1812 was in progress, the day of Algiers began to capture American merchantmen; and, when peace was established, the United States fitted out two squadrons to punish Algiers for her treachery and the violation of her treaty. Decatur was given the command of one squadron and Bainbridge of the other.  

On Decatur's arrival in the Mediterranean, he captured the Algerine frigate "Mashouda," forty-six guns, flagship of Admiral Rais Hammida, after a brave resistance. He also captured, subsequently, the Algerine brig of war "Estedio." He arrived off Algiers on 28 June, 1815, where peace was concluded on terms very favorable to the United States. It was stipulated that the United States should never pay tribute to the dey of Algiers, and all Christian captives were to be released. This treaty and the demands of Decatur gave the deathblow to that cruel system which for centuries, to the shame of Christendom, had elevated the Barbary powers into baneful importance. Decatur next went to Tunis and demanded indemnity from the bey for violating treaty stipulations, which demand was conceded. He then made a similar demand on the pacha of Tripoli, and for the release of Neapolitan and Danish prisoners, all of which was granted, thus ending forever the pretensions of the Barbary powers.  

For this Decatur received the thanks of all Europe; and, on the assembling Of congress in December, 1815, President Madison began his message with a high eulogium upon his success against the Barbary states. Decatur arrived in Washington in January, 1816, and was appointed navy commissioner with Commodores Rodgers and Porter, in which office he gave all his zeal, skill, and experience in building up the young navy of the republic. While attached to the board of navy commissioners Decatur made some remarks of a censorious nature against Com. Barron, which the latter objected to, and which Decatur refused to retract, though he disclaimed any intention to be insulting. A long correspondence ensued, in which Decatur did all that an honorable man could do to remove unfavorable impressions from Com. Barron's mind, but nevertheless the latter challenged Decatur. The meeting occurred at Bladensburg, 22 March, 1820, Captain Elliott being Barton's second, and Com. Bainbridge Decatur's. When the word "fire" was given, Barron fell, wounded in the hip, where Decatur said he would shoot him. Decatur was shot in the abdomen, and fell soon after Barren. He was taken to his home, where he died that night. No man was ever more regretted by the country than this heroic officer, to whom the highest honors were accorded, and he was followed to his grave by the largest concourse of people public and private that had ever assembled in Washington City. 

His younger brother, James Decatur, entered the navy as midshipman, 21 November, 1798, and was promoted to be lieutenant, 20 April, 1802. In the attack of 3 August,  1804, on the Tripolitans, he commanded one of the American gunboats, and was instantly killed by a musketball while attempting to board one of the enemy's vessels.   -- Edited A. C. American Biography Copyright© 2000 by VirtualologyTM

 

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