Hero of the High Seas

Conflict: War of 1812

Stephen Decatur’s capture of a Tripolitan gunboat in 1804 (artwork by F.O. Darley)

Stephen Decatur’s capture of a Tripolitan gunboat in 1804 (artwork by F.O. Darley)

Stephan Decatur just might be the most famous military hero you’ve never heard of. Born in Maryland in 1779, at age eight Decatur went on a sea voyage with his father to try to cure the boy’s whooping cough. Not only did the whooping cough go away, but Decatur also fell in love with the sea on the journey. So at nineteen, despite his mother’s protests, Decatur was commissioned a midshipman. A year later, during the Quasi-War with France, Decatur was made a lieutenant, and he served well enough to survive the Navy’s downsizing after the conflict ended.

However, it was a few years later during the First Barbary War that Decatur really made a name for himself. In February 1804, Decatur lead a group of 80 men to recapture the USS Philadelphia, which had been taken over by Barbary pirates after running aground. Decatur and his men tricked the pirates into thinking they were Maltese sailors and got close enough that they could storm the ship. In less than 10 minutes the Americans had defeated the pirates, and since the ship was too damaged to refloat, Decatur had it set on fire. Decatur’s bold actions made him immediately famous back home, and in recognition of Decatur’s actions, he was made captain not too long after, becoming, at 25, the youngest with that rank.

Stephen Decatur (portrait by John Wesley Jarvis)

Stephen Decatur (portrait by John Wesley Jarvis)

After the Barbary War, Decatur oversaw the building of some gunboats back in the U.S. and also commanded ships patrolling the East Coast, until the War of 1812 broke out. His most famous action during this war was when his ship captured the HMS Macedonian. Decatur and his crew fought so skillfully in that battle that they only had 12 casualties, compared to the 104 British ones. Unfortunately, in early 1815 his luck ran out and he was taken prisoner by the British after his ship was damaged in battle, though his imprisonment lasted less than a month and he was treated well due to his rank and fame.

Excerpt from the prize case for the Macedonian: That the said Stephen Decatur captain and commander of the said Frigate called the United States as aforesaid did in pursuance of the said state of war and of instructions from the President of the said United States […] subdue seize and take as prize of war a certain ship vessel or Frigate called the Macedonian . . .

Excerpt from the prize case for the Macedonian: “That the said Stephen Decatur captain and commander of the said Frigate called the United States as aforesaid did in pursuance of the said state of war and of instructions from the President of the said United States […] subdue seize and take as prize of war a certain ship vessel or Frigate called the Macedonian . . .”

Decatur’s heroism wasn’t over yet, however. After the end of the War of 1812, Decatur, by now a commodore, commanded the 10 ships of the U.S. Mediterranean Squadron, which sailed back to the Barbary Coast in mid-1815 to try to defeat the pirates once more. This being Stephen Decatur, it wasn’t too long until he was able to capture the pirates’ flagship and use “gunboat diplomacy” to make the dey of Algiers agree to a treaty advantageous to the United States.

Decatur returned to America as famous as ever and was asked to serve as a Navy commissioner, which he did starting in 1816. Life was good for Decatur until 1820, when a fellow naval officer, James Barron, challenged Decatur to a duel for what Barron saw as Decatur’s deliberate maligning of his reputation for the earlier Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. This wasn’t Decatur’s first duel, and in fact, duels were quite common among naval officers at the time. Nevertheless, when the two men fired their shots, both hit their targets. However, while Barron survived, Decatur’s injury to the abdomen ultimately proved fatal and he died later that night. He was only 41.

The London Times reports Decatur’s death; it mistakenly reports him killed by Commodore Barrow (instead of Barron) in New York (instead of Washington DC)

The London Times reports Decatur’s death; it mistakenly reports him killed by Commodore Barrow (instead of Barron) in New York (instead of Washington DC)

Read more about Stephen Decatur here, here, or here. Or find documents pertaining to his career and exploits on Fold3.