Captain Stephen Decatur, USN (1779-1820) – Oil on wood by John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840). Painting in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection. Transferred from the U.S. Naval Lyceum, 1892. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.
An American naval hero killed in a senseless duel
Walk through St. Peter’s Churchyard at 3rd and Pine Street and look for the tallest monument. You’ll see a large gray fluted column some 20 ft. high, topped by an eagle. The name Stephen Decatur appears below.
Who was this, you wonder? It turns out that he was an extraordinary man – who captivated the country with his courageous naval feats.
He was a hero Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson reportedly praised for “the most bold and daring act of his age.” A man whose untimely death attracted over 10,000 people to his funeral, including President James Monroe, former President James Madison and most of the members of Congress and the Supreme Court.
And a man who stupidly died in a duel defending his honor … an act that was all-too-common among his fellow naval officers.
How prevalent was the practice? Ross Drake in Smithsonian Magazine says, “Between 1798 and the Civil War, the Navy lost two-thirds as many officers to dueling as it did to more than 60 years of combat at sea.”
With Decatur’s untimely death in a duel against a fellow officer, the country may well have lost a future president of the U.S., says Vice Admiral Ted Carter, Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.
The country also lost one of its most heroic warriors. In 1804, during the First Barbary War, Decatur earned the admiration of the country after completing a daring, highly publicized mission. He and a crew of about 70 volunteers boarded the damaged frigate USS Philadelphia in Tripoli Harbor several months after it ran aground there. The Americans killed the men aboard and set the ship ablaze, so it could not be used by the Barbary pirates.
Soon after, Decatur and his men chased down a Barbary pirate caption who killed Stephen’s younger brother James – after pretending to surrender. Although his crew was reportedly outnumbered five to one, Decatur boarded the ship, fought the captain hand-to-hand, and eventually shot him dead to avenge his brother.
In May 1815, during the Second Barbary War, Decatur was ordered by President Madison to attack Algeria and stop the practice of paying tribute to pirates once and for all.
In quick order, Decatur and his men captured several ships, including the flagship of the Algerian fleet, killing its leader. Using gunboat diplomacy – or a conspicuous display of power – Decatur quickly got peace agreements with Algeria, then Tunis and Tripoli, earning him the name “The Conqueror of the Barbary Pirates.”
- Decatur is often cited incorrectly for the quote, “My country right or wrong.” What he actually said during an after-dinner toast in 1816, was: “Our country – In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; and always successful, right or wrong.”
- During the War of 1812, Decatur captured the HMS Macedonian and had it taken to Newport, R.I. It was the first British warship ever brought into an American port as a prize of war.
- Decatur wisely invested reward money from the capture of the Macedonian in real estate and a home near the White House designed to be “fit for entertaining.” The Federal-style town house, by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of the first formally trained architects in the U.S., is now a U.S. National Historical Landmark.
At age 41, with the promise of great years ahead, Decatur lost his life in a senseless duel. What a waste!
Name: Stephen Decatur
Born: January 5, 1779
Died: March 22, 1820 in a duel
Buried: St. Peter’s Churchyard
Claim to Fame: Extraordinary military career and youngest man ever promoted to the rank of Captain in the U.S. Navy at age 25.
Number of Towns Named after Him: At least 48, plus 7 counties and 5 naval ships
Historic Marker Location: 600 block of S. Front Street (east side, about one-half block below South Street)