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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Makers of Naval Tradition

Carroll Storrs Alden
and Ralph Earle

published by
Ginn & Company, 1942

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p37  Chapter III

Stephen Decatur (1779‑1820)

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Stephen Decatur

From the painting by Sully

As the United States was completing its ninth year under the Constitution, the President and Congress awakened to the need of a navy. Our shipping, which no longer enjoyed the protection afforded to colonial merchantmen by the mother country, had been preyed upon since the acknowledgment of our independence, first by piratical states and later by revolutionary France. The trouble with the Mediterranean pirates was temporarily settled, according to the custom of the time, by treaties purchased with a large sum of money — and that when we had six frigates contracted for and at various stages of completion. The irregularities of the French, however, led to an exchange of blows. In 1798 there was established the Navy Department, for which no provision had been made when the State, Treasury, War, and Post Office departments had been created; and simultaneously the United States abrogated all treaties with France and ordered American ships of war and privateers to make prizes of all French warships, privateers, and merchantmen found on this side of the Atlantic.

Among the youth of Philadelphia who were fired by the call of the country was Stephen Decatur, Jr. His grandfather, who had been a lieutenant in the French Navy, married in Newport, Rhode Island. His father commanded a privateer in the Revolutionary War,  p38 and in the so‑called war with France, commanding the twenty‑gun sloop of war Delaware, took the first prize to our credit, Le Croyable. Before this the boy, after one year at the University of Pennsylvania, had discovered that books did not interest him as much as the sea, and urged that he might sail with his father, then commanding a merchant ship. His parents, however, strongly opposed his plan. As a compromise he entered the countinghouse of his father's agents, who were also the agents of the navy in Philadelphia. His heart was at sea; and his pastime was the construction, sparring, and rigging of miniature ships, as well as the study of mathematics and drawing. He was assigned one duty that gave him a thrill of ecstasy: the firm sent him to New Jersey to superintend getting out the keel pieces of the forty‑four-gun frigate United States. This same frigate was later to win for him his greatest victory.

Commodore John Barry, senior officer of the navy in the French War and commander of the United States, was strongly impressed by young Decatur and also understood the prejudices of the family. Without consulting any of them he obtained for the eager lad, then nineteen years old, a midshipman's warrant; and when Decatur, armed with this, again announced his desire, even his determined mother withdrew her opposition.

Decatur found on the United States several old school-fellows from Philadelphia. Charles Stewart was her fourth lieutenant, and Richard Somers was a midshipman; later Jacob Jones joined their number; all of them were destined to win distinction. While the ship was being fitted out, duty was not onerous for the new midshipman, and he employed his leisure hours in studying navigation under a former officer of the Royal  p39 Navy. This was his self-imposed Naval Academy training, and the earnestness of his study and attention to duty, both at this time and when he went to sea, were shown by the fact that in one year he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

Captain Thomas Truxtun, commanding the Constellation, won lasting honors in the French war by defeating the Insurgente and the Vengeance; but the frigate United States, though she cruised widely, never chanced to meet any of the enemy other than privateers. Decatur, looking for bigger game, was much disappointed.

Two incidents that occurred during this period are of interest as showing the character of the man. In the West Indies, while the officers were enjoying an hour of relaxation on the quarter-deck, the cry arose, "Man overboard!" At once the second and third cutters were called away. The crews responded with alacrity, but they would have been too late if at the first alarm Decatur had not jumped from the mizzen chains and, swimming to the drowning man, held him up till a boat came.

The other incident grew out of insulting remarks uttered by the mate of an Indiaman. Decatur had been sent to enlist a crew; certain men who had signed up were found to be shipping on the Indiaman. Of course Decatur immediately repaired to the merchant ship to secure his sailors. The mate not only attempted to thwart him in his purpose, but in his language abused both the officer and the Service. Decatur, however, calmly held to his point and departed with the men. When he related the occurrence to his father the latter expressed the opinion, in accordance with the military code of the time, that to pass the incident over  p40 and not demand satisfaction would show a lack of spirit. Thereupon Decatur sent his friend Somers to require an apology; and as this was refused, a duel followed. Decatur had told Somers, his second, that he was going to wound his opponent slightly but not take his life; and he did so. He himself was not hit. This, of course, was all that was necessary to settle the affair. Nevertheless, from this same advice we may trace fatal consequences twenty‑one years later.

In the French War the United States won most of the engagements and secured advantageous terms of peace early in 1801. At once Congress ordered the navy to be reduced to a skeleton organization. Only thirty‑six lieutenants out of one hundred and ten were to be retained. Fortunately Decatur was one of the thirty‑six. Hardly had officers been mustered out and most of the ships sold or dismantled when trouble with Tripoli became most threatening. The pasha of that state, believing that he had not extorted all that was possible from the United States, increased his demands; and when our representative did not accede, in May, 1801, he cut down the American flagstaff and declared war. The same month, some weeks previous to the reception of the news in Washington, the government decided to send over a squadron of "observation" under Commodore Richard Dale. One of the ships in the squadron was the Essex, Captain William Bainbridge, who chose Decatur as his first lieutenant. He was given this important billet when he had been but three years in the Service.

Commodore Dale, on reaching the Mediterranean, was confronted by an anomalous situation in that Tripoli was at war against the United States but the United States was not at war with Tripoli. He was  p41 ordered to protect American rights but to commit no act of hostility. In consequence he did next to nothing, and the fleet that sailed the following year under Commodore Rodgers accomplished little more.

Among Decatur's personal adventures was a duel, in which he was second, fought by Midshipman Joseph Bainbridge with a young British officer of important family connections, secretary to the governor of Malta. The Englishman, though he had some reputation as a duelist, was killed. When the British requested that Bainbridge and Decatur be surrendered to the civil authorities of the island for trial, the American commodore dispatched them on a ship sailing for the United States. An incident of similar character had occurred a year before. Decatur, having publicly been treated with incivility by a Spanish commanding officer, sought him out on his ship and ashore, a duel being prevented only by the don's temporary disappearance. Such was life on a foreign station.

Four months after his hasty return to the United States Decatur sailed again for the Mediterranean, this time in his own ship. First he had the Argus; but on his arrival he was transferred to the Enterprise, a schooner carrying twelve guns. Commodore Preble was now in command of American forces in the Mediterranean, and it was with that stern but just disciplinarian, distinguished by his resourcefulness and energy, that the glory of America's conduct of the war began.

Almost the first news that Decatur heard on his return to the Mediterranean was that of the very serious reverse suffered in the loss of the frigate Philadelphia, Captain William Bainbridge. While chasing an enemy ketch which was attempting to make Tripoli, Bainbridge had run upon an uncharted reef; he had  p42 used every device to free his vessel, but, being without support of other ships, he had been obliged to surrender to the over­powering force of gunboats that soon swarmed out. The Tripolitans, taking advantage of a high tide two days later, floated the Philadelphia, recovered the guns that had been thrown overboard, and brought her into the harbor, making the floating fortress of thirty‑six guns an important addition to their defenses. Almost immediately on hearing this, Decatur volunteered to go in and destroy the Philadelphia at her moorings. Lieutenant Stewart made a similar offer to Commodore Preble, and the same idea was almost simultaneously suggested in a letter that Captain Bainbridge, in captivity in the pasha's castle, succeeded in sending to Preble through the kindly offices of the Danish minister at Tripoli. The important part of his letter was written in lemon juice, invisible until subjected to heat. Meanwhile Decatur in the Enterprise captured the Tripolitan ketch Mastico. In the latter Preble at once recognized a means of entering the harbor without causing alarm, and he intrusted the dangerous mission to the officers who had made the capture, the project to be kept secret until the day before they were to set out.

Assembling the complement of the Enterprise, Decatur briefly explained the nature of the expedition and called for volunteers. It is proof of his strong leader­ship as well as the fine morale of his command that every officer, man, and boy at once responded. Being limited to a force of seventy-five, five of whom Preble had said in his orders he would send from the midshipmen on the Constitution, Decatur had to make a selection. Among those who sailed in the expedition were three who later attained renown: Lieutenant James  p43 Lawrence, Midshipman Thomas Macdonough, and Midshipman Charles Morris (sent from the Constitution). Another important member of the party was a Sicilian pilot, Salvatore Catalano.

The Mastico (renamed the Intrepid on being taken into the American Navy) sailed from Syracuse that very evening in company with the Siren, Lieutenant Charles Stewart, which was to stand by and cover the retreat. All went well until they sighted Tripoli, when a winter gale set in, and they had to make every effort to get offshore in order to save the ketch. For six days they tossed about, most of their provisions wet and spoiled, and the dirty, overcrowded little ketch uncomfortable to the last degree. Nothing daunted, Decatur again made for Tripoli when the weather moderated; and as darkness hid them on the night of 16 February, 1804, he boldly sailed into the harbor.

Following Preble's instructions, Decatur had carefully arranged everything, assigning to certain groups their stations on the different decks after they had boarded and taken the frigate. These were to receive combustibles passed to them and to ignite them. Lieutenant Lawrence, with Midshipman Macdonough and Laws and ten men, was to fire the berth deck and forward storeroom; Lieutenant Bainbridge's squad of about the same size was to fire the wardroom and steerage; Midshipman Morris's was to fire the cockpit and after storeroom; Lieutenant Thorn's was to guard the ketch; and Midshipman Anderson's was to secure all boats alongside the frigate and to cut off those of her crew who might attempt to swim ashore.

The northwest wind shifted to northeast; and as the expeditionary force neared the vast hulk, made dimly visible by the crescent moon, the breeze almost died  p44 out, so that, drifting under her lee, they lay becalmed, her broadside guns trained directly on them, two hundred yards distant. Here they were hailed by a lookout on the frigate and ordered to keep their distance. But Catalano, who had Decatur standing beside him, responded in such a way as to calm suspicion: alleging that they had lost their anchors in the storm he requested permission to moor alongside the frigate. A boat from the Intrepid attached a line to the Philadelphia's fore chains and received an after fast from one of the frigate's boats. On these lines the American sailors, still lying concealed on the deck of the ketch, began to haul. It was awkward work; and before they had come alongside, the ten or twelve Tripolitans, curiously looking on from the deck of the Philadelphia, detected the fraud and raised the cry "Americanos."

Further concealment was useless. A sharp pull brought the ketch up, and Decatur, preceded by Morris, sprang to the main chains and climbed up over the rail of the Philadelphia. Others followed in a mass. Gaining the quarter-deck, Decatur waited till his force was complete and then, sword in hand, led them forward in line abreast, up the deck to the forecastle, sweeping all before them. That they might not give the alarm on shore, they fired not a shot, but cut down their foe or drove them into the sea.

Within five minutes they had complete possession of the ship. Then, passing up and distributing combustibles, according to the plan, they continued their work. When they withdrew, twenty minutes later, the ship was burning fiercely. So quickly was it all done that Midshipman Morris's squad in the cockpit, being the last to receive the materials for firing, had scarcely time to effect their escape.

 p45  Vigorous pulling on the sweeps carried the Intrepid away from the burning ship, which was now a mass of flames. One can imagine the regret of Decatur that this noble frigate, built by popular subscription in his home city and first commanded by his own father, should not have been taken and restored to the American flag. But with bowsprit and foremast gone, the frigate, which was lying dismantled under the guns of the pasha's castle and other heavy batteries and was threatened by the many cruisers, galleys, and gunboats close by, could never have been saved. Surprise and destruction were the only course possible. Before the expeditionary force had gone far from the burning ship, her big guns, as the fire reached them, gave a parting salute, one broadside shooting toward the harbor entrance and the other bombarding the castle. Several of the shore batteries now opened on the little Intrepid, made visible by the brilliant conflagration. Her crew realized the danger and also the possibility of attack by the cruisers and gunboats. A shot passed through the sail of the ketch; but her gallant men, instead of being alarmed, rested on their oars after they had pulled a short distance toward the harbor entrance, to enjoy the spectacle. Castle, mosques, and minarets stood forth like a glorious pageant. Finally, breaking out in three hearty cheers, the men gave way to rejoin their friends on the Siren, who had been anxiously waiting outside.

Commodore Preble was extremely pleased by the exploit and promptly recommended in his official report that Decatur be promoted to the rank of captain. Nelson, who was at this time blockading Toulon, is said to have characterized this feat as "the most bold and daring act of the age."

 p46  This occurred in February, 1804. A strict blockade was maintained during the summer, and in August and September of the same year Preble further disturbed the pasha by several bombardments of the town and shipping and by sending in a fire ship. In the first bombardment the pirates attempted to match their gunboats with the six in the American fleet borrowed from the king of Naples, and the encounter that followed had some thrilling moments.

In this engagement Decatur, who commanded a division of gunboats, boarded one of the Tripolitan craft and captured it after a sharp hand-to‑hand encounter. Putting a lieutenant and the larger part of his crew in charge of the prize, he was towing it out of the harbor when he learned that the commander of the gunboat his brother James Decatur had been engaging had surrendered, but that when James Decatur stepped on board the man had treacherously shot him dead and slipped away.

At once Decatur cast loose from his prize and, without considering how small his crew was, followed hard after the offender, even to the enemy lines. Catching up with the gunboat, he dashed on board followed by Macdonough and the remnant of his crew. It was eleven men to three or four times their number, in the kind of conflict for which the pirates were famous. For twenty minutes the fight was undecided. Finally Decatur engaged the Tripolitan leader, larger and fiercer than the rest, in a hand-to‑hand combat. As the Tripolitan struck savagely at him with his huge iron pike, Decatur received the blow on his cutlass, which snapped at the hilt. Though slightly wounded in the arm and breast by the next blow, Decatur rushed forward and grappled with his foe. They fell to the  p47 deck, Decatur on top. Three of the American seamen had been so wounded as to be unable to give further support; but when a Tripolitan officer raised his sword to give Decatur the finishing stroke, a seaman named Frazier, though unable to use either arm, rushed forward and received the blow on his head. Being near to the Tripolitan he saved his captain and escaped without serious injury to himself.

At this moment the Tripolitan captain, turning Decatur, pinned him down with his left hand while with his right he drew from his sash a short dagger. But Decatur, freeing his left, caught the hand that held the dagger, and with his right reached a pistol in his pocket. He could not draw it, but cocked and fired it. The hold of his enemy relaxed, and Decatur sprang to his feet as the pirate expired. With the Tripolitan commander killed, the rest of the pirates lost heart and quickly gave way.

The next ship from America brought Decatur his commission as captain, the promotion dated back to correspond with the burning of the Philadelphia. Decatur was now twenty-five years old. Returning to Malta, he was entertained by Sir Alexander Ball, the same governor who two years before had demanded his surrender for trial. The new secretary occupying the position of the officer slain in the duel was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The latter evidently was impressed by Decatur, for thirty years later he quoted a remark made by the American officer at dinner.

An honorable peace was concluded with Tripoli in 1805, and the American force returned to home waters. As the frigate Congress, of which Decatur was captain, lay at anchor in Hampton Roads, a sailing yacht visited her, the party including the mayor of Norfolk, a wealthy  p48 merchant, and his beautiful daughter, Miss Susan Wheeler. Decatur happened not to be on board at the time; but it is related that nothing interested Miss Wheeler so much as his miniature, by an Italian artist, that was hanging in the cabin. On the following day, when Decatur called on the mayor and was entertained at dinner and a ball, she thought the officer not less attractive than the miniature. The next year Miss Susan became Mrs. Decatur, and discovered in the uninterrupted happiness of married life that her hero was as loyal and devoted to his home as he was to the Service.

Only seven years after this conflict with the Barbary states came the War of 1812. For some time both France and England had been causes for irritation, yet even those statesmen who saw what was on the horizon anticipated that the struggle would be a brief affair on land in which militia from a few states would march into Canada and, having received the surrender of important posts, would secure the annexation of that great province. The navy had been greatly reduced in size; but, as Woodrow Wilson remarked of the two branches of the Service at this time, "Her seamen were professionals, not amateurs like her soldiers." A great stimulus had been given to the merchant marine, for American ships, because of the Napoleonic wars, had taken over practically all the neutral carrying trade. This had developed hardy seamen and fast, efficient ships, constituting an unorganized but important naval reserve.

When hostilities began, most men in the government believed it absurd to think of matching England on her own element when, if only totals are considered, she  p49 had twenty warships to the Republic's one; their plan was to save the American Navy by locking the ships deep in the protected harbors. Fearing that orders might be issued in accordance with such an inactive policy, all skippers whose ships were ready put to sea.

Captain Isaac Hull, commanding the Constitution, gained first honors. In attempting to make New York to join Rodgers's squadron, he ran into the midst of Broke's English squadron of five ships, off New Jersey. In the face of such odds escape seemed hopeless. Several times Hull was opened on by his enemies within long range; and every time he attempted to tow or kedge — for during most of the sixty‑six hours of the chase he lay nearly or quite becalmed — he found that the enemy could bring more boats to their leading ship. Yet by his perseverance and good seaman­ship he eluded them all and sailed safely into Boston. Waiting only long enough to learn that there were no orders, he again put to sea, and two and a half weeks later engaged the frigate Guerrière. The British fought with great gallantry, but neither their crew nor ship proved a match for the Americans. Within thirty minutes after coming to close quarters the Guerrière was reduced to a wreck, her masts carried away, and the hull shot so thoroughly to pieces that the following day she had to be blown up by her captor.

Boston and most of New England, with their Federalist party leanings and their extensive commercial interests, were opposed to the war. The victory of the Constitution, a Boston-built ship commanded by a New England skipper, which had sailed from their city to return in triumph, changed their feelings perceptibly. A similar result in Boston and elsewhere followed the next victory, in which Decatur was the central figure.

 p50  His frigate, the United States, cruising independently off the Canary Isles on the 25th of October, 1812, sighted the British frigate Macedonian, twelve miles distant, which at once showed a desire to engage. The captain of the Macedonian, John Surman Carden, thought he was meeting the American frigate Essex, reported to have sailed for these waters. In the Essex he would have engaged a ship smaller than his own; yet since the Macedonian was one of the crack frigates of the British Navy, her crew carefully chosen and constantly practiced in seaman­ship and gunnery, it is doubtful if Carden would have shown less eagerness for an engagement had he known from the first the identity of his antagonist. Before the war Decatur and Carden, commanding the same ships, had entertained each other in American waters and had discussed the relative merit of their ships. The United States was not only larger and heavier than the Macedonian but carried more guns. Nevertheless Carden laid stress on the fact that the Macedonian had a main battery of 18‑pounders, whereas the United States had 24‑pounders, which, he argued, could not be handled so rapidly or effectively on a frigate. Carden was a good fellow; but the conclusion of his argument showed that he had certain limitations: "Besides, Decatur, though your ships may be good enough, and you are a clever set of fellows, what practice have you had in war? There is the rub."

Since then the Macedonian had been to England; and fresh from drydock at Portsmouth, with a veteran crew, she was supposed to be the match of any frigate afloat, large or small. Naturally all was confidence on the Macedonian. Those on board had not heard of the fate of the Guerrière.

 p51  In entering the engagement Carden possessed two advantages: the weather gauge and superior speed. The first should have enabled him to come to close quarters at once; but, still under the delusion that he was opposed to the Essex, which was much weaker in long guns than in carronades, Carden hauled close to the wind and kept his distance. This gave the United States, with her greater number of long guns of heavy weight, a marked advantage. After the ships had passed on opposite tacks, Carden wore in pursuit and, catching up with his antagonist, reached a position at long range off her port quarter. An exchange of broadsides now cost the United States her mizzen topgallant mast, and the Macedonian her gaff-halyards and mizzen topmast, the latter falling into her main top. This injury to the Macedonian was serious, for it deprived her of her superiority in sailing. As the two ships now sailed along on parallel courses, the United States in advance, the advantage lay with the ship that had more long guns. To offset this and to bring his ship near enough to use her carronades, Carden changed from a parallel to a converging course. Decatur's response was to yaw and fire a broadside; then, running ahead, he repeated the maneuver. On came the doomed Macedonian, exposing her starboard bow to a severe diagonal fire that dismounted most of her carronades and at the same time damaged her hull and disabled many of the crew. There was only one slight chance left for Carden, and that was to close and board. He attempted to do so, but was thwarted by Decatur; for the United States, as Carden wrote in his report, being "comparatively in good order," had now shot ahead to secure a raking position, whereupon, since the Macedonian was "a perfect wreck and unmanageable  p52 log, I deemed it prudent, though a painful extremity, to surrender His Majesty's ship."

In the captain of his report Carden observed, "On being taken aboard the enemy's ship I ceased to wonder at the result of the battle." He then proceeded to explain the cause of his defeat, mentioning the heavy scantling of the United States (which, he said, was equal to that of "a seventy‑four-gun ship"), her cannon of unusual size and number for a frigate, and her complement "of four hundred and seventy-eight picked men." All this was true; indeed the United States was superior to her foe, easily by a ratio of three to two. This was vastly to the credit of the young navy, for it proved how well they had built the few frigates authorized. To have been complete in his explanation Carden should also have mentioned the leader of the four hundred and seventy-eight men, who had developed in them such a telling organization. Decatur himself reported of his command: "The enthusiasm of every officer, seaman, and marine, on board this ship, on discovering the enemy, their steady conduct in battle, and precision of their fire, could not be surpassed." An American editor writing at the beginning of the war commented that just as France was supposed to have enlarged her power on land all through Europe, so England had on the sea all over the world; and it was no empty boast "that the ocean was her domain and that not a sail but by permission spread." The victories of Hull and Decatur as well as those of Jacob Jones, who with the sloop Wasp took the Frolic, and of William Bainbridge, who with the Constitution took the Java, — all occurring in 1812 in the first six months of the war, — were a rude challenge to the supremacy of the British Navy.

 p53  It was to one of his lieutenants, Hamilton, son of the Secretary of the Navy, that Decatur intrusted his dispatches to Washington with the captured colors. The lieutenant, learning on his arrival that his father, mother, and sisters were at a ball being given to the officers of the navy, immediately sought them there. It was a thrilling moment when he appeared, and another when the colors of the Macedonian were borne in by the ranking officers present, Captains Hull and Stewart, and "presented to Mrs. Madison, the lady of the President, amidst the inspiring strains of music."

When the United States and the Macedonian arrived in New York, Decatur received the freedom of the city, and a sumptuous banquet was given to him and his fellow officers. Among the toasts proposed was "Our Navy! With such an auspicious dawn, what may we not hope will be its meridian splendor!" A few days later the crew of the United States were given a similar ovation. Preceded by the captured band of the Macedonian, the seamen marched through the principal streets to the City Hotel, "dressed in blue jackets and trousers, red waistcoats, and glazed hats decked with pendant streamers of ribbon." They were greeted everywhere by enthusiastic crowds, and in the evening they found reserved for them the entire pit of one of the theaters. All this had a very real value in 1812‑1813, when it was difficult for the government to command whole-hearted support. So although from a military point of view England would not have been crippled had she lost several times as many frigates, to the American republic the slight advantage was of great moment. Anything that aroused enthusiasm tended toward insuring united support. The country in its brief history had gained its independence, it had  p54 evolved a remarkable constitution, and it had produced some exceptional men, but it had not yet brought its highly individualistic elements together into one nation.

The acts passed by Congress in 1813 were the plainest possible evidence of the effect produced by these naval successes. In January Congress provided for the construction of four ships of the line and six frigates like the Constitution and the United States, and two months later authorized six more vessels and gave the President power at his discretion to add ships of war on the Lakes.

New York was too closely blockaded by sea to encourage attempts to escape by sailing past Sandy Hook. Instead Decatur laboriously worked back through Hell Gate into Long Island Sound and thought he might get to sea by rounding Montauk Point. But he was thwarted by vigilant foes. Chased into New London and up the Thames, for many months he was closely blockaded there by Sir Thomas Hardy, Nelson's favorite captain and the one who caught him as he fell at Trafalgar. When escape seemed impossible, Decatur gladly welcomed a transfer to the command of the President, of the same size as the United States, but of greater speed. She was lying in New York, and because of her speed Decatur had bright hopes of eluding the blockade and again carrying on active warfare. For some time he was held in the harbor to meet an expected attack of the British which failed to materialize. On the evening of the 14th of January, 1815, thinking that a heavy wind blowing offshore must have driven the blockaders from their stations, he sailed past Sandy Hook, approaching the bar at eight o'clock. But the pilots had mistaken the channel, and the heavily laden frigate grounded. For two hours she thumped violently; and before she could be got off she was much strained,  p55 breaking several of her rudder braces and displacing a part of her false keel. She had lost her speed, and the wind made it impossible to return for repairs; her only chance lay in eluding the British squadron. Hoping to pass inside of the blockaders Decatur sailed fifty miles east close to the Long Island shore and then changed his course to southeast by east, heading for the open sea. But at five o'clock next morning, as the sky lightened a little, he found that he had sailed into the very midst of his enemies. By the dim light he discovered three ships right ahead of him and not more than two miles distant. From this time until half-past eleven that night the President was struggling against her enemies. From three o'clock in the afternoon until half-past eight the conflict lay between the American ship and the Endymion, one of the strongest and heaviest of the British frigates and supposedly a match single-handed for the President. In this the Endymion had the advantage of speed and often of position. Seeing that the advantage lay with the enemy, Decatur conceived the idea of laying aboard the Endymion when she should close on his starboard beam and, seizing the better sailing ship, make good his escape; but the cheers of his crew may have revealed the plan to the enemy, for Endymion yawed and denied him the opportunity. Foiled in this, Decatur changed his course to southward; and when the Endymion did the same he was able, by presenting broadside to broadside, to meet her on equal terms. His hope now was to cripple her and as darkness came on to escape the rest of the fleet. After two hours and a half of this style of fighting, the advantage seemed with Decatur; the Endymion ceased firing and, with her sails and yards much cut up, dropped out of action. Decatur had been twice  p56 wounded, having been struck in the chest by a splinter and stunned for some moments, and later having his face torn, — again struck by a splinter, — the wound bleeding freely. But he had not left his station; and when at nine o'clock, under the cover of a cloudy night, he again changed his course the chances for the President improved. At eleven, however, the clouds blew away and disclosed four of the enemy within easy range surrounding the President. Three of the five lieutenants of the President had been killed, her total in killed and wounded amounting to eighty-five; further resistance would have meant increased loss of life without any chance of changing the ultimate result. Ordering the crew below to protect them from the fire of the enemy before the latter had discovered his intention, Decatur surrendered the President.

The British treated Decatur with the greatest courtesy and arranged for his early parole and return to New London. He arrived on the 22d of February and was greeted by the whole city, who dragged his carriage through the streets "amidst cheers, waving of banners and handkerchiefs, and blessings from the lips of the fair and the venerable." In New York the ship carpenters of the port volunteered sixteen hundred days' work as their contribution toward the construction of a frigate in order that Decatur might have a fitting command. Already, however, the war was ended; for terms of peace which had been signed at Ghent the day before Christmas were ratified by the Senate and the President even as the British frigate was carrying Decatur to New London.

While the United States had been engaged in war with Great Britain, the Barbary states, urged on by the latter country, had disregarded their treaties, and  p57 Algiers had even seized the American brig Edwin, holding its crew for ransom. Not two weeks after peace had been concluded with Great Britain, Congress declared war on Algiers. At once it was planned to send the entire naval force of the country to the Mediterranean, William Bainbridge in command. Decatur had returned too recently to have had his court-martial, ordered according to custom on the loss of a ship; but the Navy Department showed its confidence by giving him command of one of the two divisions destined for the Mediterranean, with the new frigate Guerrière for his flagship.

With characteristic dispatch Decatur sailed at the first possible moment, several weeks before Bainbridge was ready. Learning, as he neared Gibraltar, that the Algerine fleet had been out cruising and had not yet returned to Algiers, he made every effort to come up with it before it should receive the alarm. Accordingly he sailed east. Two days later when he was near Cape Galatia, the Constellation, by chance in the lead, sighted a large frigate standing to the southeast, which turned out to be not only a part of the Algerine Navy but the flagship Mashouda, commanded by the grand admiral Rais Hammida. At once the squadron began to scatter in pursuit, but Decatur signaled the ships back to their regular formation. He hoped, by approaching in a leisurely fashion, to conceal the identity of the American force till at close quarters; and he might have succeeded if the Constellation, misunderstanding the game, had not hoisted the national ensign. Decatur immediately attempted to offset this by ordering the British flag flown from all the ships, but the Algerine had taken alarm and quickly spread all sail in flight. There followed an exchange of fire at long range. Then Hammida, despairing of making Algiers, came about  p58 and headed for Cartagena, on the Spanish coast. Decatur, seeing that the Mashouda would soon pass under the guns of the Guerrière, held his fire, although the musketry from the Algerine was somewhat annoying. As the right moment came, a broadside from the American flagship swept the decks of the Mashouda, and another quickly followed. Rais Hammida was killed; and, after a second futile attempt to escape, the Mashouda surrendered.

Decatur next scoured the sea for other members of the Algerine fleet, taking a brig, the Esteido; then he boldly sailed for Algiers. A white flag at the foremast of the Guerrière and the Swedish flag at the main brought out the Swedish consul as well as the Algerine captain of the port. The Algerine smiled incredulously as he was informed of the fate of the Mashouda and the Esteido; but when the wounded lieutenant of the Mashouda was brought forward and told his story, he was visibly moved, and his manner changed. He was now solicitous to know on what terms a treaty might be made and urged that a truce be agreed to immediately so as to allow time for its preparation; he had become anxious for the safety of the rest of the Algerine Navy. Decatur would agree to no truce. On the following day the Algerine returned with power to conclude the treaty. Hereafter there was to be no tribute paid; no Americans were to be enslaved, even in event of war; and the Americans who had been taken on the Edwin were to be returned promptly with their property. The Dey's commissioner represented the terms as more severe than they had agreed to with any other country, but Decatur would have nothing less. Before leaving to submit the treaty to his master, the commissioner begged that there might be a truce while  p59 the final terms were being discussed. Again Decatur refused. The commissioner then pleaded for three hours. Decatur replied, "Not a minute; if your squadron appears in sight before the treaty is actually signed by the Dey, and sent off with the American prisoners, ours will capture it."

Shortly after the commissioner had departed, an Algerine ship of war crowded with soldiers was seen standing in toward the city. At once all was excitement in the American force as they prepared to attack it, either afloat or under the guns of the forts, but they were doomed to disappointment. A boat was seen pulling violently from shore and flying a white flag — the signal which had been agreed upon as indicating that the treaty had been signed, the Swedish consul having pledged his word that it should not be abused. Spurred on by the imminent danger, the Algerines had pulled five miles to shore, secured the signature of the treaty, and returned, bringing with them the ten American prisoners that had been held for ransom — all within the space of three hours. It is safe to say that no Barbary state had ever shown equal celerity before in concluding a treaty.

On arriving in the Mediterranean Decatur had chanced to learn that Tunis and Tripoli had not wholly lived up to their treaties. Because of poor communications no information of this had been received at home, and the Navy Department had given Decatur no instructions as to procedure. Decatur promptly decided on what he thought he could do successfully and what he guessed Washington would want him to do. Repairing to Tunis, he informed the Bey through Mr. Noah, the American consul, that an indemnity of $46,000 for the violation of neutrality and treaty rights  p60 must be paid within twelve hours or hostilities would follow without further warning.

"Tell your admiral to come and see me," said the Bey to Mr. Noah.

"He declines coming, Your Highness, until these disputes are settled, which are best done on board ship."

"But this is not treating me with becoming dignity." And then after a pause the Bey exclaimed, "I know this admiral; he is the same one who, in the war with Sidi Yusef of Trablis, burned the frigate."

"The same."

"Hum! why do they send wild young men to treat for peace with old powers?"

The Bey haggled and attempted to postpone the time for payment, but yielded in the end. Decatur in full uniform, attended by all his staff, landed and was received with great distinction.

On obtaining the indemnity he next proceeded to Tripoli, and for a similar offense demanded $30,000. The pasha flatly refused and, assembling all his troops, including twenty thousand Arabs, manned batteries and threatened immediate war against the United States. If hostilities had followed and the American force had suffered a reverse, Decatur would have been in an embarrassing position; but he understood with whom he was treating. The pasha soon thought better of his threats and sent the governor of Tripoli on board the Guerrière to accede to the American demands. Of course the pasha asked that the amount of the indemnity be reduced. Decatur, on learning from the American consul that $25,000 would cover the American losses, granted a reduction to that amount; but he added a proviso that ten Christian slaves of  p61 whom he had heard, two Danish and the rest Sicilian by nationality, should be released. This was agreed to.

The money was paid and the captives were freed. Then a salute of thirty‑one guns was fired from the pasha's castle as the American ensign was rehoisted on the consulate, while the band sent from the Guerrière played "Hail Columbia." Decatur sought to impress the semicivilized peoples with the dignity of the United States.

This formality took place on 7 August, 1815. Within seventy‑one days after sailing from New York, Decatur had brought to terms of his own dictating the three Barbary states that had long caused trouble. Commodore Bainbridge, the commander in chief of the force, did not reach the Mediterranean until the work had been accomplished. Not meeting with Decatur, who was at Messina and later at Naples, he proceeded to Algiers and then to Tripoli and Tunis, only to find American affairs in the best possible condition. When Decatur joined him at Malaga, Bainbridge had a fleet of eighteen ships, which, with a ship of the line for his flagship, was by far the strongest force yet assembled under the American flag. Its formidable appearance had a salutary effect on American interests abroad.

In the further history of Stephen Decatur there remains only the incident of his tragic death. He was a victim of the dueling code at the hands of Commodore James Barron. This narrative has already shown how at the beginning of his career the code was inculcated in him by his father and how he acted as second for Joseph Bainbridge at Malta. Several years later he served as second for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry to an end without fatality. The last sad affair was of  p62 Commodore Barron's seeking. It happened that Decatur had sat on Barron's court-martial in 1807, ordered because of the humiliation done to Barron's ship the Chesapeake by the Leopard; and as a navy commissioner in 1819 Decatur had opposed giving Barron (who had been absent from the country for some years) one of the best commands afloat — an appointment urged by some of the Virginia delegation, though it meant the passing over of officers distinguished in the War of 1812. In answering a sharp letter from Barron, Decatur begins, "Between you and myself there never has been a personal difference." Undoubtedly the misunderstanding would have cleared had not supposed friends fomented the trouble by carrying back and forth remarks of the principals and distorting the truth.

As, with pistols in their hands on the dueling-ground at Bladensburg, they were given last instructions, Barron observed to Decatur that he hoped on meeting in another world they would be better friends than they had been in this. To which Decatur replied, "I have never been your enemy, sir." But as if led by the Greek idea of inevitable fate, the duel went forward. When Commodore Bainbridge, Decatur's second, reached "two," in the count of "One, two, three," both fired. Decatur fell mortally wounded, and died in the prime of manhood, forty‑one years old.

Pro libertate et patria dulce periculuma ("Peril is something to be loved in defense of liberty and one's native land") was the motto of the Decatur family, and this supplies remarkably well the keynote to the career that has just been outlined. Decatur never hesitated when there was a great end in view, but he laid his plans so well that his gallantry was free from  p63 recklessness as he dashed forward to success. After his victories he was toasted in all the big cities where he chanced to be, and he was regarded with a still deeper feeling in the Service. When, after the loss of the President, he was appointed to command a squadron sent to Algiers, officers and sailors who had served under him came crowding forward to accompany him on the Guerrière. It was his intrepidity that attracted them, — men love a leader, — but it was also his kindness and personal consideration that had aroused affection and loyalty. In an age when oaths and flogging were the approved method of enforcing obedience, Decatur won his men by the protection and care he unfailingly gave them. He frequently addressed them, explaining what was proper conduct; they obeyed because he expected them to do right. He was more exacting of his officers than of the seamen, for, as he once remarked, the former had higher aims and more stringent obligations; further they had a future, which it was within their power to make brilliant. One of the few times that he gave way to anger was when an old sailor came to him, his mouth bleeding because an officer standing in the rigging above him had kicked him on account of failure to understand and properly execute orders. Not improperly his men compared him to Nelson, and applied to him that splendid characterization of the great leader: "Our Nel is as brave as a lion and as gentle as a lamb."

Perhaps no act in the first half of the nineteenth century fired Americans more than the destruction of the Philadelphia. An officer who had served as a youth in Bainbridge's division sent to Algiers recorded even thirty years later his thrill as he caught his first glimpse of Decatur. And he gave it as his opinion, referring especially  p64 to the burning of the Philadelphia and the attack on the Tripolitan gunboats, "To the example of personal gallantry thus set by Decatur before Tripoli, and the chivalrous spirit communicated to his companions in arms, we may ascribe in no small degree that heroic tone which has characterized all the after achievements of our navy."

Thayer's Note:

a A republican variation of Horace's famous line (Carm. III.2.13), Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, "Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country".

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Page updated: 6 Aug 16