Skip to main content

The Navy Department Library

Related Content
  • Casualties
Document Type
  • Biography
Wars & Conflicts
  • War of 1812 1812-1815
File Formats
Location of Archival Materials

Stephen Decatur

The Death of Commodore Decatur" adapted from Lauren Pitre's article in, SWONET

Stephen Decatur was a renowned naval officer who showed signs of heroism early in life. Born in Sinepuxent, Md., on January 5, 1779, Decatur as a youth was known to dive from the tips of jib booms and, at the age of 14, defended his mother against a drunken rogue. He was commissioned as a midshipman in 1798 and a year later was promoted to acting lieutenant of the frigate United States.

At the age of 25, Decatur became the most striking figure of the Tripolitan Wars. On February 16, 1804, Decatur led 74 volunteers into Tripoli harbor to burn the captured American frigate Philadelphia. British Admiral Lord Nelson is said to have called the raid "the most bold and daring act of the age." Raised to the rank of captain, Decatur was the youngest captain in the American navy.

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Decatur was the commanding officer of the frigate United States, which he had served aboard as a midshipman. As commander of the ship, he defeated and captured the British frigate Macedonian in October 1812. He brought the vessel safely back to the United States. It was the only British ship to be refitted and commissioned in the American navy during the war. Early in 1815 he was commodore of a three-ship squadron, when his flagship, the President, while running the British blockade, struck bottom. The damaged ship was unable to escape the blockading squadron and was captured.

In 1815, Decatur commanded a nine-ship squadron headed for Mediterranean to end the cruising of Algerian corsairs against American shipping. Decatur's abilities as a negotiator were recognized after he secured a treaty with the Algerians. During celebration of the peace with the North African state, Decatur declared his famous line: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be right; but our country right or wrong."

Decatur was noted not only for his brilliant Navy career, but also for his involvement in duels, which was how men of honor settled disputes in his day. On March 22, 1820, he was killed in a duel with Commodore James Barron. Barron was court-martialed for surrendering his ship to a British man-of-war in 1807. This surrender was one of the major events leading to the War of 1812. When Barron returned to the United States after the war, he had intentions of resuming his naval service but met much criticism, especially from Commodore Decatur. Barron was severely wounded in his leg but fired the shot that ended Decatur's life.

8 June 2001

Published: Thu Feb 03 10:33:19 EST 2022