One of America’s earliest naval heroes, Stephen Decatur made himself, and the fledgling American Navy, famous through his exploits around the globe. Stephen Decatur, Jr. was born off Sinepuxent Bay, Maryland, close to the location of modern-day Ocean City in 1779. His father, the elder Stephen, was a merchant ship captain from Rhode Island, who fought as both a privateer as well in the French Navy during the War for Independence. Young Stephen grew to love the sailing life from an early age. At eight years old, he came down with whooping cough, so his father decided to take him on a voyage to Europe, thinking the sea air would improve his condition. The ploy worked, and young Decatur came home perfectly healthy, but it may have worked too well for his parents’ comfort when they discovered his newly-found love for the sea came at the expense of his studies. Stephen barely graduated from the Episcopal Academy, and dropped out the University of Pennsylvania in 1795. Two years later, he was serving as a midshipman on one of the first six frigates built for the United States Navy, the USS United States.
Shortly after joining the Navy, Decatur saw his first action. Starting in 1798, the U.S. began the undeclared Quasi-War with the French Republic, who had previously sent privateers to attack American merchant vessels that had traded with Britain. For two years, Stephen served in the United States and other ships throughout the Atlantic and West Indies. He served with distinction, as President John Adams promoted him to lieutenant in 1799. Decatur also fought his first personal duel of honor during the Quasi-War, though this time the matter resolved itself without bloodshed.
The Quasi-War was followed by the First Barbary War. The Barbary States were a group of autonomous governments ostensibly under the control of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa, infamous for their piracy on the Mediterranean and as a supplier of slaves. Previously, American merchants were safe from their predations due to agreements between Great Britain and the various pashas or governors, as well as the U.S. ratified Treaty of Tripoli. In 1801, however, the reigning governor, Yusuf Karamanli, broke the pact by demanding a tribute from the U.S. of $225,000. President Jefferson, normally opposed to standing militaries, refused to comply and sent the Navy to the Mediterranean, with Decatur serving aboard the USS Philadelphia. In 1803, the ship actually ran aground near the shores of Tripoli, trapping itself as the local pirates boarded the ship and claimed it as their own. Decatur was not on board, however, as he and a group of 80 men managed to escape in the dead of night, disguised as merchants, and flee into the city’s harbor. A few months later, he and his men returned aboard a captured local vessel renamed the USS Intrepid. The Americans quickly boarded and captured the frigate, before setting it ablaze and escaping to the sea, an act that won Decatur international fame and praise from Horatio Nelson himself. Decatur returned to Tripoli in the August of 1804 with the rest of the fleet in another attack on Tripoli Harbor. During the attack, Decatur learned his younger brother, James, was killed by the crew of a Barbary gunboat. Stephen then found the boat, boarded it with his crew, and single-handedly slew the vessel’s captain, avenging his brother’s death. The next year, Tripoli surrendered, and Steven had been promoted to captain at 25 for his daring actions, the youngest man ever to hold the rank.
By the outbreak of the War of 1812, Decatur had been promoted to Commodore, then the highest rank in the navy. He carried himself well in this war too, fighting mostly in command of the USS United States in single-ship actions like most American frigate commanders. During this time, he captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian of the Azores Islands and helped uncover a British plot to warn the Royal Navy of American blockade runners out of New London, Connecticut. However, while commanding the USS President, Decatur was caught by four British vessels, and though he fought the fastest of his pursuers, the HMS Endymion, to a standstill, Decatur realized that he was outgunned, outnumbered, and now severely damaged. He surrendered to the British and was taken prisoner. He languished in his Bermuda prison until the end of the war, and despite his defeat, Congress granted him the Congressional Gold Medal and a ceremonial sword for his service.
Stephen briefly fought in the Second Barbary War, this time off the coast of Algiers, but in the meantime, he had also been leading a life beyond military matters. In 1806 he married Susan Wheeler, a prominent woman in Northern Virginia society. The couple also built a handsome townhouse in the growing capital along Pennsylvania Avenue, next door to the White House. He also participated in yet another duel, this time serving as the second for his close friend, Oliver Hazzard Perry. It was this love of dueling that killed him in the end. In 1820, another navy man, Commodore James Barron, blamed Decatur for his court-marshal in 1807 and challenged him. The two men met on the 22nd of March, and upon firing their pistols, both men managed to hit each other, Decatur’s wounds proving fatal. He died that night, and was buried in St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia.
Steven Decatur’s life is remembered in various ways. In addition to having many places around the country named after him, his actions against the Barbary States is also remembered in the first verse of the United States Marines’ Hymn:
“From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli…”
His Washington home is also now a museum and part of the White House grounds.