Honor and Hubris: Lessons from the Life and Death of Stephen Decatur
The year is 1804. President Thomas Jefferson’s decision to wage war against the North African Muslim Berber states, known collectively as the Barbary States, could not have gotten off to a worse start. For years the Barbary Pirates raided American trading vessels to Europe, all the while America paid millions to the rulers of the coastal states for the promise safe passage. Now, after running aground on an uncharted reef near the shores of Tripoli, the captured USS Philadelphia is moored in the harbor of her enemies and her crew, also captured, have been slaves of the Pasha for six months.
Stephen Decatur Becomes a National Hero
As a boy, Stephen Decatur gained a true and lifelong love of the sea, when after developing a severe case of whooping-cough, was sent to sea with his father. It was thought, at the time, that the salty and constant ocean air was good for the lungs. Apparently they were right. After a trip to Europe and back, Decatur returned in complete health, and could only talk and dream of a life on the open seas.
After a brief period of university studies, Decatur enlisted in the newly formed U.S. Navy, using his passion, daring, and skill to quickly grow in rank. When talk began of a covert mission to lead a team of men and take back the USS Philadelphia, he jumped at the opportunity. When asked how many men he believed would be needed to accomplish such a mission he said, “The fewer the men, the greater the glory!”
With less than 60 soldiers at his command, he sails aboard the USS Intrepid, an enemy vessel he captured only months earlier, disguised now as a Maltese trading ship, into Tripoli. The American crew aboard are dressed as Arabs and Maltese sailors, and includes an Arabic speaking soldier who convinces the Tripolitan port authorities that their ship has lost her anchors and needs to dock for repairs. The Intrepid is moored to the captured Philadelphia, and upon Decatur’s shout, “Board!”, the hidden crew emerged from the Intrepid, boarded the Philadelphia, and within 10 minutes killed 20 Tripolitan guards and secured the Philadelphia without losing any of Decatur’s men. Seeing, however, that the Philadelphia was in no condition to sail, Decatur and his crew were forced set the frigate ablaze. As the men sailed away in the Intrepid, the USS Philadelphia, still with guns loaded and now engulfed in flames, let loose a volley of iron upon the town and shore batteries. Upon hearing of the successful mission, British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson claimed that it was “the most bold and daring act of the Age.”
News of the victory quickly spread, and Stephen Decatur became a national hero with international respect and the newly formed U.S. Navy was beginning to be viewed as a force to be reckoned with.
The Rise and Fall of Commodore James Barron
Stephen Decatur wasn’t the only man to climb the ranks and make a name for himself in this newly formed U.S. Navy. James Barron, who, much like Decatur, was the son of a merchant sea-captain, outclassed his rivals, eventually receiving the rank of commodore, and served with Decatur as peer and friend in the naval courts.
Both men’s fame and accomplishments continued to grow, that is, until Barron made a costly mistake. In 1807 Barron took command of the USS Chesapeake. The ship was outfitted for a long voyage; the decks filled with cargo as the ship set sail. The HMS Leopard, a British ship, hailed peacefully to the Chesapeake and Barron allowed the Leopard’s commanding officer to come aboard. The British Navy had a problem. Many of its sailors were defecting to the United States and enlisting in the U.S. Navy. Believing some of Barron’s men may in fact be defectors, they asked to search the ship. When Barron refused, the Leopard opened fire. Unprepared for war, Barron surrendered after firing only a single shot. (This is officially known as the Chesapeake-Leopard affair)
While this action by Barron no doubt saved many lives, it was a slap in the face of the U.S. Navy. He was convicted of not having his ship prepared for battle and suspended from service for 5 years without pay. Decatur was one of the men on the court-martial who decided Barron’s conviction.
The Duel of Barron and Decatur
After 6 years away from service, Barron attempted to be reinstated only to find Stephen Decatur to be one of his most outspoken opponents. Embittered by Decatur’s actions, which must have felt like betrayal, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel of pistols.
In those days duels were so common that it was causing a shortage of experienced officers for the military and was outlawed. This, however, did not stop men from participating all the same. Each duelist was required to choose a “second”, someone who would handle arranging the match and setting the rules of engagement. If the seconds could not agree on the terms or saw some unfairness in the proceedings of the duel, it would be called off. Unfortunately, Decatur choose William Bainbridge as his second. Although 5 years his senior, Bainbridge was envious of Decatur’s fame and stood to benefit from his death. Both seconds arranged the match so that wounding or death would be very likely. Rather than standing back-to-back, pacing, turning, and firing, which often resulted in a miss, the duelist would face each other at a relatively short distance, pistols aimed, and fire upon a countdown.
Decatur was an expert shot and planned to only wound Barron in the hip. History is not clear if Barron was intent on killing Decatur, though before the match he spoke to Decatur of reconciliation.
Upon taking their places the duelists were instructed by Bainbridge, “I shall give the word quickly – ‘Present, one, two, three’ – You are neither to fire before the word ‘one’, nor after the word ‘three’. Now in their positions, each duelist raised his pistol, cocked the flintlock and while taking aim stood in silence. Bainbridge called out, ‘One’, Decatur and Barron both firing before the count of ‘two’. Decatur’s shot hit Barron in the lower abdomen and ricocheted into his thigh. Barron’s shot hit Decatur in the pelvic area, severing arteries. Both of the duelists fell almost at the same instant. Decatur, mortally wounded and clutching his side, exclaimed, “Oh, Lord, I am a dead man.”
The Death of Stephen Decatur
As both men lie on the ground in excruciating pain, Commodore Barron (who ultimately survives) declared that the duel was carried out properly and honorably, and told Decatur that he forgave him from the bottom of his heart. Decatur, certain that he was fatally shot, insisted that Barron be taken to his home and cared for though the friends and surgeons that now arrived would not have it. At their parting Barron cried back, “God bless you, Decatur” — and with a weakened voice Decatur responded, “Farewell, farewell, Barron.”
Decatur was taken to his home, signed his will, and died that evening. In his final hours, this man who had taken the life of numerous others, is reported to have cried out, “I did not know that any man could suffer such pain!”
In some ways it’s hard to imagine a time when men fought bravely, for the honor of their country, yet still acted in what we would consider barbaric ways towards one another. Even more interesting is the ending of this tale. Both men possibly dying, essentially say to each other what should have been said to prevent the duel in the first place. There is a good deal of irony in this story but lessons as well. I’ll leave it up to you to unpack and glean what you can.
The information gathered for this article comes from various sources but mostly Wikipedia for the specifics. See the following articles for more information:Stephen Decatur http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Decatur http://www.conservapedia.com/Stephen_Decatur James Barron http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Barron http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chesapeake%E2%80%93Leopard_Affair The Barbary Wars http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbary_Wars The USS Philadelphia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Philadelphia_(1799)