Painting by Rembrandt Peale depicts a portrait of US Naval Officer Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), 1817. Source: (Photo by The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)
An exceptional sailor and heroic commander, Stephen Decatur was the youngest person in United States Navy history to reach the rank of captain. It was through his victories, leadership, and efforts that the U.S. Navy established itself as a powerful force of the sea. In the early 1800s, Decatur was a national hero, so much so that dozens of cities and towns were named for him. Let’s look at the exploits of Stephen Decatur.
A Rebel Sailor
Stephen Decatur’s father was a merchant captain. When Decatur fell ill with whooping cough as a child, the doctor suggested he join his father on a sea voyage because the fresh, salt air, he believed, would cure his ailment. When Decatur returned from the voyage, he was not only cured of whooping cough…he was hooked on the sea. His parents, on the other hand, hoped he would join the clergy. They were sadly disappointed when Decatur, at age 17, sign on to work for a shipbuilder.
The Navy’s Youngest Captain
Stephen Decatur joined the U.S. Navy when President George Washington signed the Act to Provide for a Naval Armament in March of 1794. Decatur, who had been tutored by some of the best merchant sailors and a member of England’s Royal Navy, was well-prepared for military life. His knowledge of shipbuilding was an asset to him, but it was his leadership qualities that led to his advancements. By the time he was 25 years old, Stephen Decatur was appointed to the rank of captain, the youngest person to ever reach that rank.
Pirating on the Barbary coast. Source: (nationalinterest.org)
The Barbary Pirates
For hundreds of years, bands of brutal pirates called the Barbary Pirates attacked ships in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the waters off the African coast. Unlike the Caribbean pirates who raided ships to steal their cargo, the Barbary Pirates plundered foreign vessels and enslaved the sailors on board. In fact, it has been estimated that, between the 14th and 19th centuries, the Barbary Pirates captured about three million Americans and Europeans, often selling the sailors into slavery or demanding huge ransoms for their return.
Captives taken by Barbary Pirates. Source: (fineartamerica.com)
The Plan to Stop the Pirating
By 1805, the United States had had enough of the reign of terror of the Barbary Pirates. They sent their fledgling Navy to the northern coast of Africa to stop the pirates from attacking U.S. merchant vessels. Stephen Decatur, then a lieutenant, was one of the officers who traveled to Africa.
Stephen Decatur burned the USS Philadelphia to prevent the pirates from taking the ship. Source: (alchetron.com)
The USS Philadelphia
The first move by the U.S. Navy against the Barbary Pirates was a failure. One of the ships that the Navy sent, the USS Philadelphia, got snagged up on a reef in the waters just outside the harbor of Tripoli. Almost immediately, the Barbary Pirates seized the ship and started to raid it. Late in the night, Stephen Decatur manned a small dinghy that approached the USS Philadelphia and set the ship on fire, totally destroying it so the pirates couldn’t profit from it. For his heroism, Decatur received praise from high-ranking military officers.
The Barbary Pirates Kill Decatur’s Brother
Weeks later, after many skirmishes with the Barbary Pirates, the U.S. Navy seized a gunboat belonging to the pirates. A brief fight ensued and the enemy gunboat raised a white surrender flag. Naval personnel, including Stephen Decatur’s brother, James, boarded the gunboat. It was then that the pirates immediately removed the white flag and captured the Americans. All of the officers were killed, including James Decatur, and the gunboat got away. Not only was Decatur shocked and angered by this killing of his brother, but also by the blatant disregard for the accepted rules of engagement. The pirates were playing dirty. The Americans could no longer trust that a white flag meant surrender. They would have to fight it out.
Decatur fights his brother's killer. Source: (pauldavisoncrime.com)
Decatur Found His Brother’s Killer
When Stephen Decatur got the news of his brother’s death, he gathered a small group of men—just ten in total—and they hunted down the pirate’s gunboat. Decatur engaged the captain of the gunboat, a hulkingly huge man. Although Decatur, who was smaller and quicker, was able to deflect the pike blows from the pirate, his cutlass broke and it looked like the pirate would claim another Decatur brother. But Decatur pulled out his pistol and shot the pirate dead from point blank range.
War of 1812
A treaty temporarily halted the terror of the Barbary Pirates, and Stephen Decatur returned to the United States. There, he took command of several U.S. ships engaged in battle in the War of 1812. In fact, the dominance of the Navy during this conflict served as an announcement to the rest of the world that the young country was becoming a naval powerhouse.
Commodore James Barron. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)
A Deadly Duel
Stephen Decatur’s successes fighting the Barbary Pirates and in the War of 1812 made him a household name and a national hero. This caused ripples of jealousy among older naval officers, including Commodore James Barron. Barron challenged Decatur to a duel, a common, yet deadly practice of the time. At the duel, both Decatur and Barron fired before the countdown was done and both were gravely wounded. Barron ultimately survived, but Decatur did not. He was just 42 when he died. Americans were shocked at his death, especially because it came at the hands of a fellow naval officer.