Thursday, July 23, 2015
“Right or wrong, our country!”
Figurehead of the HMS Macedonian.
His father was a privateer and hero of the Revolutionary War, and on January 5, 1779, his mother gave birth to Stephen Decatur, one of the best patriots and America's first special operations commander. The U.S. Naval Academy honors him not with a statue. No, statues are for ordinary war heroes like his brother, James, who is honored there in the Tripoli Monument. But for Stephen Decatur, nothing less than the figurehead of the HMS Macedonian will do. It became his prize when he defeated and captured the frigate on October 25, 1812, near Madeira off the Moroccan coast, in the War of 1812.
Decatur's military prowess earlier drew the highest praise from Horatio Nelson, certainly the greatest British admiral. Sadly, it also drew jealousy from his peers, which would lead to his death in a duel at 41.
Born in Worcester County, Maryland, Decatur followed his father's footsteps, not necessarily pleasing the Old Man as young Decatur dropped out of college at 17. His father got the son a job building the frigate United States. Young Decatur was aboard when she launched on May 10, 1797. A year later, he would board the frigate as a midshipman, a ship he would later command in the War of 1812.
But his first war was the Quasi War with France under President Adams from 1798 to 1800. The Republic of France wanted the United States to repay its war debt. But the United States argued it owed the money to King Louis XVI, whom the French beheaded, and not the Republic of France. There were other issues. Mainly, the United States was a struggling young nation that everyone else picked on. The nation had to fight to prove itself on the high seas. While U.S. Navy losses were minor in these wars, which culminated in the War of 1812 against Britain, which had the best navy, the merchant losses were severe. With the election of President Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte's turning of his attention on conquering Europe, the Quasi War ended with the signing of the Convention of 1800 on September 30, 1800. France agreed to stop picking on the United States and the United States agreed to remain neutral; oddly France did not want the United States to side with France because then France would have to protect the weaker nation.
Decatur's service in the Quasi War was aided by Talbot Hamilton, a former officer of the Royal Navy, whom Decatur's father hired to tutor the young man, giving him an edge over his fellow midshipmen as they competed for promotion to lieutenant. In 1799, the Navy promoted him to lieutenant and he was one of 36 lieutenants kept on active duty when the Navy downsized after the Quasi War. The highlight of his war service was a duel with the chief mate of another ship. An expert marksman, Decatur chose only to wound the man, who missed Decatur completely. Both men kept their honor in tact, however, which was the point of the duel.
When the first Barbary War began, Decatur took command of the 12-gun schooner USS Enterprise. On December 23, 1803, Enterprise and the frigate USS Constitution captured the Tripolitan ketch Mastico, which they renamed the USS Intrepid. Decatur took command of this bigger ship and tried to rescue the crew of the frigate USS Philadelphia, which Commodore William Bainbridge ran aground near the shores of Tripoli on October 31, 1803.
Decatur had a wild plan of disguising the Intrepid and its crew as a merchant ship from Malta. Pulling close to the captured Philadelphia, Decatur and his crew boarded the Philadelphia at 7 p.m. on February 16, 1804, and fought hand to hand with the pirates. Decatur took on the much larger captain, using his cutlass to ward off the captain's sword and fending off his boarding pike before shooting the man point blank in the chest. The Yankees had no desire to take prisoners, killing 21 of the 24 pirates aboard and capturing the other three men. Then Decatur's crew set the Philadelphia afire. Wanting to make sure the ship caught fire, Decatur was the last to leave.
That is when the fun began. Lieutenant Decatur and his men had to exit the harbor, which was now lit by the flames of the frigate. And he did. He succeeded in the first special operations in U.S. Navy history. British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson hailed the exploit as the “most bold and daring act of the age.”
The Navy promoted Decatur to captain, making him at 25 the youngest captain in U.S. Navy history, a position that today translates into colonel in the other services.
In 1808, Decatur made a mortal enemy of Commodore James Barron, whom Decatur voted against in a court-martial which banished Barron from the Navy for five years. Decatur was too young to know when to keep his mouth shut and said things that offended Barron, who spent the next nine years in Denmark with no means of getting home.
In 1810, Decatur took command of the United States. In Norfolk, Virginia, he and the captain of the new British frigate HMS Macedonian engaged in friendly sparring, which wound up with Captain John S. Garden betting a beaver hat that he would best Decatur and the frigate United States if the two ever met in combat.
On October 28, 1812, they did, 500 miles south of the Azores. The Macedonian was no match for Decatur's ship, which tore up the British ship. However, Decatur suffered a wound to the chest that knocked him unconscious. Nevertheless, he regained his senses and was there to greet Captain Garden. Decatur's crew spent two weeks repairing the Macedonian, which they took across the Atlantic as a trophy.
For the next two years he and his crews fought and beat the British repeatedly as he commanded various ships, but his string ended on January 14, 1815, when his USS President ran aground near New York. Captured by the British, he wound up in Bermuda as a prisoner of war.
But he was a prisoner of a war that had ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. Freed, Decatur faced a military review of the grounding of the USS President. Not only was he exonerated, but his peers praised his heroics. That summer, the Navy sent him to the Barbary Coast for the final Barbary War. His was gunboat diplomacy because when news of the arrival of Captain Decatur spread, the three belligerent fiefdoms agreed to make peace with the United States. The new nation had earned respect on the high seas.
His return was triumphant. Naval officers held a banquet in his honor, at which he delivered his toast: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”
But as he rose to commodore, people became jealous.Captain Barron returned to the Navy and challenged him to a duel. Each man picked a second to set the ground rules. They conspired to bring the combatants in close range which would almost guarantee the death of one or both men. They met at 9 a.m. on March 22, 1820. Both men were severely wounded. They took Decatur home where he died at 10:30 p.m.
History is not inevitable. Names and dates matter. Few names matter as much as Stephen Decatur and few dates are as important as February 16, 1804, when a brash lieutenant led a crew of 50 men into an enemy harbor, destroyed a ship, and returned unharmed. Decatur's legacy is a nation free to use the sea without paying tribute to pirates.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.