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Stephen Decatur

American Naval Hero, 1779-1820

Robert J. Allison

Publication Year: 2005

Born to a prominent Philadelphia family in 1779, Stephen Decatur at age twenty-five became the youngest man ever to serve as a captain in the U.S. Navy. His intrepid heroism, leadership, and devotion to duty made him a perfect symbol of the aspirations of the growing nation. Leading men to victory in Tripoli, the War of 1812, and the Algerian war of 1815, and coining the phrase "Our country, right or wrong," Decatur created an enduring legend of bravery, celebrated in poetry, song, paintings, and the naming of dozens of towns—from Georgia to Alabama to Illinois. After the War of 1812, Decatur moved to Washington to help direct naval policy. His close friendships with James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and other political leaders soon made him a rising star in national politics. He and his wife Susan made their elegant home on Lafayette Square near the White House a center of Washington society. The capital and the entire nation were shocked in 1820 when Decatur died at the age of forty-one in a duel with a rival navy captain. In this carefully researched and well-written biography, historian Robert Allison tells the story of Decatur's eventful life at a time when the young republic was developing its own identity—when the American people were deciding what kind of nation they would become. Although he died prematurely, Decatur played a significant role in the shaping of that national identity.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-viii

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Prologue “The navy has lost its mainmast”

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pp. 1-8

The peach blossoms were early in 1820. Just three days after spring began, Friday, March 24, the buds opened, weeks before their usual time. Washington sorely needed spring. January had been the coldest in eight years. February brought snow. March had been cold, rainy, and raw. Emotionally and...

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1. “To raise his voice to defend the right”

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pp. 9-16

Etienne Decatur’s fever was a stroke of fortune for the U.S. Navy. A lieutenant in the French navy, Etienne nearly died in the West Indies. Too ill to cross the Atlantic, he was fortunate that his fever came during a brief interlude of peace between the French and British empires. His ship dropped him ashore in a British...

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2. “You knew the French Republic were at war”

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pp. 17-27

Captain John Barry came aboard the United States at New Castle, Delaware, on the afternoon of July 4, 1798. Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert wanted Barry to cruise between Cape Henry and Nantucket to protect American merchant..

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3. “Those Yankees will never stand the smell of powder”

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pp. 28-38

Lieutenant Decatur may have asked himself why he had so eagerly studied the arts of war and command. For years Thomas Jefferson’s party had criticized the navy as a wasteful extravagance, and now the Republicans were determined to cut the federal deficit. They would dismantle and store the frigates and...

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4. “If it had not been for the Capture of the Philadelphia”

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pp. 39-46

When the Chesapeake reached Washington at the end of May 1803, Decatur was ordered to Boston to oversee construction of the sixteen-gun brig Argus. He was to complete the task quickly, enlist a crew of seventy men, and sail to the Mediterranean. There he would deliver the Argus to Isaac Hull and take...

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5. “The great smoke cloud spreads its wings”

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pp. 47-54

An hour after he received Preble’s written orders, Decatur and his men were sailing for Tripoli aboard the Intrepid; Charles Stewart escorted them in the Siren. The men left behind in Syracuse knew only that the two ships were “bound on some Secret Expedition,” though Midshipman Ralph Izard wrote his mother that...

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6. “I find hand to hand is not child’s play”

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pp. 55-65

The new hero would have little time to rest on earned laurels. Preble had only a few men, and he needed to use them effectively. The day after Decatur returned to Syracuse, Preble ordered him to sail for Messina to oversee the...

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7. “The character of a great and rising nation”

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pp. 66-74

Preble and the men under him were now determined to win the war before his replacement arrived. “The officers here are all very anxious that a peace shoud be made before the arrival of Commodore Barron,” John Adams purser John Darby wrote in his journal, “that Commodore Preble may have the credit of it.” The officers...

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8.“I neglected the opportunities of improvement”

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pp. 75-83

Alhough two honorary swords presented by Congress awaited him in Philadelphia, and newspapers sang the praises of the “gallant Decatur,” the young captain was not sure he had earned the adulation. He had seen his brother die, had watched Somers and his men sail off to glory, never to return. He had risen to the top, but he could...

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9. “Give us a man to lead us to glory”

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pp. 84-92

The gunboats were impractical for defense, but the irregular chain of command could be an advantage. When Sinclair returned to Norfolk, he opened a “recruiting Service at this Place” to enlist men for the frigate Chesapeake, being fitted out in...

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10. “I cannot suffer men to be taken from me by force”

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pp. 93-103

Decatur set to work restoring discipline and order on the ship. He had two men court-martialed, “one for desertion, the other for mutinous & seditious expressions, & insolence to his officers,” in order, he told Secretary Smith, “that proper...

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11. “No ship has better men than she now has”

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pp. 104-109

The embargo expired when Jefferson left office. President Madison did not renew it. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin and Navy Secretary Smith (who now became secretary of state) had opposed the embargo but had been required to enforce it. The embargo had failed to end the troubles with either England or France...

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12. “Aim at the yellow streak” [Contains Image Plates]

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pp. 110-120

Decatur and his fine new crew sailed the United States to Norfolk, where they would spend the winter replacing the ship’s copper. As commander of the navy’s southern squadron, Decatur now had two frigates—the...

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13. “The trophies won by the Athenians”

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pp. 121-128

While Decatur was laying his laurels at Susan’s feet, Lieutenant Archibald Hamilton continued on to Washington. Hamilton left New London on Friday, December 4, and reached the capital on Tuesday, December 8. His timing could not have been better. That...

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14. “A caged eagle”

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pp. 129-137

During these happy weeks in New York, Decatur also came to know Robert Fulton. Fulton took advantage of the fact that John Rodgers was at sea, and Isaac Chauncey on the Great Lakes, to present his ideas again to the navy, this time in the person of Stephen Decatur. Rodgers had regarded Fulton..

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15. “To die well”

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pp. 138-144

Susan stayed at Mrs. Bradish’s New York boardinghouse while Stephen was bottled up in New London. She had had no reason to leave the city with him when he first sailed, expecting that he would be at sea for months. When it became apparent that...

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16. “Every sword should be prepared”

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pp. 145-151

With the squadron out of immediate danger, Jones and his men left for Sackett’s Harbor on Lake Ontario, Biddle waited for a chance to get the Hornet to sea, and Decatur went to New York. Stephen was relieved to be back with Susan, in a city where he and the navy had friends, and to have a chance...

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17. “Let us go down like men”

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pp. 152-159

With New York spared from a British invasion, Decatur prepared to take the war to sea. He suggested to the secretary of the navy that he lead a small squadron to attack British trade in the Mediterranean or in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. Decatur preferred the second plan, which followed the route and...

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18. “Emerging from the cloud”

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pp. 160-168

The celebrations in New London and New York were a painful reminder to Decatur that he had not returned home a hero. Hoping to clear his name, he requested that Secretary Crowninshield call a court of inquiry into the President’s surrender. British officers, eager to clear their own wounded reputations, were spreading an...

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19. “Without the assistance of Bainbridge”

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pp. 169-176

After a brief visit to Italy, Decatur sailed on to Tunis. That regency was at peace with the United States, but during the war it had allowed the English to take from its neutral port two British merchants ships captured by an American. The privateer....

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20. “Honor to the Name of Commodore Decatur”

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pp. 177-185

“We have not titles or stars to reward you,” the Richmond Enquirer apologized in an editorial addressed to Decatur. “We have no Garters to adorn you, no lordly-sounding names, or munificent pensions to bestow” on the “hero, who returns covered with glory, only to share it with his countrymen.” Decatur had been...

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21. “You will have to pass over my dead body”

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pp. 186-199

Now a public hero, Decatur had already considered his future role in the American service. Even before sailing for the Mediterranean, he had written to Secretary Crowninshield that on his return he “should be glad to have some situation...

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22. “A duty Iowe to the service”

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pp. 200-211

The navy’s effectiveness as a fighting force and the public’s faith in its integrity depended on the good character of its officers. Decatur had advised Secretary Crowninshield to publish court-martial verdicts and other reprimands of officers, “else an innocent man might be supposed to have been guilty, & guilt . . . supposed to...

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23. “I never was your enemy, sir”

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pp. 212-215

Susan was still asleep when Stephen left the house on the clear cold morning of March 22. He did not wake their guests—her father, their nieces—as he slipped out the door. He walked briskly across President’s Park, past the White House, then quickly...

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pp. 216-222

The two surviving navy commissioners reconvened on Saturday, March 25. Their only business was to cancel the board’s subscription to Niles Weekly Register. Rodgers and Porter found that morning’s account of “the late unhappy occurrence near this city” to be “so destitute of even the color of truth that the confidence...


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pp. 223-244

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pp. 245-246

Robert Fowkes started me on the trail of Stephen Decatur by asking if there was a good biography. As a teacher himself, he knows we can never anticipate where a question will lead. I thank him for setting the process in motion, and Paul Wright at the University of Massachusetts Press for patiently but persistently helping me finish it. Our...


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pp. 247-253

E-ISBN-13: 9781613760611
E-ISBN-10: 1613760612
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558494923
Print-ISBN-10: 1558494928

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2005