”God bless you, Decatur!” - the fatal duel between US naval legend Stephan Decatur and James Barron

22 March 1820, 195 years ago, the duel fought between the 41 years old US naval legend Stephen Decatur and Commodore James Barron on the outskirts of Washington D.C. ended fatally for America’s foremost post–Revolutionary War hero.

"He was the friend of the flag, the sailor's friend; the navy has lost its mainmast." (Unknown American seaman during Decatur’s funeral)

Decatur's finest hour: "Thomas Birch’s (1779 – 1851) imagination of the engagement of
HMS “Macedonian” with Decatur’s USS “United Sates” (1813)*

The “horrible old” HMS Leopard lay in Hampton Roads, in wait for outgoing American shipping with deserters from the Royal Navy among their crews. The lure of the hinterland and the comparatively lax ways aboard merchantmen and US warships at peace was a problem for commanders of British warships maintaining wartime discipline on the North American station. Desertion of their crews, often pressed into service against their will, happened and Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys and his “Leopard” out of Halifax, a rather redundant 4th rate ship-of-the-line with 50 guns, had orders to search American and other neutral vessels for them. Nonetheless, the US were at peace and there was no reason for Commodore James Barron, sailing from Norfolk, Virginia, to clear his USS “Chesapeake” for action or at least expect a hostile act when he was hailed by Humphreys to heave to and have his frigate searched for deserters. Barron refused and the “Leopard” fired a broadside into the “Chesapeake” to press the point, Barron fired a gun pour l’honneur and struck his colours. A British boarding party came on board and apprehend four men, three Americans who had run from the Royal Navy and one Englishman, Jenkin Ratford, who was hanged from the yardarm for desertion in Halifax. The three Americans were released to mollify the US government in the following diplomatic tohu wabo-hu and Humphreys discreetly removed from service, while Commodore James Barron got court-martialled by his own people for unpreparedness. While the judgement ended with “five years suspension”, one member of the board of officers outspokenly demanded his sack: Barron’s former comrade-in-arms, the US naval hero Stephen Decatur. 

Removal of deserters from USS "Chesapeake"

It was a small world in the young US Navy at the turn of the 18th century. Most officers knew each other and served together aboard the few frigates available during the Quasi-War with France in 1798 and the conflict with the Barbary Pirates and usually, actions were rather successful, with the exception of Bainbridge who lost his “Philadelphia” to the Dey of Tripoli in 1803. Bainbridge and his crew were held in Tripoli and the captured American frigate enlisted into the service of the Corsairs. Young Stephen Decatur destroyed the prize, in the words of Lord Nelson himself, "the most bold and daring act of the Age" and distinguished himself further during what was known as the First Barbary War. When war broke out with the British in 1812, Decatur already had assumed command of one the three American Über-frigates, the “United States”, won one of the three one-on-one frigate duels that had the “Times” run the headline “Good God!” and made the British Admiralty issue the standing orders that such engagements were to be avoided at all costs. Bainbridge, then captain of USS “Constitution” who had captured HMS “Java” in the duel that won his frigate her famous nickname “Old Ironsides”, had somewhat re-established his reputation in the meanwhile, but while “Java” was shot to a wreck and had to be burned, Decatur’s prize was sailed intact into Newport, R.I., and could be taken into service as USS “Macedonian”, a noteworthy addition in times when the US Navy could boast a total of only six frigates. Decatur, seemingly, was always at least two steps ahead of him.

"The most bold and daring act of the Age" -
the destruction of captured USS "Philadelphia" in Tripolis
by Decatur and his crew

It might be navy gossip, but malicious tongues claimed that Bainbridge secretly rubbed his hands with glee, when Barron called out Decatur over the latter’s comments made in polite society about the former’s conduct in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair back in 1807. Barron had just returned from Copenhagen, seeking employment again in the US Navy and the practice of the few experienced naval offices duelling and often killing themselves over supposedly minor slights was, at the very least, frowned upon by War Office. The threat of discharge from office stood, even for a naval hero like Decatur and Barron had nothing to gain either. But it was a matter of honour and that was that. After turned down by his friends who did not encourage duelling either, Decatur finally won Bainbridge to act as his second. Barron’s second, Captain Jesse Elliot, whose conduct during the naval Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 was found lacking, at least by his commanding officer Oliver Perry, couldn’t stand Decatur one bit either. What the two seconds, Bainbridge and Elliot, conversed about for almost an hour on the morning of the duel on the field of honour is not recorded, however, Decatur’s alleged attempt to reconcile with Barron was obviously ignored by the seconds afterwards, a grave breach of the established Code Duello, if it actually happened. Both Barron and Decatur were crack pistol shots and Decatur might have aimed to wound his adversary only, however, both fired as soon as they were allowed to and both hit and fell. Barron declared that honour was satisfied and that he forgave Decatur. Decatur, hit in the pelvis with arteries severed, suffered excruciating pain and knew he was dying. He managed to say “Farewell, farewell, Barron!” while Barron cried: ”God bless you, Decatur!” when they were both carried off the field. Stephen Decatur died in the following night after having played a not insignificant part in the young nation’s finding its own identity, while his famous dinner toast from 1816 became programmatic: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”

John Wesley Jarvis' (1780-1840) portrait of "Captain Stephen Decatur, USN"

* Depicted above is the American naval painter Thomas Birch’s (1779 – 1851) imagination of the engagement of HMS “Macedonian” with Decatur’s USS “United Sates”, finished in 1813, only months after the event that took place on 25 October 1812. When the two frigates lay alongside in peacetime in Norfolk, Virginia, back in 1810, “Macedonian’s” commander John Carden had placed a bet that his ship would emerge victorious if they’d ever meet in battle. A rather fatal overlooking of facts. Carden’s 5th rate 38 gun frigate carried 28 18 pounders as main armament and threw a broadside weight of roughly 500 pounds while “United States” was armed with 32 24-pounder long guns, augmented by 24 42-pounder carronades and a broadside weight of 900 pounds, almost that of a 3rd rate ship-of-the-line. Decatur’s “United States” shot HMS “Macedonian” expectably to pieces at long range with her long 24s without suffering any major damage from the “Macedonian’s” 18 pounders in return. Her hull construction gave her the same iron sides as the “Constitution’s”. After Carden surrendered his frigate to Decatur, she was jury-rigged to sail into Newport to be completely restored. Bainbridge’s USS “Constitution” fought HMS Java in December 1812 at close range with her 24s as well as her 42-pounder carronades that resulted in irreparable structural damage for the British frigate.

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