Twelve Naval Captains - Molly E. Seawell

Stephen Decatur



Among the most brilliant and picturesque figures in American naval history stands Stephen Decatur. His achievements were of that dashing and splendid quality which leaves a blaze upon the page of history; and the greatest of them, the destruction of the Philadelphia  frigate in the harbor of Tripoli, earned from Lord Nelson the praise of being "the most bold and daring act of the age."

Decatur came justly by his genius for the sea. His father was a captain in the navy of the United States, and his grandfather had been a French naval officer. His was no rude struggle with adversity. The child of gentle people, he entered the navy in 1797, with every advantage of education and training. He was then eighteen years of age, old for a midshipman, when boys entered at thirteen and were often acting lieutenants at sixteen. Decatur was a handsome man, tall and well made.

Although of a disposition the most generous, he was always of an impetuous and even domineering nature. Strict habits of self-control modified this impetuosity, but to the day of his death he was subject to gusts of temper whenever he came across any instance of cruelty or meanness or oppression.

A famous example of this was shown shortly before his untimely death. He was then at the summit of his fame, one of the ranking officers of the navy, a navy commissioner, and living in grand style for the times in the city of Washington. He had a favorite dog, and one day, when the dog was lying quietly asleep on the doorstep of Decatur's house, a policeman came along and wantonly shot the poor creature. Decatur happened to see the whole affair, and, rushing out, he gave the policeman then and there a terrific walloping. The policeman, smarting from the injury to his dignity as well as the pounding of his bones, swore out a warrant, and Decatur was commanded to appear before the Mayor of Washington. Furious at the turn of affairs, Decatur flatly refused to obey the constable's summons. In vain the officer pleaded with him to go quietly. Decatur would not budge a step. At last the man brought a posse and proceeded to take him by force. Decatur would not be guilty of the crime of resisting the law, but he proposed to let them get him before the magistrate the best way they could. He not only would not walk a step, but lay down on the floor, and, as he was a large and heavy man, it was a job to lift him up and put him in a carriage; but at last it was accomplished.

By the time they reached the Mayor's court, Decatur's temper, never mild, was red hot. He proceeded to harangue and even to browbeat the Mayor, who was a very insignificant person compared with Commodore Decatur. At the first blast, though, the Mayor proved that he had a spirit of his own. "Look here, Commodore," said he, "when you are on the quarterdeck of your ship you command. I'll have you understand that this court-room is my quarterdeck, and I command here, and if I hear another disrespectful word from you I'll send you to jail for as long as I please." Decatur, paralyzed with astonishment, looked at the Mayor for a long time; then, suddenly bursting into a shout of laughter, apologized for his behavior and submitted to be fined for thrashing the policeman.

Such was the man through life,—daring, generous, overbearing sometimes, but always responding to what was just and courageous in others.

Decatur's first cruise was made in the United States, frigate, forty-four guns, wearing the broad pennant of Commodore Barry. Charles Stewart, afterward the celebrated commodore, was one of the junior lieutenants of the ship, and the heroic and unfortunate Richard Somers was one of the midshipmen.

Decatur and Somers had been schoolmates in Philadelphia, and the association formed there was cemented into a devoted friendship in the steerage of the United States. No two natures were ever more dissimilar than that of the impetuous Decatur and the gentle and retiring but indomitable Somers. From the beginning they were actuated by a noble professional rivalry; yet their close and affectionate friendship was that of brothers, and their devotion to each other has become a tradition in the navy.

The United States was a splendid frigate, fast and Weatherly, and, from the regularity with which she made time on her cruises, was known as "Old Wagoner." Commodore Barry was an old officer who had done good service in the Revolution, and when he took command of the squadron of which "Old Wagoner" was the flag-ship, he sailed at once for the West Indies, to retaliate on the French ships which had preyed upon American commerce. It was not the good fortune of the United States to meet a frigate of equal force, so that her men and their mettle could be tried, but she did good service in clearing out the French privateers which infested those seas. Decatur saw much active cruising, and gave indications of that dashing courage, masterly seamanship, and fertile resource which he developed the instant he got command of a ship.

He made several cruises, reached his lieutenancy, and was attached to the Essex  when she went under Captain Bainbridge to the Mediterranean, in 1802. During the troubles the officers of the Essex  had, at Barcelona, with the officers of the Spanish guardship, Decatur was conspicuous. Having been annoyed and insulted by the Spanish officers, on his way to and from his ship, he went aboard the Spaniard, and asked for her commanding officer. He was absent, and Decatur left this message, which he shouted out in his tremendous voice, on the Spanish quarterdeck: "Tell him that Lieutenant Decatur of the Essex  declares him to be a scoundrelly coward; and if Lieutenant Decatur meets him ashore, he will cut his ears off!" A duel in the case was narrowly averted.

At twenty-four Decatur got his first command, the Argus, one of the two sixteen-gun brigs which were to assist Commodore Preble in the reduction of the Barbary powers. This was a heavier vessel than a young officer of Decatur's rank was entitled to, and he was given the command of her only to take her out of the Mediterranean, where he was to exchange with Isaac Hull, then a lieutenant commandant, and take Hull's vessel, the Enterprise, schooner, of twelve guns. The Enterprise, like the great frigates Constitution  and Constellation, was a favorite of fortune. She had a glorious record for so small a vessel, and fought ten spirited actions during her career, winding up with the capture of the Boxer in the war of 1812-15. She was lucky also in escaping many times from superior force, and had an uninterrupted course of success. Her good fortune really consisted in the people who manned her, and the officers who commanded her,—of whom Decatur was not the least distinguished. He had the good fortune to have as his first lieutenant in the little schooner James Lawrence, a man after Decatur's own heart, who was worthy of his ship and his captain.

Decatur was one of the young commanders who took part in the council of war called by Commodore Preble at Gibraltar, in the autumn of 1808, at which the peppery commodore was so disgusted that he called them "a parcel of school-boys." But most of them were shortly destined to immortality.

After collecting his force, Preble sailed for Syracuse, that historic city, beautiful in its decay. The object of the American commander was to establish a base of supplies, and to get the co-operation of the King of the Two Sicilies, who was also at war with the Bashaw of Tripoli. It was while at Syracuse, in the autumn of 1808, that the plan to destroy the Philadelphia  in the harbor of Tripoli was determined upon. The credit of the original idea has been separately claimed for Preble, Bainbridge, and Decatur; and the fact probably is that it occurred at practically the same time to each one of them. Every one of Preble's dashing young captains desired the honor of making the attempt, and the fact that Decatur obtained the distinction is presumptive proof that he had a share in the first inception of the plan. Stewart's claim to a part in the undertaking was so strong that to him fell the honor of supporting, in the Siren, Decatur's proposed attack.

In order to look over the ground, Preble in the Constitution, accompanied by Decatur in the Enterprise, sailed for Tripoli, in December, 1803. Decatur, with his characteristic boldness, offered to make the attempt with the Enterprise; but Commodore Preble prudently concluded to use a ketch, the Meshouda, which Decatur had lately captured and which was of a build and rig common in Mediterranean waters.

As Decatur meant to get inside the harbor of Tripoli by stratagem, it was important to have a vessel that would not attract attention. The ketch was fittingly renamed the Intrepid, and preparations were begun for the desperate adventure with her.

Decatur was extremely anxious, as was Stewart, to cut the Philadelphia  out; but Commodore Preble, as bold as they were, but older and more prudent, saw the insurmountable difficulties in the way of bringing so large a ship as the Philadelphia  out of a dangerous and unknown harbor such as Tripoli. He therefore gave strict orders that no attempt should be made to carry her out, but that she should be destroyed at her moorings; and the commodore was certain to be obeyed.

The Intrepid  was converted into a fire-ship, or "infernal." She was filled with combustibles, and it was designed that she should steal in at night in disguise, throw the combustibles into the Philadelphia, fire them, and then make a race for her life.

The nature of this enterprise required men of extraordinary steadiness as well as courage; but they could be easily supplied from the American squadron. It was intended to man and officer the Intrepid  as far as possible from the Enterprise;  and in pursuance of this, on the afternoon of the 3rd of February, 1803, all hands on the Enterprise  were called up and aft. Decatur then stated the nature of the service for which the Intrepid  was destined,—a service of heroic possibilities but appalling danger,—and then called for sixty-two volunteers. Instead of sixty-two men, the whole ship's company down to the smallest boy volunteered with a cheer. This was what any captain would have desired, and Decatur was forced to make a choice. He selected sixty-two of the youngest and most active men in the crew, who showed their gratification by saying, "Thankee, sir," as each man was told off. He could make no choice among his lieutenants, but took them all Lawrence, Joseph Bainbridge, and Thorn—and one of his midshipmen, the indomitable Macdonough, the rest being necessarily left to take care of the ship. He was compelled to make a draft of junior officers from the Constitution, and asked for midshipmen Morris, Laws, Izard, Davis, and Rowe. There was also a surgeon, Dr. Heermann, and Salvatore Catalano, a Sicilian pilot, who, in return for his services, was made a master in the American navy, and had an honorable career in it.

On the evening of the 3rd of February the Intrepid  sailed upon her glorious expedition, accompanied by the Siren, whose character as a ship of war was thoroughly concealed. The ketch was to pass for a merchant vessel from Malta, and her officers had the costumes of Maltese sailors in which to disguise themselves. The two vessels reached the entrance to the harbor of Tripoli on the 9th of February, but a terrific storm arose, which drove them off. For six days they were storm-tossed in the gulf of Sydra, but on the 16th of February they found themselves together again off Tripoli. The evening was mild and beautiful, and the wind was so light that the Siren was almost becalmed in the offing, but the Intrepid  met a wandering breeze that carried her within the rocky harbor. Once inside, a good breeze was blowing, which swept them rapidly forward, and threatened to bring the Intrepid  up with the Philadelphia  before it was quite dark enough to do the work meant for her. As it would not do to excite suspicion by taking in sail, Decatur had buckets and sails towed astern which acted as a drag, and brought the ketch in very slowly. When Decatur noticed that the Siren in the offing had no wind and consequently could be of no assistance to him, he remarked cheerfully to his men, "Never mind; the fewer the number the greater the glory."

The ketch sailed leisurely in, having the appearance of a merchant ship from a Mediterranean port, after a considerable voyage.

The crew had been sent below, and only a few officers, disguised as Maltese sailors, stood or sat about the deck. Before them lay the Bashaw's castle, with its menacing battlements, and all around the harbor was a chain of forts that could make a circle of fire for an invader. Directly under the guns of the castle loomed the tall black hull of the Philadelphia, flying the piratical flag of Tripoli, while moored near her were three smaller cruisers and nineteen gunboats.

The moon had risen, and by its clear illumination the "infernal" steered straight across the blue waters of the harbor for the Philadelphia. When about two hundred yards off, Salvatore Catalano, the pilot, hailed the Tripolitan officer of the deck on the Philadelphia, who lounged over the rail smoking a long pipe.

"This is the ketch Stella, from Malta," he said in the lingua franca  of the East. "We lost our anchors and cables in the gale, and would like to lie by you during the night."

"Your request is unusual, but we will grant it," answered the Tripolitan officer.

The officer then asked what vessel it was that was lying in the offing. The pilot, with much readiness, replied that it was the Transfer, a cruiser lately bought from the British by the Tripolitan government, and which was daily expected. This answer seemed to satisfy the Tripolitan, and a boat then put off from the Philadelphia  with a fast, and at the same moment a boat also put off, under the command of Lawrence, from the Intrepid. On meeting, Lawrence coolly took the fast from the Tripolitan boat, and soon had the hawser aboard of the ketch. A moment more and the supposed Maltese sailors, in their jackets and red fezzes, roused on the hawser and breasted the ketch along under the Philadelphia's  quarter. Had the slightest suspicion been aroused then, they would have been blown out of the water by a single broadside. But the Americans retained their coolness in their desperate situation.

Presently the Intrepid  drew out from the black shadow of the frigate's hull into a great patch of white moonlight. The Tripolitans saw the anchors on the deck, with the cables coiled around them. Instantly a cry rang through the ship, "Americanos! Americanos!"

At the same moment the Intrepid  came grinding up against the frigate's stern quarter, and, as if by magic, was alive with men. Decatur shouted, "Board!" and the Americans dashed at the frigate's deck.

Decatur, and two midshipmen, Morris and Laws, leaped at the same moment into the chain plates. Decatur and Morris made a spring for the rail; Decatur's foot slipped, else he would have been first upon the Philadelphia's  deck; but Morris, an agile young midshipman, was a moment before him. Midshipman Laws dashed at a port, and would have been before Morris in entering the ship, but the pistols in his boarding-belt caught for a moment between the gun and the port, and he was third to stand upon the deck. The rest of the Americans swarmed into the ship.

The Tripolitans, completely surprised, yet fought desperately. They had been accounted the best hand-to-hand fighters in the world, but they were no match for the Americans. Within fifteen minutes every one of them had been cut down or driven overboard, and the Philadelphia  was once more an American ship. Meanwhile lights had been moving about on shore, and the vessels and forts saw that something was happening on the Philadelphia, but not enough could be seen to justify them in firing on their own ship. In a few minutes more, though, smoke was pouring from the ports, and flames were running up her tar-soaked rigging. The Americans, with almost incredible swiftness, had hoisted powder aboard the ship and fired her in a dozen places. Two guns, double-shotted, were dragged amidships and pointed down the main hatch to blow her bottom out. They then leaped into the ketch; but at that moment the most awful danger of that terrible yet glorious night awaited them. The fast became jammed, and the jigger of the ketch caught fire as it flapped against the burning frigate, while below, on the Intrepid's  deck, lay all her powder exposed. The officers, undismayed however, drew their swords and hacked at the hawser until it parted. Then, under sweeps and sails, the Intrepid  made for the offing, the men pulling for their lives, while the ships and forts, now thoroughly aroused, opened all their batteries on this daring invader. But the shot fell short, and raised only showers of spray, at which the Americans laughed and jeered.

The Philadelphia  was now ablaze from rail to truck, and sea and sky were lighted up by the flames of the burning ship. Her guns began to go off as the fire reached them, and she poured a cannonade from every quarter. The ketch was plainly visible as she made rapidly for the offing, and a hundred guns were trained on her. At this supreme moment the Americans gave one last proof of their contempt of danger. The men stopped rowing, and every officer and man, rising to his feet, gave three thundering American cheers. Then they bent to their oars with giant strokes, and in a little while were safe under the Siren's guns. They had not lost a man in the glorious achievement.

The Siren, meanwhile, in the offing, had hoisted out her boats, and was ready to assist the Intrepid, in case she needed it. The progress of the ketch was plainly visible until she was lost in the shadow of the Philadelphia's  black hull. In a few minutes a single rocket skyward showed the anxious watchers that the Philadelphia  was boarded; and almost at once the blaze rushed up the rigging, and enveloped the tall hull, lighting up the night with a lurid glare, while the guns of the doomed frigate and those of the castle, the ships, and the forts thundered out. Then they knew that the great enterprise was accomplished. The boats pulled toward the harbor entrance; soon the ketch had shot across the illuminated water, and had reached them. Decatur, jumping into one of the Siren's boats, was quickly pulled toward the brig. Stewart, standing in the gangway, saw the boat approach, and a man, in a sailor's round jacket and a fez, sprang over the gangway, into his arms. It was Decatur.

Fifteen days after leaving Syracuse, the ketch and the brig were seen standing in the harbor, the signal of success flying from the Intrepid's  masthead. For this splendid adventure Decatur was made a post-captain, his commission dating from the 16th of February, and the officers and men were rewarded.

Before, however, receiving his commission, Decatur was yet to do glorious things in the bombardment of Tripoli during the following summer. Commodore Preble, in arranging the boat attacks, which he supported by the batteries of the "Old Ironsides," and all his brigs and schooners, gave the command of the right division to Richard Somers, Decatur's bosom friend, and the left division to Decatur. On the 2nd of August the first attack was made. The Tripolitans had a flotilla of fourteen gunboats to resist the six the Americans could muster; and they had, in reserve, behind the rocks in the harbor, five more gun-boats and several heavy galleys, besides their forts, batteries, and larger clubs. The attack was begun about half past one in the afternoon, the whole force standing in; the Constitution  approaching as close as possible and pouring in many broadsides against the forts, the brigs and schooners supporting the gunboats, while the latter dashed at the Tripolitan gunboats and galleys with a swiftness and impetuosity that were simply tremendous. The attack soon assumed a character of hand-to-hand fighting that is seldom seen in modern days. Decatur's own vessel laid aboard a large Tripolitan gunboat, and in spite of the most desperate resistance, grappled with her. She was divided in the middle by a long narrow hatchway, and in this the Tripolitans mustered to drive back the Americans when they entered. Immediately Decatur was over the side, followed by his lieutenant, Mr. Thorne, by Macdonough, and all the Americans in the gunboat's crew. They advanced together with pikes and cutlasses, and then ensued a contest, man to man, fighting every inch of the way, which resulted in cutting down or driving overboard every Tripolitan officer and man.

Just as the Tripolitan ensign was hauled down, it was seen that James Decatur, Decatur's younger brother, who was in command of another gunboat and had carried her into action with great spirit, had fallen by a shot from a Tripolitan which had surrendered and then basely resumed firing. James Decatur was carried aboard the Constitution  to die, but it was no time to indulge in private griefs; and Decatur, without knowing whether his brother were living or dead, turned upon the next foe. This was another gun-vessel, which was commanded by a gigantic Tripolitan, who seemed to court rather than avoid a hand-to-hand contest with the Americans.

Decatur ran him aboard, and then with a cheer the Americans leaped into the gunboat. Seeing the force with which they had to contend, Decatur waited until his men could form a line. They then advanced resolutely, led by their officers. They were greatly outnumbered, but by standing together they made the most of their number. The Tripolitan captain and Decatur soon met face to face. The Tripolitan, a much larger and more powerful man than Decatur, stood on tiptoe to deal a more tremendous blow. Decatur rushed at him with a pike. The Tripolitan wrenched the pike from him, and raised it to strike. Decatur then drew his sword, and in trying to parry the pike, the sword broke off at the hilt, and the pike entered Decatur's breast. Pulling it out, he grappled with the Tripolitan, and both came to the deck together. The Tripolitan attempted to draw his dagger; but Decatur, firmly grasping his arm, managed to get a small pistol from his pocket, and fired it. With a scream the Tripolitan relinquished his hold and rolled over. As Decatur rose to his feet, another Tripolitan raised his sword; as the blow was about to descend on Decatur's head, Reuben James, a powerful young sailor, threw up his arm, and took the blow, which almost severed his arm from his body. The Americans were now beginning to get a little the advantage; and by coolness and resolution they were soon enabled to get possession of the gunboat. The Tripolitan loss showed the nature of the fighting, fifty-two men being killed and wounded out of a total of eighty in the two captured gunboats. The loss of the Americans was relatively small, owing to their plan of standing together and attacking as a body.'

Four more of these ferocious attacks, combined with a terrific cannonade from the Constitution, and the assistance from the brigs and schooners, lost the Tripolitans many of their most serviceable craft, and made those that were left very shy of coming outside the reefs to meet the "Americanos." The great guns on the Constitution  had knocked to pieces many of the more exposed land batteries, and brought down the Bashaw's tone immeasurably. He was then anxious to negotiate, but Commodore Preble would listen to nothing but the unconditional surrender of Bainbridge and his men.

The loss of the Americans was small in numbers but great in value during the bombardment, and was confined chiefly to the gunboats. In the second attack, on the 7th of August, one of the American gunboats blew up, killing her brave commander, Lieutenant Caldwell, and several others. When the smoke cleared away after the awful explosion, it was seen that the forward part of the vessel still floated. On it was the long twenty-six-pounder, which was her chief weapon, and which the gun's crew, directed by Midshipman Spence, had just loaded. With as much coolness as if there had been a whole vessel instead of a half one beneath them, the gun was fired, the eleven men on the wreck gave three cheers, led by the midshipman, and then sprang into the water. All were picked up, and fought during the rest of the action.

There was another attack on the 28th of August, and again on the 3rd of September. In this last the Constitution  bore the brunt of the Tripolitan fire, and did fearful execution with her heavy guns. And on the 4th of September occurred the terrible tragedy of the blowing up of the ketch Intrepid.

The beginning of the autumn marked the end of the season for active operations, and the American squadron withdrew, with a promise to return the next season and do yet more damage,—a calamity which the Bashaw avoided by promptly giving up the American prisoners the next spring, when the Americans, true to their word, returned in greater force. A relief squadron which had been sent out from the United States arrived just at the close of the campaign before Tripoli. It brought out Decatur's commission as a post-captain, as well as lesser promotions for the other young commanding officers. Commodore Preble, on being relieved by Commodore Barron, turned over the Constitution  to Decatur, who thus, at twenty-five, commanded what was probably the finest frigate in the world. His rank, however, as the youngest post-captain in the navy did not entitle him to keep her very long, and he was transferred to the Congress, a smart thirty-eight-gun frigate. She was in the squadron of Commodore Rodgers, which, after the humbling of Tripoli, was engaged in bringing the Bey of Tunis to terms. Commodore Rodgers sent Decatur, who was well known to the heads of Barbary powers, to negotiate a treaty with Tunis. The Bey at first refused to receive him. Decatur returned to his ship, which was cleared for action, and sent a message saying that the Bey must decide at once between war and peace. The Bey succumbed immediately, and not only begged for peace, but asked that the Congress should convey a Tunisian envoy to the United States. This was rather more than Decatur had bargained for, particularly as he had to give up a part of his quarters to the Tunisian envoy and his suite. But having succeeded rather better than he expected, Decatur took the party on board and returned to the United States, reaching home in 1805.

He was received with praise, admiration, and the highest personal and official favor. He was given good commands, and a few years after he had gone out to the Mediterranean to command a little twelve-gun schooner, he again went out in command of a splendid squadron, his broad pennant flying on the mighty Constitution. He was sent to demand reparation from the Dey of Algiers for certain injuries to American citizens. The American consul went in person to see the Dey, who sat in state, looking through the open window at the formidable force with which Decatur was prepared to enforce his demands. The consul began by saying, significantly, that the squadron was commanded by Commodore Decatur. The Dey, gravely combing his beard with a diamond comb, said: "I know this Decatur. He is the man who burnt the frigate at Tripoli. Hum! Why do the Americans send wild young men to treat with old powers?" Nevertheless, he very promptly gave all the satisfaction demanded by the "wild young man."

On the outbreak of hostilities with Great Britain in 1811-12, Decatur got the command of the United States,—"Old Wagoner," the stanch and Weatherly frigate in which he had made his first cruise with his beloved Somers. In her he made the second capture of a frigate in that war, Hull having preceded him in the capture of the Guerriere  by the Constitution.

Off Madeira, on the 25th of October, the United States sighted the Macedonian, a magnificent thirty-eight-gun frigate, commanded by Captain Carden. Decatur and Carden were personal friends, and before the war broke out had often discussed the relative fighting powers of their ships. Decatur's black servant had listened to these talks as he stood behind his master's chair. Captain Carden frequently said, "No, my dear Decatur. Your men are brave, but not experienced; and when they meet a British ship of equal force, with the best intentions to do their duty, they will not know how to fight." Cuffee remembered this, and as soon as it was known on "Old Wagoner "that the approaching frigate was the Macedonian, he very prudently retired to the lower hold, and hid behind a hogshead.

The action began with the greatest spirit on both sides, the ships keeping up a furious cannonade at close quarters, with a heavy sea on and a good breeze blowing. The Americans showed great superiority in gunnery, and although the British fought with a gallantry worthy of British tars, and their officers nobly encouraged them by word and example, in seventeen minutes from the time the first broadside struck the Macedonian  all was over, and her colors were hauled down. She had suffered terribly, more than a third of her men being killed and wounded. She lost so many men at the guns that the marines were called upon to work the batteries. On the American ship only twelve men were killed and wounded, and the marines during the whole battle were drawn up in the waist of the ship, with nothing to do. This, however, was much more trying than fighting, as they had to stand as if they were on parade, while shot and shell screamed a few inches above their heads. The men, however, showed the utmost steadiness, and acted as well as looked as if they were merely at Sunday morning quarters. When the Macedonian  struck, it was plain from the way she was cut up that she had made a good and gallant defence. As Captain Carden came over the side, he offered his sword to Decatur, who refused to take it, saying,—

"I cannot take the sword of a man who has so bravely defended his ship."

The solemn silence of the occasion was broken by Cuffee, who, the danger being over, had crawled up out of the hold, and appeared upon the quarterdeck at that moment, just in time to bawl out,—

"I say, Marse Carden, what you think now 'bout de way dem 'Mericans fights!"

It was several weeks before the United States reached home, and during that time Captain Carden was Decatur's guest in the cabin. Decatur's first letter to his wife after the capture of the Macedonian  says: "All my pleasure is spoiled by poor Carden's sorrow; "for Captain Carden knew nothing of the previous capture of the Guerriere  and of the Java, which followed shortly after, and thought himself to be the first and only English captain who had surrendered his ship. On reaching the United States, Decatur and his officers received the thanks of Congress, and a gold medal for their gallant conduct.

Decatur had looked forward to another active cruise in "Old Wagoner," but he soon found himself penned up at New London by a large blockading force. Decatur's impetuous nature fretted and chafed under this, and in 1814, realizing the impossibility of the United States getting to sea, he got command of the President, of forty-four guns, then lying at New York. Decatur took command of her with bright anticipations. New York bay was closely watched by British cruisers, but Decatur had no fears that he should not be able to get out. Accordingly, on a dark and stormy night in January, 1814, he picked up his anchor, and made for the open sea; but before daylight the pilots had run the frigate aground near Sandy Hook, where for an hour and a half she lay pounding on the bar. She got off by the rising of the tide, but she was so hagged and twisted that her back was nearly broken, her masts sprung, and her sailing qualities so impaired that she stood but a small chance of escape should she fall in with an enemy. Unable by reason of the wind to return to New York for repairs, the President  proceeded to sea, and by daylight found herself surrounded by a British squadron, consisting of the Majestic, razee, and the Endymion, of forty guns, and the Tenedos and Nymph, light frigates. Then began a fight as well as a race for life, which lasted thirty hours. The Endymion  got near enough for a bloody contest, in which she was badly crippled and left behind, the President  making a desperate though lame attempt at flight from her antagonists. But it was in vain. The Tenedos  and Nymph  gained on her, and it was soon known to all on board that the President  was a doomed ship. Three of her five lieutenants lay dead upon her decks, while among the mortally wounded was Midshipman Richard Dale, son of the famous Commodore Dale, of Revolutionary fame. The killed and wounded among the crew were numerous, and Decatur himself received a painful injury.

His people, who had never seen him except in the light of triumph and success, were curious to observe how he would stand impending defeat. But never was he calmer and cooler. At one time, seeing he could handle the Endymion  alone, he formed the desperate plan of boarding her, transferring his people to her, and abandoning the President. The proposition was received with cheers. One of his youngest midshipmen,) a lad of fourteen, said out aloud, in Decatur's hearing,—

"I never can get over the side of that ship, as small as I am."

"Oh, yes, you can," replied Decatur, smiling. "I will pick you up and throw you over myself."

The Endymion, seeing that the President  must be shortly overpowered by the rest of the squadron, very sensibly refused to close, and fell out of the chase in a helpless condition, every sail being shot away from her.

It was now night, and the President  hoped to escape in the darkness, which was extreme. But about eleven o'clock the Pomone  ranged up under her lee and poured in a broadside, while the Tenedos was closing in on the weather quarter, and the Majestic  was within gunshot astern. The President  hauled her colors down, and Decatur offered his sword to Captain Hayes of the Majestic, the ranking officer present. It was refused in the same noble words which Decatur had used toward Captain Carden: "I cannot accept the sword of a man who has so bravely defended his ship."

Decatur was taken to Bermuda, where he was received with the highest distinction by the great Admiral, Lord Cochrane, and all of the British officers. At a splendid dinner given him by the British naval officers, some one was tactless enough to allude to the capture of the President, at which Lord Cochrane promptly said,—

"The President  was mobbed, sir,—simply mobbed."

Decatur and his officers were soon paroled, and sent home in a special frigate. Peace was declared a few days after, and at New London, where Decatur was landed, there was a grand celebration of the treaty of peace, on the 22nd of February. The British frigate in which he had been returned took part in the celebration, and the British and Americans united, as generous enemies who have become friends should in observing the glorious occasion.

After the peace, Decatur hoisted his broad pennant on the Guerriere, and commanded a fine squadron in the Mediterranean, where his name was always a power. On his return from this cruise he was made one of the three navy commissioners who were at the head of the Navy Department in those days. He had amassed a comfortable fortune, and built a fine house in Washington, near the White House, and had apparently entered upon a long career of peace and prosperity; but it was not to be.

It is distressing to chronicle the melancholy end of so glorious a life. In those days dueling was thought justifiable and even obligatory on occasions. Decatur lost his life in March, 1820, near Washington, in a duel with Commodore Barron, concerning some things he had said about Barron many years before. His death and the manner of it were universally deplored, and when the anxious multitude who surrounded his house in Washington was told that he was no more, Reuben James, the old sailor who had once saved Decatur's life at the risk of his own, cried out, "The navy has lost its mainmast."

Decatur was the author of that patriotic saying which is heard from many American lips and is deeply engraved in every American breast: "My country, may she always be right; but, right or wrong, my country!"