Stephen Decatur


Stephen Decatur was born in Sinepuxent, Maryland, and he attended the University of Pennsylvania before joining the Navy at age nineteen and serving during the Quasi-War with France, an undeclared war begun by French attacks on American ships. Following the war, the Navy greatly reduced its number of active ships and officers; Decatur was one of the few selected to remain in the service. In 1806, he married Susan Wheeler, an attractive young woman who had earlier been pursued by Vice President Aaron Burr and Jerome Bonaparte, brother to Napoleon.

Upon the onset of the First Barbary War in 1801, Decatur was stationed aboard the USS Essex as first lieutenant before taking command of the USS Enterprise. He and another crew captured a small sailboat, which was renamed the Intrepid and given to Decatur for use in a raid to destroy the enemy ship USS Philadelphia. Their plan to sneak aboard the frigate was successful, and they set the ship ablaze before escaping. Before the end of the war, Decatur was promoted to captain, becoming the youngest man to reach such a rank in the history of the U.S. Navy. During the war of 1812, he commanded the United States, defeating both the British Mandarin and the Macedonian before he was driven up into New London, Connecticut and blocked from re-entering the fight. In 1815, Decatur, now sailing the President, was assigned a mission in the East Indies, but his ship was soon surrounded and captured by a British squadron. The captain and his men were taken as prisoners to Bermuda until February, when hostilities ceased and Decatur was brought to New York City.

Only a few weeks after Decatur’s return, he set out once more, this time leading the main Naval squadron to Algiers at the start of the Second Barbary War. After his dealings with the Algerian government, Decatur went next to Tunis and Tripoli, where he demanded reimbursement promised during the War of 1812. After this campaign, he became known as “the Conqueror of the Barbary Pirates.” Sadly, though, his victory was short-lived; only five years after his return, he was challenged to a duel by a rival captain, James Barron, who was jealous of his success. The two fired their pistols simultaneously, but while Barron survived, Decatur passed away only hours later from a wound to the pelvis. He was the first American celebrated as a national military hero who had not played a role in the Revolutionary War, and he was recognized as the father of the post-revolutionary American Navy.

Key events during the life of Stephen Decatur:

Employed in the firm of Gurney and Smith; supervised the construction of the frigate United States.
Joined the U.S. Navy.
  Served in the Quasi-War against France following the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.
First Barbary War.
Promoted to captain.
Married Susan Wheeler.
War of 1812 against Britain.
Second Barbary War.
Killed in a duel with a rival officer.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Decatur and the Pirates  in  Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans  by  Edward Eggleston
America and the Corsairs  in  Barbary Rovers  by  John Finnemore
Burning of the Philadelphia  in  Boys' Book of Sea Fights  by  Chelsea Curtis Fraser
The War With African Pirates  in  Story of the Great Republic  by  H. A. Guerber
Fate of the Philadelphia  in  Historical Tales, Vol I: American  by  Charles Morris
Friendly Foes  in  American History Stories, Volume III  by  Mara L. Pratt
Stephen Decatur  in  Twelve Naval Captains  by  Molly Elliot Seawell

Image Links

Stephen Decatur
Stephen Decatur
 in Back Matter
Decatur's Conflict with the Algerine at Tripoli
Decatur's Conflict with the Algerine at Tripoli
 in Back Matter

Stephen Dacatur
 in Twelve Naval Captains

Decatur's Men Fighting Pirates in the Mediterranean
 in Builders of Our Country: Book II

Short Biography
Aaron Burr Controversial American statesman. VP under Jefferson. Killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Accused of Treason.
Oliver Hazard Perry Naval Hero, commander of American forces at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
Francis Scott Key Watched the bombardment of Baltimore during the War of 1812, and penned the National Anthem.
Isaac Hull American naval hero best known for commanding the U.S.S. Constitution when in took on the HMS Guerrierre during the war of 1812.
William Bainbridge American naval hero who fought against the Barbary pirates, and piloted the U.S.S. Constitution during the war of 1812.