Stephen Decatur



Occupation 1

naval officer

Occupation 2

War of 1812


Tripolitan War/War of 1812


NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Maritime Republic (1751-1815)








Naval officer,� the son of� a merchant and privateer� Growing up in the maritime town of Philadelphia, Decatur was influenced to pursue a life at sea both by his father's profession and by the success that American merchant vessels had overseas in the wake of the Revolution�

Decatur signed on board the USS United States as a midshipman in May 1798� and served in the limited naval war with France during 1798-1800�

Promoted to lieutenant in 1799, Decatur received his first command, of the USS Argus, in November 1803 and proceeded to the Mediterranean to serve in the Tripolitan War, which had been declared in 1801. He was reassigned to command the USS Enterprise, and he captured a Tripolitan ketch, the Mastico, which he renamed the Intrepid. The Tripolitans ran aground the USS Philadelphia and captured it. Decatur then embarked on the mission that would ensure his lasting fame, as Americans would long remember the image of his leading his men in the burning of the captured American frigate in the harbor of Tripoli on 16 February 1804. To American naval leaders the action was imperative, since the captured ship could serve as a model for the creation of a fleet of Tripolitan warships. Six months later Decatur led a gunboat division in hand-to-hand fighting in the same harbor; these two actions combined to make Decatur the most prominent and celebrated hero of the young U.S. Navy. Promoted to captain, Decatur returned to the United States�

From 1804 to 1812 Decatur commanded in succession the USS Constitution, USSCongress, USS Chesapeake, and USS United States. He served as one of the judges in the court-martial of Captain James Barron, who had commanded the USS Chesapeake in its defensive action against HMS Leopard on 22 June 1807�

Decatur won fresh laurels early in the War of 1812. Commanding the USS United States, he met and defeated the British frigate HMS Macedonian on 25 October 1812. Decatur returned to New London, Connecticut, and the damaged prize was brought to Newport, Rhode Island, the first British warship ever displayed as a prize in an American port. Decatur basked in the glow of celebrations held in his honor, but he was soon blockaded in Long Island Sound by British ships. He made one effort to run the blockade but turned back on 1 June 1813, the same day that the USS Chesapeake was overpowered by HMS Shannon, making that day in American naval history "the Inglorious First of June."

Decatur transferred his command to the USS President in New York harbor and ran the blockade on 15 January 1815. He lost time as a result of running aground on a sandbar and, overtaken by several British ships, surrendered after a short fight in which he was wounded. Taken as a prisoner to Bermuda, Decatur was soon paroled--the war had ended three weeks prior to his capture--and he was absolved by a naval court of inquiry.

In May 1815 Decatur sailed to the Mediterranean as the commodore of a nine-ship squadron. Making record time on the voyage, he threatened and successfully intimidated the leaders of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli into signing treaties with the United States, ending the long American conflict with the North African powers� Coming home to a hero's welcome, Decatur became a member of the Board of Navy Commissioners� On 22 March 1820 [Decatur] faced [old enemy James Barron] in a duel at Bladensburg, Maryland. Barron was wounded but survived; Decatur was wounded fatally and died twelve hours later�

Related Images

Date: 1863
Image Id: 431

Related People

Preble, Edward

Record ID: 91