Stephen Decatur - Early Life

Early Life

Stephen Decatur was born on January 5, 1779, in Sinepuxent, Maryland, to Stephen Decatur, Sr., a merchant captain and later an officer in the young American navy during the American Revolution, and his wife Priscilla (Pine) Decatur. The family of Decatur was of French descent on Stephen's father's side, while his mother's family was of Irish ancestry. His parents had arrived from Philadelphia just three months before Stephen was born, having to flee that city during the American Revolution because of the British occupation, returning to the same residence they had once left for Philadelphia.

Decatur came to love the sea and sailing in a roundabout manner. When Stephen was eight years old he developed a severe case of whooping cough. In those days a known tonic for this condition was exposure to the salt air of the sea. It was so decided that Stephen Jr. would accompany his father aboard a merchant ship on his next voyage to Europe. Sailing across the Atlantic and back proved to be an effective remedy and Decatur came home completely recovered. In the days following young Stephen's return he was jubilant about his adventure on the high sea and spoke of wanting to go sailing often. His parents had different aspirations, especially his mother who had hopes that Stephen would one day become an Episcopal clergyman, and tried to discourage the eight-year old from such jaunty ambitions fearing they would distract Stephen from his studies.

At the direction of his father, Decatur attended the Protestant Episcopal Academy, at the time an all-boys school that specialized in Latin, mathematics and religion; however, Decatur had not applied himself adequately, and barely graduated from the academy. He then enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1795 for one year where he better applied himself and focused on his studies. At the university Decatur met and became friends with Charles Stewart and Richard Somers, who would later become naval officers themselves.

Decatur found the classic studies prosaic and life at the university disagreeable, and at the age of 17, with his heart and mind set on ships and the sea, discontinued his studies there. Though his parents were not pleased with his decision they were apparently wise enough to now let the aspiring young man pursue his own course through life. Through his father's influence Stephen gained employment at the shipbuilding firm of Gurney and Smith, business associates of his father, acting as supervisor to the early construction of the frigate United States. He was serving on board this vessel as a midshipman when it was launched on May 10, 1797 under the command of Commodore John Barry.

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