Stephen Decatur - Quasi-War


Once America won its independence and no longer had the protection of Britain it was faced with the task of protecting its own ships and interests. There were few American ships capable of defending the American coastline, much less of protecting merchant ships at sea and abroad. The few warships that were available were converted into merchant ships. The French in particular were outraged that America was still involved in trading with Britain, a country with whom they were at war, and because of American refusal to pay a debt that was owed to the French crown, which had just been overthrown by the newly established French Republic. As a result France began intercepting American ships that were involved in trading with Britain. This provocation prompted President Adams to appoint Benjamin Stoddert as the first Secretary of the Navy. Stoddert immediately ordered his senior commanders to "subdue, seize and take any armed vessel or vessels sailing under the authority or pretense of authority, from the French Republic." At this time, moreover, America was not even ranked with European naval forces.

On May 21, 1799, Decatur was promoted to lieutenant after serving for more than a year as midshipman aboard the frigate United States. While the United States was undergoing repairs Decatur received orders to remain in Philadelphia to recruit and assemble a crew for the vessel. While there, the chief mate of an Indiaman, using foul language, made several derogatory remarks about Decatur and the U.S. Navy, apparently because he had lost some of his crew to Decatur's recruiting efforts. Decatur remained calm and left the scene without further incident. Upon relating the matter to his father, however, Captain Decatur stressed that the honor of the family and of the Navy had been insulted and that his son should return and challenge the chief mate to a duel. Stephen's friend and shipmate, Lieutenant Somers, was sent ahead with a letter from Decatur asking if an apology could be obtained from the man. Refusing to apologize, the chief mate instead accepted Decatur's challenge and secured a location for the duel. Decatur, being an expert shot with a pistol, told his friend Lieutenant Charles Stewart that he believed his opponent not to be as able and he would thus endeavour to only wound his opponent in the hip, which is exactly how the duel turned out. The honor and courage of both duelists having been satisfied, the matter was resolved without a fatality.

By July 1, 1799, the United States had been refitted and repaired and commenced its mission to patrol the south Atlantic coast and West Indies in search of French ships which were preying on American merchant vessels. After completing this mission the ship was taken to Norfolk, Virginia, for minor repairs and then set sail for Newport, Rhode Island, arriving on September 12. While berthed there Commodore Barry received orders to prepare for a voyage to transport two U.S. envoys to Spain and on December 3 sailed in the United States for Lisbon via England. During the crossing the ship encountered gale force winds, and at their insistence the two envoys were dropped off at the nearest port in England. Upon returning home and arriving on the Delaware River on April 3, 1800, it was discovered that the United States had incurred damage from the storms she had weathered at sea. Consequently the vessel was taken up the Delaware to Chester, Pennsylvania, for repairs. Not wanting to remain with the United States during the months of repairs and outfitting, Decatur obtained a transfer to the brig USS Norfolk under the command of Thomas Calvert. In May the Norfolk sailed to the West Indies to patrol its waters looking for French privateers and men-of-war. During the months that followed 25 armed enemy craft were captured or destroyed. With orders to rendezvous with merchantmen bound for America, the Norfolk continued on to Cartagena with orders to escort the ships back to the United States, protecting them from pirates and privateers.

Decatur transferred back to the United States by June 1800; with extra guns and sails and improved structure the refurbished ship made her way down the Delaware River. Aboard ship at this time were Decatur's former classmates Lieutenant Charles Stewart and Midshipman Richard Somers, along with Lieutenant James Barron.

Following the Quasi-War, the U.S. Navy underwent a significant reduction of active ships and officers; Decatur was one of the few selected to remain commissioned. By the time hostilities with France came to a close, America had a renewed appreciation for the value of a navy. By 1801 the American Navy consisted of 42 naval vessels, three of which were the President, the Constellation and the Chesapeake.

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