Stephen Decatur - Untimely Death

Untimely Death

Decatur's life and distinguished service in the U.S. Navy came to an unfortunate end when in 1820, Commodore James Barron challenged Decatur to a duel, related in part to comments Decatur had made over Barron's conduct in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807. Because of Barron's loss of the Chesapeake to the British he faced a court-martial and was barred from command for a term of five years. Decatur had served on the court-martial that had found Barron guilty of "unpreparedness". Barron had just returned to the United States from Copenhagen after being away for six years and was seeking reinstatement. He was met with much criticism among fellow naval officers, among whom Decatur was one of the most outspoken. Decatur, who was now on the board of naval commissioners, strongly opposed Barron's reinstatement and was notably critical about the prospect in communications with other naval officers and government officials. As a result Barron became embittered towards Decatur and challenged him to a duel. Barron's challenge to Decatur occurred during a period when duels between officers were so common that it was creating a shortage of experienced officers, forcing the War Department to threaten to discharge those who attempted to pursue the practice.

Barron's second was Captain Jesse Elliott, known for his jaunty mannerisms and antagonism toward Decatur. Decatur had first asked his friend Thomas Macdonough to be his second, but Macdonough, who had always opposed dueling, accordingly declined his request. Decatur then turned to his supposed friend Commodore William Bainbridge to act as his second, to which Bainbridge consented. However, according to naval historian Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, Decatur made a poor choice: Bainbridge, who was five years his senior, had long been jealous of the younger and more famous Decatur.

The seconds met on March 8 to establish the time, place and the rules of which the duel was to occur. The arrangements were exact. The duel was to take place at nine o'clock in the morning on March 22, at Bladensburg, Maryland, near Washington, at a distance of only eight paces. Decatur, an expert pistol shot, planned only to wound Barron in the hip.

Decatur did not tell his wife, Susan, about the forthcoming duel but instead wrote to her father asking that he come to Washington to stay with her, using language that suggested that he was facing a duel and that he might lose his life. On the morning of the 22nd the dueling party assembled. The conference between the two seconds lasted three-quarters of an hour. Just before the duel, Barron spoke to Decatur of conciliation; however, the men's seconds did not attempt to halt the proceedings.

The duel was arranged by Bainbridge with Elliott in a way that made the wounding or death of both duelists very likely. The shooters would be standing close to each other, face to face; there would be no back-to-back pacing away and turning to fire, a procedure that often resulted in the missing of one's opponent. Upon taking their places the duelists were instructed by Bainbridge, "I shall give the word quickly – 'Present, one, two, three' – You are neither to fire before the word 'one', nor after the word 'three'. Now in their positions, each duelist raised his pistol, cocked the flintlock and while taking aim stood in silence. Bainbridge called out, 'One', Decatur and Barron both firing before the count of 'two'. Decatur's shot hit Barron in the lower abdomen and ricocheted into his thigh. Barron's shot hit Decatur in the pelvic area, severing arteries. Both of the duelists fell almost at the same instant. Decatur, mortally wounded and clutching his side, exclaimed, "Oh, Lord, I am a dead man." Lying wounded, Commodore Barron (who ultimately survived) declared that the duel was carried out properly and honorably and told Decatur that he forgave him from the bottom of his heart.

By now other men who had known about the duel were arriving at the scene, including Decatur's friend and mentor, the senior officer John Rodgers. In excruciating pain, Decatur was carefully lifted by the surgeons and placed in Rodgers' carriage and was carried back to his home on Lafayette Square. Before they departed Decatur called out to Barron that he should also be taken along, but Rodgers and the surgeons calmly shook their heads in disapproval. Barron cried back "God bless you, Decatur" – and with a weak voice Decatur called back "Farewell, farewell, Barron." Upon arrival at his home Decatur was taken in to the front room just left of the front entrance, still conscious. Before allowing himself to be carried in he insisted that his wife and nieces be taken upstairs, sparing them the sight of his grave condition. A Dr. Thomas Simms arrived from his home nearby to give his assistance to the naval physicians. However, for reasons not entirely clear to historians, Decatur refused to have the ball extracted from his wound. At this point Decatur requested that his will be brought forward so as to receive his signature, granting his wife all his worldly possessions, with directives as to who would be the executors of his will. Decatur died at approximately 10:30 pm that night. While wounded, he is said to have cried out, "I did not know that any man could suffer such pain!"

Washington society and the nation were shocked upon learning that Decatur had been killed at the age of forty-one in a duel with a rival navy captain. Decatur's funeral was attended by Washington's elite, including President James Monroe and the justices of the Supreme Court, as well as most of Congress. Over 10,000 citizens of Washington and the surrounding area attended to pay their last respects to a national hero. The pallbearers were Commodores Rodgers, Chauncey, Tingey, Porter and Macdonough; captains Ballard and Cassin; and Lieutenant Macpherson. Following were naval officers and seamen. At the funeral service a grieving seaman unexpectedly came forward and proclaimed, "He was the friend of the flag, the sailor's friend; the navy has lost its mainmast." Stephen Decatur died childless. Though he left his widow $75,000, a fortune at the time, she died penniless in 1860.

Decatur's body was temporarily placed in the tomb of Joel Barlow at Washington. It was later moved to Philadelphia, where he was buried at St. Peter's Church, alongside his mother and father.

After the funeral rumors circulated of a last-minute conversation between the duelists that could have avoided the deadly outcome of the duel, moreover, that the seconds involved might have been planning for such an outcome and accordingly made no real attempts to stop the duel. Decatur's wife Susan held an even more damning view of the matter and spent much of her remaining life pursuing justice for what she termed "the assassins" involved.

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