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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

"Mourn Columbia!": The Death and Legacy of Stephen Decatur

At the time of his death in 1820, Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr. was one of the most revered public figures in the United States. He was a highly decorated military hero and a leader in Washington, D.C.’s elite social circles. Some of his contemporaries had even suggested Decatur as a potential candidate for president.1 His violent and unexpected death, the result of a pistol duel with a fellow naval officer, shocked the American people and affected the way they remembered him and framed his legacy.

Decatur was born in Maryland on January 5, 1779, but spent most of his childhood in the bustling port city of Philadelphia. He joined the United States Navy in 1798 as a midshipman and enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks due to his bravery, daring tactics, and diligence during the Barbary Wars (1801-1805, 1815) and the War of 1812 (1812-1815).2 American newspapers and periodicals portrayed him as a dashing hero in their printed accounts of his military exploits and helped transform him into one of the most famous Americans of his era. Upon his return to the United States when the wars ended, cities across the United States threw parties in his honor and gifted him decorative pieces of china and silverware, swords, and other valuable items. A wax museum in New Hampshire even created a likeness of him and placed it next to one of George Washington.3

A young Stephen Decatur.

Library of Congress

In 1816, the Navy assigned Decatur to the Board of Naval Commissioners, which allowed he and his wife, Susan Wheeler, to move to the nation’s capital. Stephen used the prize money awarded to him for capturing the British frigate HMS Macedonian during the War of 1812 to construct an impressive mansion across from the White House on the northwest corner of Lafayette Square. Decatur and his amiable wife quickly became the center of the city’s social scene, hosting lavish parties attended by some of Washington’s most famous citizens. A biography of Decatur published around this time described him as “honored by his country, beloved by his friends…He is now in the very prime of his life…”4

That life, however, came to an abrupt and unexpected end on March 22, 1820, when Decatur died of a gunshot wound received in a duel with fellow naval officer James Barron. The duel was the deadly culmination of a long-standing feud between the two men. The dispute had its origins in a court martial trial in 1808 that resulted in Barron’s suspension from the Navy for negligence as Captain of the USS Chesapeake. Decatur had served on the jury that convicted Barron, resulting in Barron’s longstanding grudge. The feud grew worse in 1818 when Barron attempted to reenlist in the Navy, only to have Decatur publicly advocate against his reinstatement. After hearing of Decatur’s resistance, Barron wrote an angry letter to Decatur accusing him of slandering his reputation and claiming Decatur had challenged him to a duel. Decatur had issued no such challenge, and historians believe that Barron’s accusation was either a misunderstanding or an awkward attempt by Barron to goad Decatur into a duel without having to issue the challenge himself and thus appear the victim. Decatur responded to Barron and admitted that he had spoken out against Barron’s attempt to rejoin the Navy, but assured Barron that his opposition was based strictly on professional concerns. “Between you and myself, there never has been a personal difference,” said Decatur, “but I have entertained, and do still entertain the opinion, that your conduct as an officer…has been such as ought to forever bar your re-admission into the service.” Decatur closed the letter by stating that if Barron wished to duel, then he would accept the challenge, but declared: “I should be much better pleased, to have nothing to do with you.”5

This nineteenth-century painting depicts Decatur battling Tripolitans during the First Barbary War (1801-1805). Decatur gained tremendous fame for his exploits during this conflict, particularly the burning of the captured ship USS Philadelphia.

Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat, Dennis Malone Carter, artist. Public Domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Decatur had dueled once before, over twenty years earlier as a brash young officer, but had come to disapprove of dueling by the time of his correspondence with Barron.6 “I do not think that fighting duels, under any circumstances, can raise the reputation of any man,” Decatur said in one of his letters to Barron, “and have long since discovered, that it is not even an unerring criterion of personal courage.” Decatur also disagreed with dueling because it unnecessarily risked the lives of young naval officers who could otherwise be of service to their country. Historians have estimated that from the years 1798 to 1848, the U.S. Navy lost two-thirds as many officers from dueling as from combat. Decatur had tried to curb this practice by requiring every officer under his command to pledge to always inform Decatur before either challenging or accepting a duel in the hopes that he could then help settle the dispute peacefully. These regulations were quite successful in limiting the frequency of duels, leading one historian to declare that Decatur “had done more than any other to curb the practice of dueling in the navy.”7

As the momentum built toward a duel with Barron, Decatur felt he had no choice but to agree despite his hesitations; his honor was at stake. Among the politicians, public servants, and especially the military officers of the early American Republic, honor was paramount to an individual’s reputation. Refusing a duel, or refusing to stand up for yourself when insulted, both of which applied to Decatur’s correspondence with Barron, would have been tantamount to abandoning your honor, a debilitating decision to someone with ambitions.8 As Decatur’s friend Charles Morris explained: “[Decatur] appeared to be governed by an apprehension that his reputation might suffer if he took any means to avoid a meeting with Commodore Barron.”9 Decatur stated clearly that preserving his honor fueled his decision to duel Barron, declaring days before the duel: “I should regret the necessity of fighting [a duel] with any man; but, in my opinion, the man who makes arms his profession, is not at liberty to decline any invitation.”10

Commodore James Barron

Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

At 9:00 a.m. on the frigid morning of March 22, 1820, Decatur met Barron on the dueling field. Dueling was illegal in Washington, D.C., so the two combatants met just outside the city’s border on a secluded field near the village of Bladensburg, Maryland. Bladensburg’s proximity to the capital made it an ideal dueling spot for Washington residents, and the location had already hosted some fifty duels, earning it the nickname “The Valley of Chance.” Just prior to the commencement of hostilities, Barron remarked to Decatur: “If we meet in another world, let us hope we shall be better friends,” to which Decatur replied: “I never was your enemy, sir.” The two men fired simultaneously, both striking the other in the hip. Both men fell wounded, but it quickly became apparent that Decatur’s wound was much more serious. Barron eventually recovered from his wound and lived until 1851, but Decatur did not, for the bullet smashed through his hip and severed several arteries. Witnesses of the duel immediately transported the wounded Decatur to his home on Lafayette Square and placed him on a sofa in the front parlor room. At Decatur’s request, his wife and nieces were kept upstairs so they would not have to see him in his dying state.11

News of Decatur’s critical condition spread rapidly around Washington, D.C., and by late morning, citizens had begun to congregate outside his house. Some, like United States Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Lovell, had come to offer help to Decatur and his family, while others were simply drawn by the crowds or wished to catch one last glimpse of the dying hero. President James Monroe cancelled a reception that was planned for that afternoon when he heard of Decatur’s wound, and soon cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, and military officers had joined the group of concerned onlookers. Decatur lingered until about 10:00 p.m. that night, when he finally died after experiencing more than twelve hours of excruciating pain.12

Stephen Decatur, painted a few days before his death.

Mrs. Plantou, artist. Print. 1820. Library of Congress.

Some historians have theorized that the duel was actually caused by a conspiracy of naval officers, notably Captain Jesse Elliot and Captain William Bainbridge, both of whom had reasons for wanting Decatur dead. Elliot believed that Decatur had papers in his possession that proved Elliot had acted dishonorably during the War of 1812 and wanted to ensure those papers never saw the light of day; Bainbridge, who had once admired Decatur, had grown to resent him after feeling he had been overshadowed by Decatur during the Second Barbary War (1815). Elliot and Bainbridge served as the “seconds” for Decatur and Barron’s duel, meaning they were in charge of setting the terms for when, where, and how the duel would take place. According to historian David Long, one of the proponents of this conspiracy theory, the terms for the duel that Elliot and Bainbridge agreed upon “raise eyebrows” and “made probable a fatal conclusion…to the advantage of Barron.” Historian James De Kay concurs and states that the terms of the duel “made it almost certain that at least one of the participants would die.” Barron and Decatur stood a mere eight paces apart (roughly twenty-four feet), a far shorter length than the usual distance of thirty to thirty-six feet. Even more unusual, Elliot and Bainbridge agreed that Barron and Decatur would aim at each other before the call to fire was issued, rather than holding their pistols at their sides while awaiting the call, as was more common. Standing close together and aiming ahead of time, it is no surprise that both Barron and Decatur’s shots hit their mark.13 Support for this theory is not restricted to historians; Decatur’s widow, Susan, believed that Barron was merely a puppet in Elliot and Bainbridge’s diabolical plot for the rest of her life, and even some of Decatur’s fellow naval officers believed Elliot had provoked Barron into confronting Decatur. Many of those officers ostracized Barron after the duel, though he suffered no legal punishment for killing Decatur. Adding credence to this conspiracy theory is the fact that witnesses of the duel describe Bainbridge and Elliot acting nervously as the combatants prepared to fire. Elliot even tried to flee the scene when both Barron and Decatur fell wounded. Ultimately, a documented plot cannot be definitively proven, and even De Kay, one of the theory’s most ardent supporters, notes that the evidence is only “circumstantial.” Still, a scheme by Elliot, Bainbridge, or both, to manipulate Barron and Decatur into dueling in the hopes that Decatur would be killed seems plausible.14 Whether there was a plot or not, the end result was the same: Decatur died.

Susan Decatur.

Painting on loan from Priscilla Machold Loeb and Family

Decatur’s funeral on March 24 was the largest public gathering in the nation’s capital up to that point. Washington, D.C. held an official day of mourning and suspended all regular business so that everyone who wished to witness the funeral could do so. By the time the procession was ready to depart Decatur’s house with his casket in tow, thousands of mourners had once again gathered in the square outside. Some newspapers estimated that the crowd numbered 10,000 people, nearly a third of the population of D.C., and stretched beyond the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue and almost to the unfinished Capitol building.15 Every church bell in the city tolled and canons from the Navy Yard boomed in salute as the funeral procession slowly made its way through the city to the grave site at the Kalorama estate, owned by Decatur’s friend Colonel George Bomford, just outside the city. Participating in the procession were President Monroe, the Supreme Court Justices, most members of Congress, high-ranking military officers, and thousands of ordinary citizens. At the gravesite, Marines fired a musket volley in a final salute as the pallbearers placed Decatur’s casket into its tomb. A sailor observing the ceremony remarked solemnly that “the navy had lost its mainmast,” to which Decatur’s widow remarked: “With me it is far worse; it is a total, total wreck!”16

The conclusion of the funeral did not mark an end to the rituals of national collective mourning. Newspaper eulogies and hastily printed biographies heaped praise on Decatur, portraying him as a gallant hero tragically cut down in his prime. The National Intelligencer printed an announcement of his death, declaring: “A HERO HAS FALLEN! Commodore Stephen Decatur…the pride of his country…IS NO MORE!...Mourn, Columbia! For one of thy brightest star is set – a Sun…in the freshness of his fame – in the prime of his usefulness – has descended into the tomb.” The Maryland Gazette and Political Intelligencer portrayed Decatur’s death not only as a national tragedy, but as a tragedy felt most acutely by his own family. “The house of Commodore Decatur, late the house of joy,” the newspaper stated, “has thus been filled with sadness and mourning; his lady, suddenly, and in the prime of life, finds herself widowed and desolate in her mansion; and strangers may soon inhabit where late this gallant spirit dwelt!” The Maryland Gazette was correct, for Decatur’s widow Susan soon saw the fortune amassed during her husband’s brief but illustrious career dissipate quickly. She sold numerous family possessions, including valuable items gifted to her husband for his military triumphs, rented out her mansion on Lafayette Square, and moved to a modest residence in Georgetown. She continued to host some of Washington’s most distinguished citizens at dinners at her Georgetown home, but most sources describe her as plagued by money problems for the rest of her life. She repeatedly lobbied Congress for money she believed the government owed her late-husband, but her requests were denied routinely.17

This 1822 painting, completed only two years after Decatur’s death, depicts his and Susan’s house on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.

Public Domain, accessed via Wikimedia commons.

As for Decatur himself, the commemorations and public honors continued to amass in the years after his death. He remained a popular figure to toast during Fourth of July celebrations throughout the nineteenth century, and “Stephen Decatur” became a popular name for American children, ships, schools, and towns.18 Decatur’s hometown of Philadelphia honored him by naming a “mammoth coach” bus to carry passengers around the city the “Commodore Stephen Decatur.”19 In 1846, with the approval of his widow, Decatur was reburied in Philadelphia at the city’s request.20 As a testament to his enduring popularity with the American public, the reburial ceremony at St. Peter’s Church cemetery in Philadelphia was attended by “a large concourse of people” and possessed a great deal of “pomp and circumstance.”21 Citizens donated thousands of dollars to erect a twenty-four foot tall stone monument at the second burial site in his honor; the memorial still stands to this day.22

Not all of the public discourse surrounding Decatur’s death was positive. Many Americans thought that Decatur’s death by duel created a blemish on an otherwise praiseworthy life. Despite the relative prevalence of dueling among certain social classes and professions during the early nineteenth century, many Americans viewed it as an abhorrent practice that conflicted with Christian doctrine and smacked of aristocracy. Eulogies and commemorations of Decatur often struggled to glorify him as a national hero without also endorsing the manner of his death. When the Louisville Public Advertiser announced Decatur’s passing in its April 8, 1820 issue, the paper referred to him as a “hero,” but also expressed uneasiness that he died from a duel. “Without deciding whether dueling can be justified in any case,” the paper stated, “we must confess, that the death of Decatur would have given us very different feelings, if it had happened in many other ways we could mention.” The criticism of Decatur’s death by duel extended to politicians as well. On the day of his funeral, Representative John Randolph of Virginia, a friend of Decatur’s, proposed that all members of the House of Representatives attend the funeral together. Some of his colleagues demurred, worried that doing so would appear as an official Congressional endorsement of dueling. Representative John Taylor of New York spoke out against Randolph’s proposal, arguing that although Decatur had served his country with distinction, his death by dueling was an affront to the laws of both God and country. “I therefore cannot consent,” Taylor stated, “however deeply his loss is deplored by this house, in common with the nation to vote the distinguished and unusual honors proposed by these resolutions.” The House eventually found a solution to the dilemma by simply adjourning for the day, thus giving every member the chance to attend the funeral if they so desired without forcing the House to take an official stance on the manner of Decatur’s passing. Prominent D.C. resident Benjamin Ogle Tayloe captured the public sentiment surrounding the duel when he stated in his diary: “the duel created a profound sensation in the community. At first, great indignation was felt, especially by President Monroe and his Cabinet, towards Barron, but in the sequel, Decatur was very generally condemned.”23

Medal awarded to Decatur by Congress, January 29, 1813, for his capture of the British frigate HMS Macedonian during the War of 1812.

Public Domain. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The criticism of Decatur’s duel persisted years after his death. When Susan applied to Congress in 1831 for monetary compensation for her late-husband’s military achievements, a New Hampshire newspaper published an article arguing against giving her money. The author conceded that Decatur had won impressive military victories in the past, but pointed out that the nation had already given him ample reward. “Why pay and renown,” stated the article, for “[Decatur] already had both, and enough of them. Had he been a quiet man and a Christian,” continued the article, “he might have lived to enjoy both to this day, and earned pay to support his family.” Instead, Decatur chose to fight a duel, and in that duel, “he fell like a fool and died as a fool dieth.” Such appeared to be the prevailing sentiment, for Congress refused to grant Susan any compensation. When she applied again in 1842, the same argument against compensation resurfaced. “If the country owed Decatur a debt of gratitude up to the time he fell in a duel,” said the Boston Courier, “that fall cancelled the debt. He threw away a life of honor by seeking an ignominious death.”24 Congress once again refused to pay Susan what she had requested.

Decatur’s death by duel not only affected his legacy but also compelled Americans to reconsider the practice of dueling. Dueling was illegal in most regions of the country, but duelists easily evaded punishment due to legal loopholes or authorities’ lack of vigor in pursuing violators of the law. Amidst the outcry over Decatur’s death, Congress debated enacting legislation to close these loopholes and increase the punishment for dueling. These efforts failed, as did all of Congress’s attempts to pass any meaningful legislation to curb dueling in the immediate aftermath of Decatur’s death. Many members of Congress, especially those from the South, still viewed dueling as a legitimate recourse to protect one’s honor. Massachusetts Senator John Quincy Adams, who had hoped Congress would use Decatur’s death as an occasion to enact anti-dueling legislation, was sorely disappointed at what he considered a “feeble” response from Congress and lamented that it was “all that can be obtained.”25

Although Decatur’s death did not sway all of Congress to act, it helped solidify public opposition to dueling. Similar to the public’s response after Alexander Hamilton’s fatal duel a decade and a half earlier with Aaron Burr, Decatur’s death caused an anti-dueling movement by political activists, religious leaders, and moral reformers. Eulogies and commemorations of Decatur often commented on the absurdity of the nation losing one of its most valuable military commanders to such an archaic and aristocratic tradition as dueling. A biography of Decatur published a year after his death labeled dueling a “horrid…appalling custom.” The author lamented all the statesmen and gallant military officers like Decatur who had perished from dueling, stating: “Alas! Within the last quarter of a century, our Republic has been called to mourn the destruction of many of her best citizens upon…‘the field of honor.’” Gradually, anti-dueling campaigns had an effect on the public conscience, and the prevalence of dueling slowly declined. By the middle of the nineteenth century, dueling was nearly nonexistent in the North, though still somewhat prevalent in the South and certain areas of the West.26 Congress and state legislatures would eventually crack-down on dueling over the course of the nineteenth century, but it was a shift in public opinion, rather than laws, that had the biggest impact on eliminating dueling in the United States. An 1851 newspaper article credited Decatur’s death with facilitating this shift in opinion. “No one thing,” stated the article, “not even the death of Hamilton – has done so much to cause us to deprecate dueling, as the untimely death of Decatur.”27

Another dual involving a naval officer nearly thirty years after Decatur’s death highlights how public opinion on duals had changed. In the fall of 1849, rumors circulated Washington, D.C., that a young midshipman in the U.S. Navy, Stephen Decatur Spence, of no known relation to the famous late-Commodore, was scheduled to duel an officer in the local militia. In a twist of irony, the duel was supposed to take place at Bladensburg, Maryland, the same “Valley of Chance” where Decatur met his demise twenty-nine years prior. The duel never occurred however, because local authorities caught wind of the impending duel and issued arrest warrants for Spence and his opponent, both of whom decided avoiding punishment was more important than dueling and decided to forego the scheduled hostilities. Public opinion had shifted firmly enough by mid-century to create an environment unconducive to duels in the nation’s capital. While sporadic dueling continued throughout the nineteenth century, Decatur and Barron were the last two captains in the U.S. Navy to duel. As historian Robert Allison states: “Others had learned from [Decatur and Barron’s] ghastly example and decided to duel no more.”28

Today, Decatur’s legacy lives on in various forms: five U.S. Navy ships have been named after him; there are numerous “Decatur” towns and schools scattered around the country; and the “Decatur House” still stands on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. Less than two months after his death, the Boston Intelligencer published a poem commemorating Decatur, and predicted: “Decatur Dies! – But…his peerless name…shall live…till winds no more shall rage, nor billow roar, and Freedom’s Sun shall set to rise no more!”29 So far, at least, the poem’s prediction has proved correct: his name and legacy endures.