Remembering Decatur


The Hero of Tripoli

The Battle for the USS Philadelphia....
As the two ships touched, Decatur stormed aboard Philadelphia with 60 men. Fighting with swords and pikes, they took control of the ship and began preparations to burn it. With combustibles in place, Philadelphia was set on fire. Waiting until he was sure the fire had taken hold, Decatur was the last to leave the burning ship.

Escaping in Intrepid, Decatur and his men successfully evaded fire from the harbor's defenses and reached the open sea. As a result, he was appointed a captain, the youngest to date, at 25.

Decatur married Susan Wheeler in March 1806. Born in 1776, Susan was a native of Norfolk, Va., where her father served as mayor. She was said to be well educated and charming."A pretty girl but not a beauty," one observer wrote. Her portrait shows a slight, fair-skinned woman with light brown eyes, rosy cheeks and a hint of dimples.” Susan endured his long absences at sea. When he died at 41, they had been married for 14 years and were childless.

In the War of 1812, Decatur was distinguished for the capture of the HMS Macedonian on Oct. 12, 1812; he commanded the USS United States at this time. In spring 1814, he commanded the President and a squadron of three vessels, in the West Indies and flew the pennant of commodore. On Jan. 15, 1815, the USS President had a severe engagement with the British West India Squadron, and surrendered after having lost a quarter of her crew and being surrounded by three frigates. Decatur was made prisoner, taken to Bermuda, and from there sent to New London, Conn., on parole on the British frigate HMS Narcissus.

After peace was signed with Great Britain, Decatur commanded the U.S. Mediterranean Squadron and secured the final treaty of peace with the Barbary Powers. During his successful negotiations with the Barbary pirates, he utter the often misquoted β€œTo our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but our country, right or wrong!”

From 1816 to 1820, he served on the Navy Board of Commissioners. He used the prize money he received for his capture of enemy ships to build a house on Lafayette Square in Washington (Decatur House 1818, designed by Benjamin Latrobe). He also received the thanks of Congress and a sword for his service before Tripoli and a gold medal for distinguished service in the War of 1812.
On March 22, 1820, Decatur fought a pistol duel at the Bladensburg, Md., Dueling Field with Commodore James Barron. Decatur had served under then-captain Barron as a lieutenant on the frigate New York on a tribute-paying voyage to the Bey of Algiers in 1802. Barron had been court-martialed for surrendering his ship, the Chesapeake, to British man-of-war HMS Leopard in 1807, which was one of the the major events leading to the War of 1812. When Barron returned to the United States after the war, he had intentions of resuming his naval service but met much criticism, especially from Decatur, a member of his court-martial board.
Barron was severely wounded in his hip but fired the shot that struck Decatur's abdomen. He traveled to Philadelphia and treated by Dr. Philip Syng Physick at his house at Fourth and Delancey Streets. He recovered, but spent the remainder of his life in ignominy for killing Decatur, even though he was reinstated in 1824.

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