Stephen Decatur was born into a family of seafarers; his father, also Stephen Decatur, was a merchant and privateer during the American Revolution, and all of his brothers ended up in the Navy along with him. The younger Decatur went to sea with his father as a young man to cure a case of whooping cough; in 1798, he acquired a midshipman's warrant and joined up with John Barry's United States.
Decatur's time in the Caribbean was relatively uneventful. In 1800, he was retained during the naval reduction, and in 1801 he joined the Essex as a lieutenant under William Bainbridge. After a short tour in the Mediterranean, Captain James Barron, who had been on board the United States with Decatur, asked that Decatur join the New York as his lieutenant. After Decatur got into some diplomatic trouble because of a duel, he was sent home on the Chesapeake.
Decatur returned to the Mediterranean the following year, 1803, with his own command: the brig Argus. He was actually only delivering the Argus to its intended commander, Isaac Hull, while he took over the Enterprise. As commander of the Enterprise, he captured a small Tripolitan vessel named the Mastico, which was renamed the Intrepid and brought into the American squadron.
Edward Preble first met Decatur in November 1803, a brief meeting before Preble headed off to Algiers. Soon, though, Preble and Decatur would meet again to hatch a plan to deal with the problem of the Philadelphia, which had fallen into the hands of the Tripolitans when it grounded on a reef in Tripoli harbor. Their plan involved the ketch Intrepid, which Decatur would sail into Tripoli harbor along with the Siren, captained by Charles Stewart, to board the Philadelphia and destroy it.
The plan worked almost perfectly. The only hitch was that the Siren got separated from the Intrepid, so Decatur and his crew went on alone. In the dark of night on February 16, 1804, the Intrepid's crew boarded the Philadelphia, set charges, and got off the vessel in time to see it burn up. The Siren reported that the flames were visible several miles away.
This action vaulted Decatur to national fame, a position that he would occupy for the rest of his life. But another event in his Mediterranean tour would establish his reputation for reckless and courageous behavior in pursuit of honor. After the Philadelphia was destroyed, Preble organized two squadrons to deal with the Tripolitans once and for all. Decatur received command of one of the squadrons; his brother James was a lieutenant commanding the Nautilus in the other squadron.
Preble led the squadrons into battle against Tripolitan gunboats on August 3, 1804. The Nautilus quickly overcame a gunboat, which struck its colors, but when the Americans began to board to take the prize, the Turkish captain attacked James Decatur and killed him. When the Americans withdrew, they immediately went to find Stephen Decatur and inform him of what had happened to his brother.
When Stephen Decatur heard the tale, he went in search for the gunboat captain who had killed his brother. Without any thought to his own safety, he attacked the captain, who was quite a bit larger than him. It was a fierce hand-to-hand fight, in which Decatur's life was twice in serious danger. The first time, one of Decatur's subordinates stepped in and took a blow to the head (which he amazingly survived), and the second time, pinned down by the Tripolitan, Decatur was able to pull out his pistol and shoot the captain.
This encounter is the stuff of legend, and it made Decatur into something like an American demigod. Though the troubles in the Barbary states was not over, Decatur's actions made the American public feel that they could take on anyone.
Decatur's commission as captain arrived shortly after the Tripolitan battle, and he took command of the Congress, headed back to the United States. Even the hero of the Barbary Wars could not escape the reduction of the navy to gunboat service; he too supervised the construction of the gunboats in 1807.
In July, Decatur took command of the Chesapeake, a ship severely damaged in a recent incident with the HMS Leopard, in which Captain James Barron surrendered the Chesapeake without a shot. This surrender turned James Barron from Decatur's mentor into a man for whom Decatur had no respect. The turn of relationship would end up ruining both men. Decatur saw the ship as not only damaged physically but also carrying damaged honor, a stain that Decatur had to remove.
Decatur served on the court-martial for Barron, though he asked to be removed from the court. Barron was convicted (though he received a light sentence), and Decatur went to sea in 1808 as the commodore of a squadron patrolling the Atlantic coast of the United States. In 1809, Decatur took over the United States, which got to sea after a year of repairs.
When the War of 1812 was declared, Decatur was still commanding the United States, and in October, off the coast of Africa, the United States spotted the HMS Macedonian, and when the battle was joined, Decatur's strategy of focusing on the masts paid off. When it was clear that the American were going to win, Decatur actually pulled away from the battle and sailed away. This was a strange action for a man so well-known for finishing a battle. But Decatur's plan was to allow the British a chance to surrender without the necessity of sinking the Macedonian. His gamble paid off: when Decatur came back, Captain John Carden of the Macedonian offered his surrender.
Never one to pass up a chance to further his reputation, Decatur crashed a ball being given in honor of Isaac Hull and the Constitution's victory over the Guerriere with news that he had not only beaten the Macedonian, but he had brought it back as a prize (Hull had had to let the Guerriere sink). Once again, his public relations campaign was successful.
The next few years were not to be so successful: upon bringing the United States in to harbor, Decatur got trapped behind the British blockade, where he would stay for most of the rest of the war, despite several attempts to run the blockade. One of his duties while trapped was to serve on the court-martial of yet another crew from the Chesapeake, which had been captured by the HMS Shannon. The surviving officers (the captain, James Lawrence, had been killed) were convicted of neglect of duty.
After serving on the Chesapeake officers' court-martial, Decatur took over the President in New York, where he decided to try once again to run the blockade. Getting the ship out of the harbor without anyone seeing was especially difficult because the ship had to get over a large sandbar. In the storm that night, the President struck the bar. Though the ship did get off the bar, it was severely damaged. As the President tried to make good its escape, the four-ship British squadron gave chase. Despite its damage, the President was able to outrun all but one ship, the HMS Endymion.
The battle between the President and the Endymion was a bloody stalemate. Though the President disabled the Endymion, the rest of the British squadron caught up. After considering his casualties and the state of his ship, Decatur surrendered.
Though Decatur was cleared of blame by the investigation, he never got over his sense of guilt about what happened. When the war was over, he jumped at the chance to go back to the Mediterranean and force peace with Algiers. He got command of the first of two squadrons to sail for Algiers, and he left the United States on May 20 in the Guerriere and eight other vessels.
Before Decatur got to Algiers, he went hunting for Algerine vessels to capture in order to provide leverage for negotiation. He found two, and when he got to Algiers, he had quite a bit of negotiating power. Using his own reputation and the prize ships, Decatur and William Shaler, a diplomatic representative he had brought along, negotiated a very favorable treaty with the Algerine dey, ending forever the tribute payments the United States had been making annually. Decatur personally guaranteed the return of the two ships he had captured (much to the dismay of Shaler), and the treaty was signed. (Decatur was able to return the ships.)
With the treaty in hand, Decatur went on to Tunis and Tripoli, and he personally negotiated the same type of treaty with them. When William Bainbridge (Decatur's superior)arrived with the second sqaudron, expecting to win high diplomatic acclaim for his negotiations with the Barbary states, he learned to his chagrin that there was no negotiating left to be done.
Decatur's actions in the Mediterranean in 1815 restored his reputation in the nation, but they destroyed his relationship with Bainbridge, who thought Decatur had purposely cheated him out of the honor he would have received from the treaty negotiations.
Decatur settled into life in the capital with his wife, building a house on Pennsylvania Avenue and serving in an advisory role to a number of navy and political causes. In 1818, Decatur started a correspondence with James Barron, whom Decatur believed was not fit to be an officer despite Barron's completion of his suspension from the service. A series of complicated situations followed that eventually, in March 1820, culminated in a duel between James Barron and Stephen Decatur.
The duel was remarkable for many reasons, not least of which was that Decatur, after a history of dueling, had foresworn the practice for himself and any of his officers. Additionally, in the moments before the duel, Barron and Decatur had a conversation which seemed to repair the relationship between them, making the duel unnecessary. But Barron's second, Jess Duncan Elliot, forced the duel to continue. Both Barron and Decatur were hit in the duel. Barron survived; Decatur had been hit in a key artery, and within a few hours, he was dead.
Decatur died as one of the most successful naval captains in the history of the navy to that point, both in monetary success (though prize money) and in the eyes of the American public. His legacy has continued through dozens of monuments, memorials, and even town names.