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This Day In History: U.S. Navy Hero Stephen Decatur Was Killed In A Duel By A Disgraced Navy Commodore

March 22, 2017

This day in history, March 21, 1820, U.S. Navy officer Stephen Decatur, hero of the Barbary Wars, was killed in a duel with disgraced Navy Commodore James Barron at Bladensburg, Maryland.

Even though the two were originally friends, Decatur sat on a court martial that suspended Barron from the Navy for five years in 1808. He then opposed his reinstatement, which led to a feud between the two men.

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson ordered U.S. Navy vessels to the Mediterranean Sea in protest of continuing raids against U.S. ships by pirates from the Barbary states such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripolitania. Clashes began in June 1803, and in October the U.S. frigate Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli and was captured by Tripolitan gunboats. The Americans feared that the warship would be used as a model for building future Tripolitan frigates, and on February 16, 1804, Stephen Decatur led a daring expedition into Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured vessel.

Disguising himself and his men as Maltese sailors, Decatur’s force sailed into Tripoli harbor and overpowered the Tripolitans standing guard at the Philadelphia. After setting fire to the frigate, Decatur and his men escaped without the loss of a single American. The Philadelphia subsequently exploded when its gunpowder reserve was lit by the spreading fire.

Famed British Admiral Horatio Nelson hailed the exploit as the “most bold and daring act of the age,” and Decatur was promoted to captain. In August 1804, Decatur returned to Tripoli Harbor as part of a larger American offensive and emerged as a hero again during the Battle of the Gunboats, which saw hand-to-hand combat between the Americans and the Tripolitans.

In 1807, Commodore James Barron, who fought alongside Decatur in the Tripolitan War, aroused considerable controversy after failing to resist a British attack on his flagship, the Chesapeake. Decatur sat on the court-martial that passed a verdict suspending Barron from the Navy for five years.

In the War of 1812, Decatur distinguished himself again when, as commander of the USS United States, he captured the British ship of war Macedonian off the Madeira Islands. Barron, meanwhile, was overseas when his Navy expulsion ended in 1813 and did not return to the United States to fight in the ongoing war with England. Decatur criticized Barron and became a major influence in preventing Barron’s reinstatement into the Navy.

In June 1815, Decatur lead U.S. forces in the second Barbary conflict. By December, Decatur forced the military ruler of Algiers to sign a peace treaty. Upon his return to the United States, he was honored at a banquet in which he made a very famous toast: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”

Decatur was appointed to the Navy Board of Commissioners and arrived in Washington in 1816. In 1818, Decatur vocally opposed Barron’s reinstatement into the Navy. In March 1820, Decatur agreed to Barron’s request to meet for a duel, still acceptable among Navy men. On March 22, at Bladensburg in Maryland, Decatur and Barron fired at one another and struck their target. Decatur died several hours later in Washington, and the nation mourned the loss of the naval hero. Barron recovered from his wounds and was reinstated into the Navy in 1821 with diminished rank.