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This Day in History: A tragic end for one of America’s early war heroes

On this day in 1807, USS Chesapeake limps back into Hampton Roads. Just one day earlier, she’d been involved in a disastrous confrontation with HMS Leopard. (See yesterday’s post.) Now Chesapeake was barely afloat, with twenty-two shots through her hull, her fore- and mainmasts destroyed, and standing water in her hold.

Needless to say, the reputation of her Commander, James Barron, was in tatters.

Barron was brought before a court of inquiry within a matter of months. That court would find him guilty of failing to prepare his ship for action. His punishment was loss of command for five years.

Another naval officer, Stephen Decatur, served on this court of inquiry—he’d also taken command of Chesapeake after Barron was relieved of duty.

Perhaps you see why Barron wasn’t Decatur’s biggest fan?

A raid led by Decatur in 1804. It was such an astonishing feat that one of Britain’s most respected naval commanders, Horatio Nelson, would call it the “most bold and daring act of the age.”

Barron went to Europe after he was suspended from the Navy. Decatur, of course, was still at home, proving himself a hero in the War of 1812. When Barron finally returned to the states in 1818, he asked to be restored to his rank.

That didn’t go over too well.

Decatur was on the Board of Naval Commissioners that refused Barron’s request. Matters became still more tense, getting even worse in the summer of 1819 when the two men began a heated correspondence.

As the months wore on, Barron seemed increasingly inclined to think that only a duel could restore his good name. He thought dueling a “barbarous practice,” but also thought that “there may be cases of such extraordinary and aggravated insult and injury . . . as to render an appeal to arms . . . absolutely necessary.”

Decatur finally issued an ultimatum on December 29, 1819: “If we fight, it must be of your seeking. . . . I have now to inform you, that I shall pay no further attention to any communication you may make to me, other than a direct call to the field.”

Barron perhaps had a chance to get out of the situation, even at this late moment. He came down with malaria, and he was not well enough to respond to the ultimatum immediately. When he finally did respond, though, he apparently couldn’t leave well enough alone. A duel was set for March 20.

The duel took place at Bladensburg, Maryland, in a clearing by a creek. Reportedly, Barron and Decatur began talking when they arrived at the dueling ground. “[I]f we meet in another world,” Barron greeted Decatur, “let us hope that we may be better friends.” “I was never your enemy,” Decatur responded simply.

If only the men’s seconds had let this conversation continue. Instead, they pushed the two men into starting their duel.

Shots were taken at eight paces. Both men were wounded.

After they were shot, the two men lay on the ground next to each other and finally resolved their misunderstandings and differences. “I forgive you from the bottom of my Heart,” Barron concluded. “Farewell, farewell, Barron,” Decatur responded.

Barron was ill for some time, but finally recovered. Decatur was less fortunate. He was carried to his home after the duel and died two days later.

It was a sad—and unnecessary—end for one of our early war heroes.

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