This Day in History: A tragic end for one of America’s early war heroes
On this day in 1820, a funeral is held for U.S. Navy Commodore Stephen Decatur. He was the nation’s greatest naval hero since John Paul Jones! Unfortunately, he’d been mortally wounded in a duel mere days before.
There was a lot of bad blood between the well-respected Decatur and a much-less respected man by the name of Commodore James Barron.
Barron’s career had been ruined because of an incident that occurred while he was commanding USS Chesapeake. He’d ended up surrendering to HMS Leopard, and Decatur served on the court of inquiry into the matter.
Perhaps now you see why Barron wasn’t the biggest fan of Decatur?
Barron soon went to Europe because he’d been 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 there two days later.
It was a sad—and unnecessary—end for one of our early war heroes.
Carlos Gilman Calkins, Decatur and Coleridge (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1908)
Correspondence, between the late Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore James Barron, which led to the unfortunate meeting of the twenty second of March (printed 1820)
Decatur House and Its Distinguished Occupants (Naval History and Heritage Command website)
Ian W. Toll, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (2006)
Spencer Tucker, Injured Honor: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, June 22, 1807 (1996)
Spencer C. Tucker, Stephen Decatur: A Life Most Bold and Daring (2013)