To the Shores of Tripoli

Posted on March 2, 2023

by Tom Clavin

When one thinks of America’s early naval heroes, John Paul Jones and Oliver Hazard Perry usually come to mind. But another was Stephen Decatur, who achieved not just national, but international fame for his actions in 1804.

Stephen Decatur.
Painting by Charles Bird King (between 1815 and 1825).
This image is in the public domain.

First, some background: Decatur was born in a house on Sinepuxent Bay, Maryland, close to what is today Ocean City, in 1779. His father, Stephen Sr., was a merchant ship captain from Rhode Island who fought as both a privateer and in the French Navy during the American Revolution. The boy grew to love the sailing life right away. Good thing, too, because at eight years old, he came down with whooping cough, and his father decided to take him on a voyage to Europe, thinking the sea air would improve his condition. The ploy worked, and young Decatur came home perfectly healthy. This may have worked too well for his parents’ comfort when they discovered his love for the sea came at the expense of his studies. Stephen barely graduated from the Episcopal Academy and dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania in 1795. Two years later, he was serving as a midshipman on one of the first six frigates built for the United States Navy, the USS United States.

He was not in the Navy long before Decatur saw his first action. Starting in 1798, the U.S. began the undeclared “Quasi-War” with the French Republic, which had previously sent privateers to attack American merchant vessels that had traded with Britain. For two years, Decatur served on the United States and other ships throughout the Atlantic and West Indies. His abilities were noticed and he was promoted to lieutenant in 1799. He also fought his first personal duel of honor during the Quasi-War. The matter resolved itself without bloodshed but he would not be so lucky next time.

The Quasi-War was followed by the First Barbary War. The Barbary States were a group of autonomous governments ostensibly under the control of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa, infamous for their piracy on the Mediterranean and as a supplier of slaves. Previously, American merchants were safe from their raids due to agreements between Great Britain and the various pashas or governors, as well as the U.S. having ratified the Treaty of Tripoli. In 1801, however, the reigning governor, Yusuf Karamanli, broke the pact by demanding a tribute from the U.S. of $225,000. President Thomas Jefferson, normally opposed to standing militaries, refused to comply and sent the Navy to the Mediterranean, with Decatur serving aboard the USS Philadelphia.

In 1803, the ship actually ran aground near the shores of Tripoli. While trapped there, local pirates boarded the ship and claimed it as their own. Decatur was not on board, however, as he and a group of 80 men managed to escape in the dead of night, disguised as merchants, and flee into the city’s harbor. In February 1804, Decatur led his men to re-take the captured local vessel. The Americans quickly boarded and captured the frigate, then set it ablaze and escaped to the sea. The daring raid won Decatur international fame and praise even from the revered British admiral Horatio Nelson.

Decatur returned to Tripoli in August with the rest of the fleet in another attack on Tripoli Harbor. During the attack, Decatur learned his younger brother, James, had been killed by the crew of a Barbary gunboat. Decatur then found the boat, boarded it with his crew, and single-handedly slew the vessel’s captain, avenging his brother’s death. The next year, Tripoli surrendered, and at only age 25 Decatur was promoted to captain, the youngest man in the U.S. Navy to hold the rank.

By the outbreak of the War of 1812, Decatur had been promoted to commodore, then the highest rank in the U.S. Navy. (The position of admiral would not be created until the Civil War.) He carried himself well in this war too, fighting mostly in command of his former ship, the USS United States, in single-ship actions. During this time, he captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian off the Azores Islands and helped uncover a British plot to warn the Royal Navy of American blockade runners out of New London, Connecticut.

Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli.
Painting by Edward Moran (1897).
This image is in the public domain.

However, while commanding the USS President, it was caught by four British vessels, and though he fought the fastest of his pursuers, the HMS Endymion, to a standstill, Decatur realized that he was outgunned, outnumbered, and now severely damaged. He surrendered to the British and was taken prisoner. He languished in a Bermuda prison until the end of the war. Despite his defeat, Congress granted him the Congressional Gold Medal and a ceremonial sword for his overall service.

Decatur fought in the Second Barbary War, this time off the coast of Algiers, but also took time for a life beyond military matters. In 1806, he married Susan Wheeler, a prominent woman in Northern Virginia society. The couple built a handsome townhouse in the growing capital along Pennsylvania Avenue, next door to the White House. He also participated in yet another duel, this time serving as the second for his close friend, Oliver Hazzard Perry.

Alas, it was this penchant for dueling that killed him in the end. In 1820, another navy man, Commodore James Barron, blamed Decatur for his court-martial and challenged him. The two men met on March 22, and upon firing their pistols, both men managed to hit each other. Decatur’s wound proved fatal. He died that night and was buried in St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia.

Stephen Decatur’s life is remembered in various ways. In addition to having many places around the country named after him, his actions against the Barbary States are remembered in the first verse of the United States Marines’ Hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma, To the shores of Tripoli…” His Washington home is also now a museum and part of the White House grounds.

Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.

Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.

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