A Duel Takes One of Our Best

In the early days of our country, several national leaders fought duels. Alexander Hamilton’s life was cut short by Aaron Burr and Andrew Jackson survived with a ball carried in his chest for the rest of his life but his opponent Charles Dickinson did not. The list of American leaders appearing on the field of honor is long and includes Abraham Lincoln.

Dueling was a practice that came with British and German settlers and by the mid-1850s it was outlawed in eighteen states. In the 1770s they were common and I was considering having one of the characters in my first Age of Sail novel fight in a duel. Research reminded me that Stephen Decatur was killed by fellow naval officer James Barron in a duel.

On June 22nd, 1807, H.M.S. Leopard asked to board the Chesapeake to search for Royal Navy deserters. At the time, we were not at war with Great Britain and Barron rightly refused. The Leopard opened fire and hammered Chesapeake with several broadsides. Barron surrendered and sailors from the Leopard boarded the Chesapeake and removed four U.S. sailors. The men were U.S. citizens “impressed” into the Royal Navy against their will and left. The Royal Navy claimed they deserted.

Barron allowed the Chesapeake to leave Norfolk before the ship was fully fitted out, i.e. ready for battle and Chesapeake could only get one gun into action. During the court-martial, Decatur was one of Barron’s most out-spoken critics. The court convicted Barron of “sailing with his ship not properly prepared for action” and banned him from command for five years.

Decatur, who already demonstrated his ability as a ship’s captain, was given command of the repaired Chesapeake. He cemented his place in history during the Second Barbary Pirates War and the War of 1812 as the skipper of the U.S.S. Constitution, U.S.S. President, U.S.S. Guerriere and the U.S.S. United States.

         While living in Denmark, Barron became embittered toward Decatur. When he returned, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel and on March 21st, 1820, the fight took place. Decatur who was an expert shot, planned only to wound Barron. Barron shot to kill. Both men were hit and Decatur died the next day.

Decatur and Barron were not the only naval officers to fight duels. Records show that one of every twelve naval officers who died between 1784 and 1815 were killed in duels. The eighteen who died on the “field of honor” was more than those killed in combat during the same period!

The irony is that five ships have been named after Stephen Decatur. None were named after James Barron. Decatur’s name was (or is) on the stern of the:

  • Sixteen gun sloop-of-war S.S. Decatur in service from 1839 to 1865;
  • DD-5, a Bainbridge class destroyer that served from 1900 to 1919;
  • Clemson class destroyer, DD-341 in service from 1921 to 1945;
  • DD-341, a Forest Sherman class destroyer, DD-936 in service from 1956 to 1983; and
  • DDG-73, a Burke class guided missile destroyer commissioned in 1993 and is still serving out nation.

Rest in peace, Stephen Decatur.

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