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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: A Conflict of Honor

As one of his earlier duties in the navy, Stephen Decatur had sat as one of the judges on the trial, or court martial, of Commodore James Barron. In 1807 Barron and his crew aboard the frigate Chesapeake encountered the more powerful British ship Leopard off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. Finding his ship under attack with only one gun in place, Barron surrendered, and the British boarded his ship and seized four supposed deserters. The Chesapeake returned to Norfolk in humiliation, and the nation was furious.

In spite of a long and close friendship with Barron, Commodore Decatur agreed with the rest of the court that Barron had been at fault in the incident for failing to attempt appropriate defensive measures. Barron, who was expelled from the navy for a period of five years, was outraged that his old friend had agreed to the verdict.

When the War of 1812 began, Commodore Barron was overseas and just completing his five years of exile from the navy. He decided not to return to help defend his country. When Barron finally returned to the United States in December of 1818, he and Decatur were spoiling for a fight. Barron believed that Decatur was slandering his name in all of Washington, causing his "honor" to be destroyed. Decatur, for his part, criticized Barron's apparent lack of loyalty during the War of 1812. Barron claimed that he had no money and could not get back to this country. Back and forth over several years, the men exchanged letters. Eventually, the quarrel exploded into a battle of honor.

At this time it was not uncommon for men in public positions to challenge one another to a duel. Although dueling was outlawed in the District of Columbia, an unofficial "dueling ground" in nearby Bladensburg, Maryland, was used for many such illegal challenges. On March 22, 1820, Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore James Barron met on that field. Both men were shot, but Decatur was mortally wounded and died several hours later at his home on Lafayette Square.

At the height of his fame, and still ascending within the navy bureaucracy, Decatur gave up all for what he believed was an essential battle, a battle for his honor. The nation was distraught. People everywhere wept openly over the death of a favorite hero. John Quincy Adams, who attended the funeral, noted in his diary:

There were said to be ten thousand persons assembled ....The procession walked to Kalorama [a section of Washington where Decatur's tomb was located]....A very short prayer was made at the vault by Dr. Hunter, and a volley of musketry from a detachment of the Marine Corps closed the ceremony over the earthly remains of a spirit as kindly, as generous, and as dauntless as breathed in this nation, or on this earth.1

Susan Decatur left the house, moving to another section of Washington, and later entered a convent where she died in 1855.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why were Decatur and Barron at odds with one another?

2. Why did their quarrel escalate into a duel? What was the result of that duel?

3. How does the quotation from Adams' diary help you to understand the high regard people had for Decatur?

Reading 2 was adapted from Harold Donaldson Eberlein and Courtland Van Dyke Hubbard, Historic Houses of George-Town & Washington City (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, Incorporated, 1938) pp. 259-262.

1As quoted in Eberlin and Hubbard, p. 262.

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