Wednesday, November 11, 2009

People: "You Owe Me A Beaver"

Happy Veteran's Day to one and all (or any other holiday - like Remembrance Day - that your country may be celebrating to remember those who serve). Being from a seafaring family, I think of our brave men and women in the Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine first on this day. And so, today let's talk about one of America's first Naval Heroes: Commodore Stephen Decatur.

Decatur was born in Maryland on January 5, 1779. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Decatur was not from a family of sailors. Instead of heading out on merchant vessels at 10 or 12, Decatur received a formal education, eventually ending up at the University of Pennsylvania. He began working as a supervisor at a shipyard in his late teens and this may have been the origin of his interest in the Navy. Decatur - probably through family connections - was given a Midshipman's berth aboard the frigate USS United States at the age of 19 (a considerably advanced age for a Mid).

Aboard United State, Decatur learned the ways of the sea and saw battle during the Quasi-War with France. By 1803, Lieutenant Decatur was given command of the sloop Argus and sent to join his fellows in a blockade of Barbary pirates on the Mediterranean. USS Philadelphia was captured by the pirates in October of that year, with Captain William Bainbridge and the crewman who survived taken prisoner and held for ransom. Philadelphia, which had grounded on a bar in combat, was in good shape and a juicy prize for the Algerians. Decatur, in the right place at the right time, led a daring night raid in February of 1804 and managed to burn Philadelphia to the waterline thus denying the pirates their prize. He was hailed as a new American hero (but it wouldn't be until April of 1805 that U.S. Marines would storm "the shores of Tripoli" and free the American prisoners).

By 1805, Decatur had been promoted to Captain and he commanded USS Chesapeake and Enterprise before the start of the War of 1812. Decatur continued his notable career through the war, having the distinction of being the only Captain to take an English frigate as prize, and to surrender his own ship to one.

The first situation occurred off the Azores in October of 1812. Decatur, now in command of United States, sighted HMS Macedonian and the ships engaged. United States battered Macedonian, dismasting her completely at long range before moving in to board her. Decatur took his prize to the Azores and put her through a refit before returning triumphantly to the port of New London, Connecticut. Interestingly, before the war John Carden, the Captain of Macedonian, bet Decatur a beaver (!!) that United States could not best his ship broadside for broadside. Despite his other more famous bon mots, the one I always imagine Stephen Decatur saying is: "You owe me a beaver, Carden!"

Decatur suffered the indignity of being blockaded in New London by the British Navy through most of the war. Despite tricks and attempts at night maneuvers, the now Commodore Decatur and his new flagship President languished in Connecticut.

When President finally did slip past the blockade along with her consorts Hornet, Peacock and Tom Bowline it was January of 1815 and Andrew Jackson and his "backwoods rabble" were down in New Orleans ending the war. On the same day - January 15th - Decatur's squadron met a squadron of four English frigates. The British gave chase but President in particular was too fast for all but HMS Endymion. Broadsides were exchanged and President was hit, slowing her progress. She grounded at some point and, despite his encouragement of "Don't give up the ship!", Decatur was eventually forced to strike when surrounded by HMS Pomone and HMS Tenedos. Decatur and his men were taken prisoner and the Commodore, who was suffering from a large splinter wound, took some months to recover once he was paroled and returned to the U.S.

The Second Barbary War came hot on the heels of the War of 1812, and by late 1815 Decatur was back in the Mediterranean. With the Napoleonic Wars now over, the English and the Dutch were in on this one and all three nations set up a bombardment of Tripoli and Tunis that finally broke the Barbary pirates. American prisoners, most of them sailors, were freed and the practice of bribes and ransoms to the Barbary states were abolished. Decatur, in command of Guerriere on these missions, was hailed at home as the Conqueror of the Barbary Pirates.
Upon his return, Decatur was given a post as a Naval Commissioner in Washington D.C. and he became somewhat of a darling in society. Considered the "beau ideal" of American naval officers, he strutted about in his Commodore's uniform (which left nothing to the imagination if the picture above is any indication). At one Washington get together he famously stood and offered a toast: "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right. But right or wrong, our country!" This is the origin, many believe, of the erroneous quote "My country right or wrong!"

All was not roses around the door, however. A man like Stephen Decatur naturally drew jealousy and made enemies. In 1820 Commodore James Barron evidently got sick of Decatur giving him shit about his inept command of USS Chesapeake, which led to her being boarded by HMS Leopard in 1807 and is often considered the touch point of the War of 1812. Barron challenged Decatur to a duel and the date was set: March 22.

Decatur asked William Bainbridge to second him, and Bainbridge readily agreed. The problem was Bainbridge hated Decatur too, feeling he had stolen the limelight in the First Barbary War from Bainbridge and his crew. They were tortured in Tripoli, Bainbridge grumbled, while Decatur was hailed as a hero. When Barron mentioned avoiding the duel and reconciling with Decatur to Bainbridge, Bainbridge conveniently forgot to tell Decatur.

On the morning of the 22nd, Decatur shot first. He wounded Barron in the thigh. Barron, either maliciously or purely by accident, shot Decatur in the gut. The wound began to fester almost immediately as Decatur's bowel had been punctured. He died two agonizing days later in his home - which is now a museum - on Lafayette Square.

Stephen Decatur is buried in St. Peter's Church in Philadelphia. Interestingly, not far from his rival and far more controversial contemporary, Commodore David Porter. Rest in peace, sailors. And thank you.


Anonymous said...

I saw the title and I was concerned about whether this blog posting was safe-for-work... LOL. Seriously, another great entry.


Pauline said...

Ahoy, Dwight! And here's my curiosity. What type of beaver... exactly?

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Great post! I think we're going to have to adopt "I'll bet you a beaver" as the new catch-phrase for making a prediction. Such as, "I'll bet you a beaver the Saints cover the spread (no matter how high it is) against the Rams this week." What do you think?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I am on that bandwagon! And I think "You owe me a beaver, Carden!" will basically mean "I told you so" from now on. Thank you, Commodore Decatur, and Huzzah!