Stephen Decatur ranks as one of the greatest of America’s early naval commanders. His only equal in bravery and fighting prowess was John Paul Jones. He was the kind of man who could not sit by the sidelines and watch a fight play out; he had to be in the thick of the action, issuing commands, and inhaling the sulphurous smoke of battle. Yet he was no rash hothead; his decisions, while bold and daring, were always based on a sound consideration of military realities.
He was born in 1779 the obscure town of Sinepuxent, Maryland. He early showed an inclination for things maritime, but his parents tried to steer him towards a more chair-bound vocation. He did not distinguish himself as a student; he lasted only one year at the University of Pennsylvania, leaving in 1796 at the age of seventeen. The rolling surf beckoned him, and would become his calling. The outbreak of the “Quasi-War” with France in 1798 found him hungry for action.
He was appointed a midshipman aboard the frigate United States, under the command of Commodore John Barry, who acted as something of a mentor to the aggressive young Decatur. It is a telling fact that many of the older naval officers who came into contact with Decatur were impressed by his seriousness. Decatur’s father supported his son’s education, even going so far as to hire a former British Royal Navy officer named Talbot Hamilton to tutor the young man in navigation and seamanship.
We will now turn our attention to the subject of this writing, which is the First Barbary War of 1801 to 1805. The young United States had long held grievances against the potentates and principalities of northern Africa. Nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, the Maghribi corsairs in fact operated independently, and derived a significant part of their revenues from piracy and the selling of captives. The coastal region we now call Algeria and Tunisia was referred to as the Barbary Coast. And by 1801, the United States decided to punish the marauders sheltered there, with the aim of ending the destruction of American vessels and the enslavement of their crews.
In early August of 1804, American naval forces under Commodore Edward Preble began to bombard Tripoli. During the engagements that followed, Decatur was appointed to the rank of captain. He was only twenty-five years old. We should note that the enemy facing the green Yankee navy was not a rag-tag gang of pirates. These were disciplined, hardened fighters; local North African sailors were commanded by Turkish captains. The goal of the operation was to force the Pasha of Tripoli into a treaty where he would agree not to molest American shipping.
It was during this engagement that there occurred a truly remarkable tale of courage and leadership. Stephen Decatur’s brother James was also present during the battle, serving as an officer with the rank of lieutenant. While boarding a Turkish vessel to receive an enemy surrender, he was treacherously ambushed and murdered by a Turkish captain. We are told that he was shot in the head from behind, after having been assured that the enemy ship would surrender.
When Stephen Decatur was informed of this terrible incident, he was consumed with both rage and grief. He resolved to kill the Tripolitan captain. Decatur was outmanned and outgunned, but nothing would deter him. He brushed aside every suggestion that such an operation would be a suicide mission. He turned the command of his ship over to a lieutenant Jonathan Thorn, assembled a team of volunteers, and set out to avenge his brother’s death and capture the offending ship. With nine volunteers and a midshipman named Macdonough, Decatur soon found the ship in question. Fired by the desire to confront the man who had killed his brother, Decatur was the first man to climb the ropes and board the Tripolitan gunboat. Naval historians who have recorded the incident tell us that he was outnumbered five to one. “This was a desperate undertaking, suggested by a courage which stopped to consider no inequality,” says a Decatur biographer writing in the 1840s. “For twenty minutes, the result of the contest seemed uncertain. Three of Decatur’s followers were already disabled by wounds.”
The account that follows is confirmed by those present who witnessed the action. Very soon after boarding the Tripolitan ship, Decatur saw the Turkish captain. He was a huge man, and was armed with an iron boarding-pike. The American had a cutlass and a pistol concealed in one of his pockets. The Turk lunged at Decatur, who tried to deflect the blow with his cutlass, but the weapon broke in two, leaving him exposed. The Turk thrust at him again, and the American attempted to parry it with his right arm; this failed, and the pike penetrated his chest, seriously wounding him.
By now Decatur was in excruciating pain, but adrenalin and a ferocious desire to see the fight through kept him on his feet. He seized the Turk’s pike and pulled it from his chest with such a sudden jerk that it flew out of his opponent’s hands. There then followed as primitive an elemental combat as can be imagined in warfare. Decatur flung himself at his huge antagonist, seized him, and the two of them fell to the deck, locked in a mortal struggle. The respective crews did not stay idle; Decatur’s nine men were fighting with the Tripolitans with a ferocity that equaled the fight their commander was involved in.
What happened next is nearly unbelievable, but nevertheless attested to by the first-hand accounts of the incident. A Tripolitan officer ran up to Decatur as he struggled with the Turkish captain; and, raising his cutlass, intended to bring it down on the Yankee commander’s head. Just as he was about to do so, one of Decatur’s men (some accounts identify him as Reuben James, others as Daniel Frazer) leapt forward and placed his own head in the path of the falling Turkish cutlass. James had lost the use of both arms in the fighting. This act of supreme self-sacrifice saved the life of his beloved commander.
But Decatur was not out of danger. As his strength ebbed quickly, the Turk was getting the upper hand on him. The huge man rolled Decatur over, seized him by the throat with his left hand, and pinned him to the deck. With his right hand, the Turk reached for a close-quarters fighting weapon called a yataghan, an Ottoman knife or short sword. In an instant the blade was out; the roaring Turk raised it over his shoulder, seeking to drive it deep into the American infidel’s innards. And there was nothing to stop him; the other Americans were engaged in fights of their own.
But Decatur’s instinct and cool-headedness came to his rescue. His right hand plunged into a pocket and pulled out his pistol. He cocked and raised it in less than half a second. Suddenly there was a tremendous roar as Decatur discharged the weapon full into the enemy captain’s chest. The Turk was blown clean off his feet; the yataghan clattered inertly to the deck; and the treacherous captain now lay prostrate on the blood-stained deck, never to stir again. So ended the fight. One final detail of the story remains to be told. After his death, the body of the Turkish captain—whose name is apparently lost to history—was searched. On it was found a small book of Islamic devotional prayers. Decatur kept this little book as a trophy justly won. When the great man died in 1820, Decatur’s wife donated it to the library of the Catholic College of Georgetown, where it was displayed for many years.
During this same battle, another American commander, John Trippe, was involved in personal combat with a Tripolitan officer. Trippe fought his adversary with sword and dirk, suffering no fewer than eleven wounds; but he prevailed in the end, and brought down his opponent. “Never was more gallant and effective service rendered by so inconsiderable a force,” said an early biographer of Decatur. “[T]he attack was conceived with no less skill and hardihood, than it was coolly and courageously executed by all who took part in it.”
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