The number one question I get about my work is do you work in the White House? The second is who is Stephen Decatur and why do I feel like I know that name? I’ll share a little about who he was, but I mostly want to focus on the story of his death. It’s both tragic and hilarious. (A huge thank you to our current graduate student fellow for sharing the letters with me. He wrote a great article that will be up on the WHHA website early next year. I’ll be sure to link it).
Captain Stephen Decatur Jr. was a celebrity in the 1810s. Most Americans first learned of his name when newspapers reported his daring exploits during the Barbary Wars (1801-1805), but that status was cemented during the War of 1812 when he captained the first ship (the USS United States) to capture a British ship (the HMS Macedonian). For his victories, both real and symbolic, the states sent Decatur lavish gifts, including ceremonial swords, silver serving dishes, gold, and more.
Decatur used the prize money to set up a fashionable residence in Washington, D.C. In 1818, he purchased a large lot of land across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, built a grand home, and moved in the following year. Decatur, and his charming wife, Susan, quickly made their new home the center of elite society. The night before his death, they hosted a wedding party for Maria Monroe, James Monroe’s daughter. Not only were the president and first lady in attendance, but so were Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and several other government officials and congressmen.
The next morning he slipped out of the house before the sun was up and rode out to Bladensburg, Maryland, just on the other side of the Washington, D.C. border. Dueling was illegal in D.C., so Decatur met James Barron on the dueling grounds known as the “Valley of Chance.” Both Barron and Decatur were injured, but Decatur’s injuries were much more significant. The bullet tore through his groin and severed his artery—an injury that he could not recover from with eighteenth-century medicine.
But why did Barron and Decatur duel? The conflict actually dates back a decade earlier when Barron was court-martialed for his role in the Chesapeake affair. In 1807, the USS Chesapeake was boarded and several crew members were seized by the HMS Leopard. As the captain of the Chesapeake, Barron was accused of not defending his ship. Decatur served on the court martial jury and voted to suspend Barron from the navy. In 1818, Barron applied to be reinstated in the navy and Decatur spoke out against his cause. Barron then accused Decatur of slandering his reputation and challenged him to a duel.
Here’s where it gets juicy. Decatur wrote back and said he had no personal grievance against Barron, but he just didn’t think he should be let back into the navy. He said that if Barron insisted on a duel, he would accept the challenge, but “I should be much better pleased, to have nothing to do with you.” Don’t tell me history isn’t funny—that’s such a fantastic insult.
The sad part of the story is that Decatur died after only living in his new home for about a year and left Susan a young widow. Land rich, but cash poor, she had to move out and rent the house to wealthy tenants. Americans across the nation mourned Decatur’s death and named streets, towns, schools, buildings, and ships after him to commemorate his military service. Much like the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the Decatur-Barron duel helped turn public opinion against dueling. While it still occurred for the next several decades, the numbers decreased as morality campaigns spoke out against the practice.