Decatur, Jr.

"Our hero dies, and yet his name emblazoned
on the naval role of fame
Shall live till yonder bright star to seamen dear
Shall cease to brighten the northern sphere
Till winds no more shall rage nor fires roar
And freedom's sun shall rise to set no more."

This was just one verse of the the many poems and eulogies written following the tragic death of Commodore Stephen Decatur on March 22, 1820. They say that nearly 80% of the entire population of the young capital city was in attendance including the President, cabinet members, Senators, Congressmen, Supreme court members and just about everyone of influence in Washington. He was the nation's rising star- a man of such influence that when President Monroe's daughter Maria was married in early March of that same year and parties were being arranged to honor her, it was Decatur's party that had the distinction of being the first given. It would be the last public affair he would attend. He was only 41 years old. What brought him prominence? A navy career that at the time was beyond compare and a life that read like a Hollywood movie script--heroic battles, great triumphs and tragedies, pirates, love, and perhaps conspiracy.

Heroic Battles
In the War of 1812 while captain of the frigate the United States, Decatur and his crew defeated the British frigate the Macedonian AND brought the vessel safely back to the United States-the only captured British ship to be refitted and commissioned in the American Navy during that war.

Great Triumphs and Tragedies
February 16, 1804 Decatur led 74 volunteers into Tripoli harbor and burned the captured American frigate The Philadelphia. The great British Admiral Lord Nelson called the raid "the most daring act of the age". Decatur was 25, and this was his first moment of glory. He was raised to rank of captain - the youngest captain ever in the American navy!! Within the next several months, however, his younger brother James and long time boyhood friend, Richard Somers each met their deaths while attempting to perform their own daring acts of Naval heroics.

The above action took place fighting the Barbary Pirates of North Africa, a group so feared that virtually every nation that sailed ships off the coast of North Africa had to pay annual tribute to the Barbary pirate nations for safe passage. However following the War of 1812, Decatur obtained treaties from these nations which eliminated the United States paying these tributes. This was the crowning achievement to a brilliant Navy career.

On March 8, 1806, Stephen married Susan Wheeler, the daughter of the Mayor of Norfolk. Although they were childless, they had a deep affection for each other. Susan was the perfect hostess, which served especially well when Stephen retired from active service and moved to Washington. He had built a home which at the time might have been in the most prestigious location in Washington...the far corner of President's Square(Lafayette Square) opposite St. John's Church. At the other end of the square sat the President's mansion.
The Decatur House is still open to the public and also is the home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Throughout his naval career, Decatur made friends....and enemies. He also had a history of being involved in duels(in those days this was how men of honor settled disputes). His brilliant life was cut short by being fatally wounded in such a duel on March 22, 1820. The events leading up to the duel were interesting and intriguing, especially when you realize that his wife, Susan, went to her grave believing that it had been a conspiracy between several jealous Navy officers which had brought the duel to fruition.

Pre-Vietnam history books often times quoted a famous toast of Decatur's, yet today you have to search far and wide to even find mention of it.
"To our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but our country, right or wrong!"

Although Decatur grew up in Philadelphia, he was born in a secluded spot on the Eastern Shore of Maryland known as Sinepuxent(now the town of Berlin, Md near the resort of Ocean City). Thus Mr. William Wills, who has operated a theatre company in the resort for the past 20 years, became familiar with this heroic figure and researched and wrote a one-man show - "My Country, Right or Wrong" in which he plays the dashing Decatur.
Over the years, Mr. Wills has given performances of the show in the region.

How popular was Decatur?
It has long been a tradition to honor our American heroes by naming cities, counties, schools, street etc. The name Decatur appears on cities and counties in at least six states, and many, many schools and streets throughout the country.
But maybe the words that John Quincy Adams wrote sums up Decatur best:
"He was kind, warm-hearted,unassuming,
gentle and hospitable, beloved in social life
and with a soul totally and utterly devoted to his country."

Words truly cannot express the excitement of Decatur's life. only a performance of "My Country, right or wrong" can.

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