Sunday, March 22, 2015


22 March 2015: Following a drawn out and testy correspondence that spanned over two years, two senior naval officers, one disgraced and one a hero, fought a duel at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds on this date in 1820. Only one - as is frequently the case, the wrong one - died.


In June 1807, USS Chesapeake departing the Chesapeake Bay, was fired on and boarded by HMS Leopard. 4 American sailors, said to be deserters, from the Royal Navy, were taken off the American ship. (As it later developed, only one was a Royal Navy deserter.) In the process of stopping Chesapeake, 4 men were killed by British shot and 20, including the senior officer, were wounded. Chesapeake carried James Barron as commodore and was headed for the Med where he would take over command of the U.S. Mediterranean Fleet. Chesapeake returned to Hampton Roads VA, her condition and casualty list horrifying the citizenry. Note that at the time, America and Britain were at peace! The incident took 4 years to resolve politically, and has been determined to be one of the major causes of the War of 1812.

With the American ship just underway from Hampton Roads, she had not yet prepared for sea and her guns were not ready to fire in her own defense. In fact, only one American shot was fired.

James Barron

Commodore Barron ordered the ship surrendered and allowed the British officers and Marines to muster his crew and remove the four. A very serious problem. Along with being unprepared for sea and any contingency, Barron allowed a foreign power to come aboard, muster his crew, and remove several men. James Barron, along with the American captain, Gunner, and captain of Marines, was , found guilty and sentenced.

On the court martial board sat some of the most distinguished senior officers of the time, including Stephen Decatur, a man who put honor and country above all. He had tried to be excused, citing his bias against Barron, but was refused, possibly because the Secretary of the Navy felt the same way!

Stephen Decatur

Barron was "released" from the navy for 5 years during which time he lived in Europe to avoid the embarrassment of remaining in his own country. When it was time for his sentence to expire, he requested reinstatement in the navy which ultimately was granted - in 1821, after he had killed Stephen Decatur.

The animosity between Barron and Decatur arose from both Decatur's position on the court marital board and his subsequent refusal to agree to Barron's reinstatement. A lengthy chain of correspondence ensued, after the War of 1812, which culminated in the duel, a duel to which Decatur agreed only reluctantly. There were many inconsistencies in the duel itself, but the end result was that Decatur was mortally wounded, dying later in the day. The navy and the country lost the man who was likely the most heroic figure since John Paul Jones. His funeral, in Washington DC, was as large scale as for a president.

Decatur had won immeasurable fame during the Barbary Wars mainly with his expedition to burn the captured U.S. frigate, Philadelphia, which, while under the command of William Bainbridge, had been captured by the Tripolitian corsairs. Decatur led a small party to board, kill the pirates, and burn the ship in February of 1804 and, for his efforts, was promoted from lieutenant to captain!

During the War of 1812, he not only took on and beat in single ship combat the British frigate Macedonian, but sent the enemy ship into Newport, RI as a prize of war. Only one of two times that has been done! The man's sense of honor was famous, his crews loved him, and he was a brilliant strategist.

So as we noted at the begging of this post, it was a sad day for the country when we lost this hero!

                             Fair Winds,
                                  Old Salt


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