To our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!
- Stephen Decatur, giving the toast at a banquet in Norfolk, Virginia, 1816.
Stephen Decatur (1779–1820) was a legendary US naval officer from the early days of the American republic when the nation's fledgling fleet of six frigates and a handful of smaller vessels battled British, French, and pirates on the high seas. In a series of heroic exploits in which he repeatedly snatched victory from the hands of numerically superior enemies, Decatur took personal courage to ridiculous heights and became a living legend in his own lifetime. But he was unable to confine his recklessness to the decks of his ships, leading himself into financial ruin and a foolhardy duel that cost him his life.
Born in Sinepuxent, Maryland to a naval family (his father, also Stephen Decatur, was also in the navy and commanded several ships in a distinguished career), Decatur first joined the navy as a midshipman in 1798 during the naval war with France, and was assigned to the frigate USS United States.
In 1804, during the first war with the Barbary Pirates, Decatur, now a Lieutenant, won immortality in the annals of naval lore by leading a daring night raid into Tripoli harbor to storm and destroy the frigate USS Philadelphia, which had been captured by the enemy after running aground and was being refitted to be used against the Americans. It was this action that none other than Horatio Nelson himself later called "the most bold and daring act of the age."
The destruction of the Philadelphia made Decatur a national hero, and his fame only grew with another exploit later that year, during the bombardment of Tripoli harbor, in which he personally led the storming of an enemy gunboat. Decatur's exploits won him a promotion to captain, and from then on he commanded some of the navy's largest task forces.
Decatur once again found his way into naval lore during the War of 1812. In the first year of the conflict, now as commander of the United States, upon which he had begun his career, he overtook and captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian. He was then blockaded in port by the British for three years. Decatur finally got out to sea again in 1815, this time in command of the frigate USS President, and in his first day out at sea, he ran into the entire British West Indies Squadron. In a fierce engagement, he outmaneuvered three enemy ships and defeated a fourth, the HMS Endymion, but the battle allowed the rest of the squadron to catch up to him again and he was forced to surrender after a fierce firefight.
The end of the war found Decatur behind a desk as one of the three US naval commissioners, a powerful position which allowed him to play a large role in shaping the future of the US Navy. In 1820, however, an old grudge caught up to him when he consistently roadblocked reinstatement for James Barron, the unfortunate US commander during the Chesapeake Incident of 1807, after having previously maligned Barron's conduct as a judge during his court martial in 1808. After the requisite exchange of insults, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel, which he of course accepted, and mortally wounded him at Bladensburg, Maryland, on March 22, 1820.
Decatur was beloved by the American people, who named lots of things after him, including towns in at least 12 states, counties in four, countless public schools, and Decatur Island in Washington. Moderately famous people named after Decatur include Philadelphia architect Stephen Decatur Button, South Carolina governor Stephen Decatur Miller, Maine congressman Stephen Decatur Lindsey, and US navy Rear Admiral Stephen Decatur Trenchard. His name has also been borne by five different US navy ships.