Commodore Edward Preble had assumed command of the U.S. Mediterranean Squadron in 1803. By October of that year Preble had begun a blockade of Tripoli harbor. The first significant action of the blockade came on 31 October when USS Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted coral reef and the Tripolitan Navy was able to capture the ship along with its crew and Captain William Bainbridge. Philadelphia was turned against the Americans and anchored in the harbor as a gun battery.
On the night of 16 February 1804, a small contingent of U.S. Marines in a captured Tripolitan ketch, rechristened USS Intrepid and led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr. were able to deceive the guards on board Philadelphia and float close enough to board the captured ship.
Decatur's men stormed the vessel and decimated the Tripolitan sailors standing guard. To complete the daring raid, Decatur's party set fire to Philadelphia, denying her use to the enemy.
Decatur's bravery in action made him one of the first American military heroes since the Revolutionary War. The British Admiral Horatio Nelson, himself known as a man of action and bravery, is said to have called this "the most bold and daring act of the age."
This etching is known as
Decatur's Conflict with the Algerine at Tripoli ( also shown on the reverse of this medal.)
Because of Commodore James Barron loss of Chesapeake to the British,
Barron faced a court-martial and was barred from command for a term of five years. Decatur had served on the court-martial that had found Barron guilty of "unpreparedness".
Barron became embittered towards Decatur and challenged him to a duel. A duel, during a period when duels between officers were so common that it was creating a shortage of experienced officers. This forced the War Department to threaten to discharge those who attempted to pursue the practice.
Decatur turned to his supposed friend Commodore William Bainbridge to act as his second, to which Bainbridge consented. However, Decatur made a poor choice... Bainbridge, who was five years his senior, had long been jealous of the younger and more famous Decatur.
Barron's and Decatur's seconds met on March 8 to establish the time and place for the duel and the rules to be followed. The arrangements were exact. The duel was at a distance of only eight paces, arranged by in a way that made the wounding or death of both duelists very likely. Just before the duel, Barron spoke to Decatur of conciliation, however, the men's seconds did not attempt to halt the proceedings.
Decatur, an expert pistol shot, planned only to wound Barron in the hip.
Both shot simultaneously and Decatur got the worst of it, dying of a leg wound bleeding to death.
After Decatur's funeral, rumors circulated of a last-minute conversation between the duelists that could have avoided the deadly outcome of the duel, moreover, that the seconds involved might have been planning for such an outcome and accordingly made no real attempts to stop the duel.
Decatur's wife Susan held an even more damning view of the matter and spent much of her remaining life pursuing justice for what she termed "the assassins" involved.
Commodore Decatur fought in the Quasi-War, First Barbary War, Battle of Tripoli Harbor, War of 1812 and Second Barbary War. He is the youngest man to reach the rank of captain in the history of the United States Navy, and was in command of 7 ships.
USS United States