Year
1820

Naval hero killed in duel

U.S. Navy officer Stephen Decatur, hero of the Barbary Wars, is mortally wounded in a duel with disgraced Navy Commodore James Barron at Bladensburg, Maryland. Although once friends, Decatur sat on the court-martial that suspended Barron from the Navy for five years in 1808 and later opposed his reinstatement, leading to a fatal quarrel between the two men.

Born in Maryland in 1779, Stephen Decatur was reared in the traditions of the sea and in 1798 joined the United States Navy as a midshipman aboard the new frigate, United States. That year, he saw action in the so-called quasi-war with France and in 1799 was commissioned a lieutenant. Five years later, during the Tripolitan War, he became the most lauded American naval hero since John Paul Jones.

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson ordered U.S. Navy vessels to the Mediterranean Sea in protest of continuing raids against U.S. ships by pirates from the Barbary states–Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripolitania. Sustained action began in June 1803, and in October the U.S. frigate Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli and was captured by Tripolitan gunboats. The Americans feared that the well-constructed warship would be used as a model for building future Tripolitan frigates, and on February 16, 1804, Stephen Decatur led a daring expedition into Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured vessel.

After disguising himself and his men as Maltese sailors, Decatur’s force sailed into Tripoli harbor and boarded the Philadelphia, which was guarded by Tripolitans who were quickly overpowered by the Americans. After setting fire to the frigate, Decatur and his men escaped without the loss of a single American. The Philadelphia subsequently exploded when its gunpowder reserve was lit by the spreading fire. Famed British Admiral Horatio Nelson hailed the exploit as the “most bold and daring act of the age,” and Decatur was promoted to captain. In August 1804, Decatur returned to Tripoli Harbor as part of a larger American offensive and emerged as a hero again during the Battle of the Gunboats, which saw hand-to-hand combat between the Americans and the Tripolitans.

In 1807, Commodore James Barron, who fought alongside Decatur in the Tripolitan War, aroused considerable controversy when he failed to resist a British attack on his flagship, the Chesapeake. Decatur sat on the court-martial that passed a verdict expelling Barron from the Navy for five years. This began the dispute between Decatur and Barron that would end 13 years later on the dueling grounds in Maryland.

In the War of 1812, Decatur distinguished himself again when, as commander of the USS United States, he captured the British ship of war Macedonian off the Madeira Islands. Barron, meanwhile, was overseas when his Navy expulsion ended in 1813 and did not return to the United States to fight in the ongoing war with England. This led to fresh criticism of Barron from Decatur, who later used his influence to prevent Barron’s reinstatement in the Navy.

In June 1815, Decatur returned to the Mediterranean to lead U.S. forces in the Algerian War, the second Barbary conflict. By December, Decatur forced the dey (military ruler) of Algiers to sign a peace treaty that ended American tribute to Algeria. Upon his return to the United States, he was honored at a banquet in which he made a very famous toast: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”

Appointed to the Navy Board of Commissioners, Decatur arrived in Washington in 1816, where he became a prominent citizen and lived a satisfying life politically, economically, and socially. In 1818, however, dark clouds began to gather when he vocally opposed Barron’s reinstatement into the Navy. The already strained relations between the two men deteriorated, and in March 1820 Decatur agreed to Barron’s request to meet for a duel. Dueling, though generally frowned on, was still acceptable among Navy men. On March 22, at Bladensburg in Maryland, Decatur and Barron lifted their guns, fired, and each man hit his target. Decatur died several hours later in Washington, and the nation mourned the loss of the great naval hero. Barron recovered from his wounds and was reinstated into the Navy in 1821 with diminished rank.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Arab League formed

Representatives from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen meet in Cairo to establish the Arab League, a regional organization of Arab states. Formed to foster economic growth in the region, resolve disputes between its members, and coordinate ...read more

Stamp Act imposed on American colonies

In an effort to raise funds to pay off debts and defend the vast new American territories won from the French in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the British government passes the Stamp Act on this day in 1765. The legislation levied a direct tax on all materials printed for ...read more

Westmoreland to depart South Vietnam

President Lyndon B. Johnson announces the appointment of Gen. William Westmoreland as Army Chief of Staff; Gen. Creighton Abrams replaced him as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Westmoreland had first assumed command of U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam in June 1964, ...read more

First Stanley Cup championship played

On this day in 1894, the first championship series for Lord Stanley’s Cup is played in Montreal, Canada. The Stanley Cup has since become one of the most cherished and recognized trophies in sport.The Stanley Cup was the creation of Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, lord of Preston ...read more

FDR legalizes sale of beer and wine

On this day in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Beer and Wine Revenue Act. This law levies a federal tax on all alcoholic beverages to raise revenue for the federal government and gives individual states the option to further regulate the sale and distribution of ...read more

Louis L’Amour born

Louis L’Amour, the prolific author of scores of bestselling western novels, is born in Jamestown, North Dakota.An indifferent student, L’Amour dropped out of high school at age 15. Over the next two decades, he traveled around the world working in an amazing variety of jobs. At ...read more

Stephen Sondheim is born

Stephen Sondheim, one of the last giants of the American musical theater to work in a style not influenced by rock and roll, was born in New York City on March 22, 1930. Sondheim and the work he created helped revolutionize the Broadway musical in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.When ...read more

Teachers are indicted at the McMartin Preschool

Seven teachers at the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California are indicted by the Los Angeles County grand jury after hearing testimony from 18 children. Included among the charged are Peggy McMartin Buckey, the head of the school and her son Ray Buckey. Seven years and ...read more

The origins of the Hummer

On this day in 1983, the Pentagon awards a production contract worth more than $1 billion to AM General Corporation to develop 55,000 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV). Nicknamed the Humvee and designed to transport troops and cargo, the wide, rugged vehicles ...read more

Braxton Bragg born

On this day in 1817, Confederate General Braxton Bragg is born in Warrenton, North Carolina. Bragg commanded the Army of Tennessee for 17 months, leading them to several defeats and losing most of the state of Tennessee to the Yankees.Bragg graduated from the U.S. Military ...read more