Archive for February 16th, 2008



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On This Day 2-16-08: Stephen Decatur

1959: Castro sworn in

On 16th February 1959, six years after he launched his guerrilla war against dictator Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro is sworn in as premier of Cuba.

Despite early denials of communist leanings, Castro launched a program of agrarian reform, nationalized American assets on the island, and proclaimed a Marxist government. After repelling the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he strengthened ties with the Soviet Union and in 1962 authorised the installation of Soviet missile bases on the island.

The discovery of the missile sites by U.S. spy planes set off the Cuban Missile Crisis, which ended after the Soviets agreed to remove the offensive weapons in exchange for a US pledge not to invade Cuba.

1804 – A raid was led by Lt. Stephen Decatur to burn the U.S. Navy frigate Philadelphia. The ship had been taken by pirates.

1857 – The National Deaf Mute College was incorporated in Washington, DC. It was the first school in the world for advanced education of the deaf. The school was later renamed Gallaudet College.

1862 – During the U.S. Civil War, about 14,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Fort Donelson, TN.

1918 – Lithuania proclaimed its independence.

1945 – During World War II, U.S. troops landed on the island of Corregidor in the Philippines.

1946 – The first commercially designed helicopter was tested in Connecticut.

1960 – The U.S.S. Triton began the first circumnavigation of the globe under water. The trip ended on May 10.

1999 – Kurds seized embassies and held hostages across Europe following Turkey’s arrest of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

1999 – Testimony began in the Jasper, TX, trial of John William King. He was charged with murder in the gruesome dragging death of James Byrd Jr. King was later convicted and sentenced to death.

2002 – The operator of a crematory in Noble, GA, was arrested after dozens of corpses were found stacked in storage sheds and scattered around in the surrounding woods.

“Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be right; but our country right or wrong.”

Stephen Decatur

Captain Stephen Decatur
5 January 1779 – 22 March 1820

Portrait of Stephen Decatur

Portrait of Stephen Decatur

“The Death of Commodore Decatur” adapted from Lauren Pitre’s article in, SWONET

Stephen Decatur was a renowned naval officer who showed signs of heroism early in life. Born in Sinepuxent, Md., on January 5, 1779, Decatur as a youth was known to dive from the tips of jib booms and, at the age of 14, defended his mother against a drunken rogue. He was commissioned as a midshipman in 1798 and a year later was promoted to acting lieutenant of the frigate United States.

At the age of 25, Decatur became the most striking figure of the Tripolitan Wars. On February 16, 1804, Decatur led 74 volunteers into Tripoli harbor to burn the captured American frigate Philadelphia. British Admiral Lord Nelson is said to have called the raid “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Raised to the rank of captain, Decatur was the youngest captain in the American navy.

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Decatur was the commanding officer of the frigate United States, which he had served aboard as a midshipman. As commander of the ship, he defeated and captured the British frigate Macedonian in October 1812. He brought the vessel safely back to the United States. It was the only British ship to be refitted and commissioned in the American navy during the war. Early in 1815 he was commodore of a three-ship squadron, when his flagship, the President, while running the British blockade, struck bottom. The damaged ship was unable to escape the blockading squadron and was captured.

In 1815, Decatur commanded a nine-ship squadron headed for Mediterranean to end the cruising of Algerian corsairs against American shipping. Decatur’s abilities as a negotiator were recognized after he secured a treaty with the Algerians. During celebration of the peace with the North African state, Decatur declared his famous line: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be right; but our country right or wrong.”

Decatur was noted not only for his brilliant Navy career, but also for his involvement in duels, which was how men of honor settled disputes in his day. On March 22, 1820, he was killed in a duel with Commodore James Barron. Barron was court-martialed for surrendering his ship to a British man-of-war in 1807. This surrender was one of the major events leading to the War of 1812. When Barron returned to the United States after the war, he had intentions of resuming his naval service but met much criticism, especially from Commodore Decatur. Barron was severely wounded in his leg but fired the shot that ended Decatur’s life.

[Extract from the journal kept on board the U.S. Frigate Constitution, by Captain Edward Preble, U.S. Navy, Friday, 3 August 1804.]

Wind E S E to E b N. Exercised the Bomb Vessels & threw some
shells, fresh Breezes & pleasant, during the night we had fresh Gales
lay to with the ships head to the N E. in the morning wore & stood
for the Land, Tripoly about 4 Leagues dist[ance] Bearing S S W. at 8 A M
wind E b N at noon we were within two miles of the City of Tripoly
which is defended by Batteries mounted with 67 Heavy cannon point-
ing sea ward and 22 Gun Boats each carrying a piece of heavy Brass
Ordnance [*], besides small cannon, muskets Pistols Pikes &c — and
man’d with 30 to 50 Men each they have als[o] an Armed Brig two
armed schooners in the Port full of men. I made the signal to wear
and haul off and immediately after the signal to come within hale,
clear’d ship for Action & beat to quarters. — made signal to prepare
for Battle intending to attack their Gun Boats & the City as I observed
their Boats without the Rocks,

[*Commodore Preble’s Diary indicates “Batteries mounted with 115 heavy
Cannon pointed sea ward, and Nineteen Gun Boats each carrying a piece of
heavy Brass Ordinance”.]

[3 August 1804]

[Extract form journal kept on board the U.S. Frigate Constitution, by Captain Edward Preble, U.S. Navy, Saturday, 4 August 1804.]Wind E b S. Standing off shore on the Starbord Tack the signal
out to come within hail spoke the different Vessels and acquainted
their Commanders that it was my Intention to attack the shipping
& Batteries, — directed the Gun Boats & Bombs to be prepared for
immediate service. –At 12 1/2 pm Tack’d & stood for the Batteries. Back’d the Main
Topsail, at 1/2 1 pm made the general signal to follow the motions of
the Commodore. filled the the Maintopsail & stood in towards the Bat-
teries, at 1/4 past 2 made the signal for the Bombs & Gun Boats to
advance & attack the ships & Batteries. 1/2 past 2 general signal for
Battle. the whole squadron advanc’d within point Blank shot of
the Enemies Batteries & shipping, our Gun Boats in two divisions
the 1st consisting of 3 Boats Commanded by Capt. Somers the 2d of
three Boats by Capt. Decatur, at 3/4 past 2 the Action commenced on
out side by throwing a shell into the Town, and in an Instant the
whole Squadron were engaged. — the Enemies Gun Boats were
Anchored with springs on, in three divisions the Eastern or van division
consisted of 9 Boats the center of 7 Boats , and the Western or Rear
of 5 Boats. As the wind was from the Eastward our Boats were
ordered to lead in to Windward and attack the Enemy. the Rear &
center division of the Enemies Boats are close under their Batteries,
& the Van division consisting of their largest Boats are within Grape
distance of the Bashaws Castle & fort English at 3 observed our
Gun Boats engaged in close action with the Enemies Boats, while a
tremendous fire was kept up by this ship and the rest of the Squadron.
Capt. Decatur with No. 4 Lt. Trippe of No. 6 & Lt. Bainbridge of No. 5
& Lt. James Decatur of No. 2 attacked the enemys Boats within Pistol
shot. No. 1 Capt. Somers fell to Leward but fetched up with the
Enemys Rear of 5 Boats which he gallantly attacked disabled & drove
in altho within pistol shot of the Batteries. No. 3 Lt. Blake did not
go into close Action, had he gone down to assistance of Capt.
Somers it is probable they would have captured the Rear Boats.
Capt. Decatur Boarded and after a stout and obstinate resistance took
possession of two of the Enemies Gun Boats, Lt. Trip Boarded and
carried a third. Lt. James Decatur in the Act of Boarding to take
possession of a fourth Boat was shot through the Head & Mortally
wounded the officer next in command (Mn. Brown) hauld off. Lt.
Bainbridge had his Latten Yard shot away early in the Action which
prevented him from taking a Boat but he Galled the Enemy by a
steady fire within Musket shot, indeed he pursued the Enemy until
his Boat touch’d the ground under the Batteries. The Bombs kept
their stations which were well chosen, by Lt. Dent & Lt. Robinson, who
commanded them, and threw a number of shells into the town altho
the spray of the sea occasioned by the enemies shot almost covered
them, three different times the Enemies Gun Boats rallied and
attempted to surround ours. I as often made the signal to cover them,
which was properly attended to by the Brigs & Schooners, and the
fire from this ship not only had the desired effect on the enemies
flotilla by keeping them in check and disabling them, but silenced
one of their principle Batteries for some time, at 1/2 past 4 pm made
the signal for the Bombs to retire from action out of Gun shot, and a
few minutes after the general signal to Cease fireing and Tow out the
Prizes & disabled Boats. sent our Barge and Jolly Boat to assist in
that duty. Tack’d ship & fired two Broadsides in stays which drove
the Tripolines out of the Castle & brought down the Steeple of a
Mosque, by this time the wind began to freshen from N E at 4 3/4
PM hauld off to take the Bombs in tow, at 5 pm Brought to, two miles
from their Batteries, Rec’d Lt. James Decatur on board from Gun
Boat No. 2, he was shot thorugh the Head (in Boarding a Tripoline Boat
which had struck to him) he expired in a few moments after he was
brought into the ship. — We lay to until 10 P M to receive the
Prisoners on board captured in the Prizes, then made sail & stood off
to the N E the wind Veering to the E S E. — we have all the surgeons
of the squadron on board dressing the wounded. —

During the Action we fired 262 Rounds shot besides Grape double
head & Canister from this ship and were several times within 3 cables
length of the Rocks & Batteries where our sounding were from 10
to 16 fath[om]s the Officers Seamen & Marines of the Squadron behaved
Gallantly throughout the Action. Capt. Decatur in Gun Boat No.4
particularly distinguished himself as did Lt. Trip of No. 6. Our loss
in Killed & Wounded has been considerable the damage we rec’d in this
ship is a 24 pound shot nearly through the center of the Mainmast
20 feet from the Deck, Main Top Gallant R Yard & sail shot away,
one of the Fore shrouds and the sails & running rigging considerably
cut one of the 24 pounders on the Quarter deck was struck by a 24
pound shot which damaged the Gun and carriage and shattered the
Arm of a Marine to pieces, Gun Boat No. 2 had her latteen yard shot
away, & the Rigging & sails of the Brigs & Schooners were considerably
cut. We captured 3 Gun Boats two of which carried each a long
Brass 24 pounder & two Brass Howitzers and 36 men with a plenty of
muskets pistols pikes sabres &c, the other mounted a long Brass 18
pounded & two Howitzers & 24 men   44 Tripolines were killed on board
of the 3 Boats and 52 made prisoners, 26 of which were wounded, 17 of
them very badly 3 of which died soon after they were brought on board,
the Enemy must have suffered very much in Killed & wounded among
their Shipping and on shore, one of their Boats was sunk in the
Harbour several of them had their decks nearly cleared of men by our
shot, and several shells burst in the Town, which must have done great
execution. —

We have lost in Killed & Wounded

1 Officer Killed

2 Officers Wounded

10 Seamen & Marines Wounded


Source: Naval Documents Related to the United Stated Wars with the Barbary Powers. vol. 4. (Washington: U.S. Goverment Printing Office, 1942): 336-338.

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