Letter Signed to Commodore John Rodgers about “qualifications of the officers” Five Months Before the Naval Hero’s Death in a Duel

Signed by Stephen Decatur

Item: 18405
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DECATUR, STEPHEN. (1779-1820). Celebrated American naval officer, remembered for his naval adventures and death in a duel with Captain James Barron. Decatur is also celebrated for coining the phrase, “Our country, right or wrong!” LS. (“Stephen Decatur”). 1p. 4to. Washington City, October 11, 1819. To Board of Naval Commissioners President Commodore JOHN RODGERS (1773-1838), the highest ranking American naval officer during the War of 1812.

“The commissioners of the Navy have received your letter of the 7 ins, &, with pleasure, transmit herewith, for the information of this Board of Examining Officers, the information on the record of their office touching the character & qualifications of the officers, whose names are on the list sent them by you…” 

A portrait of Stephen Decatur

Decatur achieved renown during the Tripolitan War (1801-1805), and as commander of the United States in the War of 1812. However, it was the year 1807 which proved to be decisive for him, as his death 13 years later was inextricably entwined with the notorious June 22 Chesapeake-Leopard affair between Great Britain and America. In what can only be described as a David and Goliath engagement, the British warship Leonard opened fire on the American frigate Chesapeake, commanded by Captain James Barron, after she refused to surrender four British sailors who had deserted. Outfitted only for travel, the Chesapeake was wholly unprepared for battle. However, Barron stubbornly refused to cede, and vitiated the situation when he replied with one gunshot “in honor of the flag,” (DAB). After her hull was “irrevocably injured,” according to Decatur, the Chesapeake surrendered, but not before three of her crew had been killed, and some twenty injured, (ibid.). Barron was court-martialed in January 1808 for mishandling a confrontation whose disastrous consequences could easily have been averted. Although acquitted on charges of cowardice and other minor infractions, the court of officers, of which Rodgers was president and Decatur a member, found Barron guilty of “neglecting, on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action,” (ibid). He was suspended for five years without pay. Decatur had made clear his unflattering view of Barron prior to the court-martial, while Barron singled out Decatur as the cause of his disgrace. His longtime resentment of Decatur intensified in 1818, when his efforts for reinstatement failed due in part to Decatur’s opposition. In a series of elaborate accusations, Barron charged Decatur with leading a conspiracy to block his promotion. A protracted, heated correspondence ensued, in which Decatur made numerous attempts to persuade Barron that his earlier remarks had not been intended as an insult. Barron responded to Decatur’s palliative letters by challenging him to a duel, to which Decatur reluctantly agreed. Although both men were injured during their fateful meeting on March 22, 1820, Decatur died that evening from an abdominal wound. Rodgers, the recipient of our letter, attended the duel between Decatur and Barron and remained at the former’s side until his death. Decatur’s popularity was underscored by the immense crowd of mourners, the largest ever to have assembled in Washington, following the officer’s funeral procession.

Rodgers led the Navy Board of Commissioners from 1815-1824 and 1827-1837, and served briefly as Secretary of the Navy in 1823. He was in the Mediterranean during the Tripolitan War, in which he distinguished himself as commander of the blockade that brought peace in 1805. Rodgers assumed command of the Northern Division fleet after Barron’s court martial and, in that capacity, was charged with enforcing the Embargo Act between 1810 and 1811. Rodgers fired the first shot of the War of 1812 from the USS President, and his effective performance during the conflict earned him President Madison’s appointment as head of the Board of Naval Commissioners.

The Board of Naval Commissioners was established in 1815 and the three-person body oversaw the navy’s material support during the administrations of presidents Madison and Monroe. At the time of our letter, the two other commissioners were Decatur and Captain David Porter, famous for commanding the USS Constitution during the First Barbary War and the USS Essex during the War of 1812. Written on a folded sheet with the integral address leaf attached and “Free” written in an unidentified hand. Normal wear and age toning. In very good condition. Framed with glass on both sides; the glass on the verso is cracked but not affecting the letter.

Letter Signed to Commodore John Rodgers about “qualifications of the officers” Five Months Before the Naval Hero’s Death in a Duel

Signed by Stephen Decatur

$1500 • item #18405

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