Challenger: James Barron- Former Commodore, United States Navy
Challenged: Stephen Decatur- Commodore, Commissioner, United States Navy
The Offense: James Barron was court martialed for his poor handling of the USS Chesapeake during the confrontation with the HMS Leopard in 1807. Decatur served on the court and recommended Barron be barred from command for five years. Barron spent those five years in Denmark composing a lengthy defense of his actions. Upon his return, he applied for reinstatement to Naval command. Decatur was one of many officers who opposed Barron’s reentry into the service. Long jealous of Decatur’s fame, Barron singled out his younger rival and challenged him to a duel.
Background: Stephen Decatur’s naval career was marked by acts of heroism and exceptional performance under fire. He was the youngest man in naval history to reach the rank of Captain and distinguished himself in the first and second Barbary Wars. His stunning victories early in the War of 1812 helped keep morale high during some of the darker days of the conflict. These exploits established him as one of country’s first heroes and earned the resentment of many fellow officers. James Barron served without much distinction along side Decatur, rising to the rank of Commodore by 1812. Barron’s failure to properly oppose the boarding action of the HMS Leopard cost him his commission. Decatur’s position on the court-martial, as well as his vocal opposition to Barron’s reinstatement led to the duel. By 1820, dueling was such a problem for the US Navy’s officer corps, there was actually a shortage of properly trained commanders.
The Field of Honor: March 22, 1820–Neither Second in the duel was a suitable choice, for both men wanted to see Stephen Decatur dead. Barron’s Second was the unpredictable Jesse Elliott, an officer known for his burning ambition and hatred of Decatur. Commodore William Bainbridge was chosen by Decatur, which was an unfortunate decision. Bainbridge blamed Decatur for stealing his command during the second Barbary War. The Seconds negotiated a deadly eight pace turn, guaranteeing bloodshed. Decatur, a crack shot, did not plan on killing his challenger and made it known in the negotiations. It is doubtful either Second mentioned this to Barron. The count was given by Bainbridge, shots had to be fired after ‘one’ and before ‘three’. The duelists fired before ‘two’ and both went down with serious wounds. Barron was struck in the lower abdomen but would survive. Decatur was hit through the pelvis, severing three arteries, sealing his fate. Decatur cried out, “Oh Lord, I’m a dead man!” Barron answered back, “I forgive you, God bless you Decatur!” The hero’s funeral was attended by every member of Congress, the entire Supreme Court, President James Monroe, and over 10,000 citizens.