January 5th marked Commodore Stephen Decatur’s 237th birthday. Decatur was the most celebrated American naval hero of the post-Revolutionary War era. If not for his untimely death at the age of 41, many believe he would have been elected President of the United States.
In honor of his recent birthday, I think it appropriate to take a moment to remember some of Decatur’s career, reflect on his legacy, and consider how we might go about producing more leaders like him.
|Captain Stephen Decatur|
First let’s talk about Stephen Decatur’s naval education and the early wartime exploits which made him a household name. The son of a merchant captain, Decatur obtained an appointment as midshipman in 1798. He served aboard USS United States, captained by his good friend and mentor John Barry. Barry was a hero of the Revolutionary War, and is recognized as the American Navy’s first flag officer. Decatur was also tutored by Talbot Hamilton, a former officer of the Royal Navy who instructed him in navigational and nautical sciences. While serving aboard United States, Decatur received formal naval training not only from Hamilton, but through active service aboard a commissioned ship. This experience, as well as his continuing education aboard other ships, would serve him well when it came time for him to lead in combat.
Before I recount Decatur’s heroism in battle, let’s briefly set the stage. In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson sent our nation’s tiny naval force to the Mediterranean to protect our expanding trade against the Barbary pirates, who had long demanded ransom for the safe passage of our merchant ships. President Jefferson’s refusal to pay for safe passage led Tripoli to declare war against the United States. “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” became our rallying cry for the ensuing conflict – the First Barbary War.
On 23 December 1803, only a month into his command of the schooner Enterprise, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and his crew captured the Tripolitan ketch Mastico as she sailed from Tripoli to Constantinople under Turkish colors. Mastico had taken part in the capture of the frigate USS Philadelphia earlier that year, and was thus deemed a legitimate prize. Refitted and renamed USS Intrepid, she was taken into service under Lieutenant Decatur’s command.
|The burning of USS Philadelphia|
Because of her appearance, the Intrepid was well-suited to enter Tripoli's harbor, where Philadelphia remained, without raising suspicion. In February 1804, Decatur sailed the Intrepid close enough to the captured Philadelphia for his crew, a detachment of U.S. Marines, to board, capture, and burn the frigate, which was not seaworthy. The mission was executed flawlessly, and subsequently deprived Tripoli of a powerful warship. Lord Horatio Nelson, then a Vice Admiral in the British Royal Navy, called Decatur’s mission “the most bold and daring act of the age.”
Later in 1804, during a month of sustained attacks on Tripoli, Decatur's younger brother, James Decatur, was mortally wounded by a Tripolitan captain while boarding a corsair feigning surrender. Stephen Decatur received word quickly, and diverted his own vessel to the corsair to exact revenge. He was the first to board the Tripolitan ship, outnumbered five-to-one, but ready for a fight. Decatur immediately found the man who had wounded his brother. The Tripolitan captain outweighed him by 40 pounds, but Decatur ferociously thwarted the captain with his cutlass and after a direct hand-to-hand fight, killed him with his pistol. The story of this fight made Decatur a household name, shaping the image of our still developing U.S. Navy.
For his leadership and bravery in the First Barbary War, Stephen Decatur became the youngest naval officer in history to be promoted to captain at the age of 25. His naval career continued far beyond this initial success. Decatur would further distinguish himself while fighting in the War of 1812 and the Second Barbary War. He would achieve the rank of commodore and serve on the Board of Navy Commissioners until his death in 1820 following a duel with another naval officer.
|The Tripoli Monument at USNA|
Another name on the monument is Richard Somers, who died aboard the same USS Intrepid that Decatur captured and used to sneak into Tripoli’s harbor. Somers was a close friend and midshipman with Decatur aboard United States, and assumed command of Intrepid one month after James Decatur was killed. Intrepid had been fitted as a “floating volcano,” loaded down with 100 barrels of powder and 150 shells. The plan was to sail her into Tripoli’s corsair fleet, light a 15-minute fuse, and abandon ship before she exploded. Unfortunately, the Intrepid exploded prematurely, killing her entire crew of volunteers.
|The Brigade of Midshipmen leadership staff|
I mention Richard Somers because six U.S. Navy ships have been named the USS Somers in his honor, the second of which has a crucial connection to the Naval Academy. In December 1842, Midshipman Philip Spencer, son of Secretary of War John C. Spencer, was hanged for intention to commit a mutiny aboard USS Somers. This high profile hanging became known as the Somers Affair, and contributed to the decision to create a land-based academy where midshipmen could learn their craft instead of doing so only at sea.
The same midshipman experience which greatly benefitted Stephen Decatur was not always as successful. The United States Naval Academy, established in 1845 by Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, would seek to formalize a curriculum for aspiring naval officers, producing a fresh crop of talented leaders each year. 170 years later, the scope of our operation has changed, but our goal hasn’t. I mentioned earlier that Decatur had his own tutor aboard the United States to teach him the technical skills and naval science he would need to succeed as a naval officer, and eventually as a naval commander. He also had on-the-job training aboard a real ship, filled with opportunities to practice and hone his craft. That’s exactly what we endeavor to provide today’s Naval Academy midshipmen, and how we go about developing leaders has been my number one priority since taking over as Superintendent.
|Superintendent Vice Adm. Ted Carter speaks to the Brigade of Midshipmen|
My major focus is experiential leadership. Leadership cannot be taught exclusively in the classroom. The technical skills required of a competent leader can be learned at a desk in many cases, but that’s not enough. Leader development must be immersive. It takes repetition, with allowance for failure and success. It’s also all about being given the opportunity to try, fail, try again, and eventually succeed when the stakes are manageable. Today’s midshipmen get a world-class education from our outstanding faculty, just as Decatur had Talbot Hamilton – a seasoned officer of the Royal Navy – to keep him on track. But they also get chances to lead, be it aboard smaller ships during summer training or amongst their peers in the Brigade leadership structure.
I don’t know exactly how many modern day Decaturs I have in the Brigade, but I am confident that we provide the conditions and the opportunities for our future Navy and Marine Corps heroes to thrive and grow. Time and again, Stephen Decatur found himself where the action was. Time and again, he proved himself with his leadership and bravery. I am confident that our next generation of leaders will be up to the task as well.
|A first-class midshipman helps a Plebe learn how to salute|
Times have changed since Decatur proved himself a naval hero, but the principles for which we fight have remained constant. I’ll leave you with the oft-misquoted and misapplied words of Decatur himself, a post-dinner toast at a social gathering in April 1816. “Our country – In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; and always successful, right or wrong."