Stephen Decatur, Jr. (January 5, 1779 – March 22, 1820) was a United States naval officer and Commodore notable for his many naval victories in the early 19th century.
He was born on the eastern shore of Maryland, in Worcester County, the son of a U.S. naval officer who served during the American Revolution. Shortly after attending college, Decatur followed in his father's footsteps and joined the U.S. Navy at the age of nineteen. He was the youngest man to reach the rank of captain in the history of the United States Navy. Decatur's father, Stephen Decatur, Sr., also became a commodore in the U.S. Navy – which brought the younger Stephen into the world of ships and sailing early on. Decatur supervised the construction of several U.S. naval vessels, one of which he would later command. He became an affluent member of Washington society and counted James Monroe and other Washington dignitaries among his personal friends.
Decatur joined the U.S. Navy in 1798 as a midshipman. He served under three presidents, and played a major role in the early development of the American navy.
In almost every theater of operation, Decatur's service was characterized with acts of heroism and exceptional performance in the many areas of military endeavor. His service in the Navy took him through both Barbary Wars in North Africa, the Quasi-War with France, and the War of 1812 with Britain. During this period he served aboard and commanded many naval vessels and ultimately became a member of the Board of Navy Commissioners. He built a large home in Washington, known as Decatur House, on Lafayette Square, which later became the home to a number of famous Americans, and was the center of Washington society in the early 19th century. He was renowned for his natural ability to lead and for his genuine concern for the seamen under his command. Decatur's distinguished career in the Navy came to an early end when he lost his life in a duel with a rival officer. His numerous naval victories against Britain, France and the Barbary states established the United States as a rising power.
Decatur subsequently emerged as a national hero in his own lifetime, becoming the first post–Revolutionary War hero. His name and legacy, like that of John Paul Jones, soon became identified with the United States Navy.
By Dean Hanley
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