- Historic Sites
Bloodshed At Dawn
Should Commodore Barron have surrendered his ship? Should Decatur have criticised him? Their famous duel ended in … bloodshed at dawn
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
No one ran he sure now of exactly where it happened, although every day thousands of motorists must drive within a lew yards of the spot, once lonely, deserted, and surrounded hy scrub. The antiquarian and the local historian ran form their own theories, and there is a marker in Anacostia River Park dose to where U.S. Route i crosses the District of Columbia line. The traveller heading toward Baltimore from Washington, D.C., can he sure (if the traffic allows him any opportunity for thought) that he is passing dose to the place where De catur fell mortally wounded hy an American bullet. It might be near the Peace Cross; more likely it is half a mile nearer Washington. Perhaps the railroad passes over the exact spot, just as a railroad passes over the spot where Alexander Hamilton, and his son before him, died in duels.
But it is with Dccatur and not with Hamilton that this article is concerned. How did it happen that Decatur came to die in that pitiful fashion? The tragedy had its origins long before, as most tragedies do. Some of the causes are known; some of them can be guessed at. We have to guess at the state of mind of Vice Admiral the Honorable Sir George Berkeley, K.B., (of His Britannic Majesty’s Navy, Commander in Chief on the North American Station) sometime in the early part of iMoy, but we can deduce mtich from the action he took at that time. He must have been in an angry mood when he took up his pen and wrote a certain order; we can be sure of that, because no responsible man would have written that order after calm thought. It was to bring the United States and Great Britain to the verge of war in iHo? and to contribute largely to starting the War of 1812; it was also, in 1820, one of the causes of the death on the field of honor (as it was called) of Stephen Decatur, a Commissioner of the United States Navy, and one of the best loved of all that Navy’s officers.
Berkeley, at his base at Halifax, had received an irritating piece of news from the British consul at Norfolk, Virginia, regarding the behavior of Captain Decatur, commanding the Gosport Yard. Application had been made to Decatur for the return of three deserters from H.M.S. Melampus , who had been enlisted into the crew of U.S.S. Chesapeake , fitting for a voyage to (he Mediterranean. Decatur had refused to take any ad ion, stating, quite correctly, that recruiting was not his responsibility. The British consul had persisted until at last his complaint had readied Commodore James Barron, who was to hoist his broad pendant in the Chesapeake . Barron decided, after inquiring, that the three men were American citizens, and he refused to give them up, and likely enough promptly forgot all about the incident in the bustle of preparing for sea.
Berkeley, on the other hand, was far too irritated to let the matter drop. On the manning of the Royal Navy depended his country’s safety in the war with the French Empire; if seamen serving in British ships of war could desert and claim the protection of a foreign power, the very roots of discipline would be weakened. So he wrote to all the caj)tains under his command specifically ordering them, should they encounter the Chesapeake at sea, to search her and reclaim the deserters.
It was a wildly reckless order; later, when the United States government protested, the British Cabinet grudgingly disavowed Berkeley’s action and transferred him to another command. The British Navy had never been very tender about the susceptibilities of other nations, and for a hundred years or more had stopped merchant vessels on the high seas in order to impress any members of the ships’ crews who might be deemed British subjects, but they had never been known to treat national ships, ships of war, in this fashion. That would be an unprecedented, an unheard-of insult. It was so unheard of that the possibility cannot have crossed Barron’s mind when the Chesapeake , having completed her crew and stores, got under way on June 22, 1807, in Hampton Roads and headed’ for the Capes and the open sea.
An absurd state of affairs already prevailed, thanks largely to the weaknesses of Mr. Jefferson’s administration. At anchor within the Capes was a British squadron, which was blockading two French ships of war lying off Annapolis, farther still into American territorial waters—one can almost find excuse for Berkeley’s action when the United States could so tamely submit to this sort of breach of American neutrality. Captain Humphries of H.M.S. Leopard had received Berkeley’s order. He could see the Cheapeake coming down, and he weighed anchor and preceded her out to sea. He must have had his doubts about the legality of the order he had received, but having decided to take action he left nothing to chance. He cleared’ for action, opened his gun ports, and made sure that he was outside American territorial waters before he hove to and waited for the Chesapeake to come within hail.