Bloodshed At Dawn


If Barron had been a man of great perspicacity and moral courage he might perhaps have turned back on reaching the Capes, and, at anchor in territorial waters, he might have requested specific orders to clear for action before starting out again, but the delay woidd have been the subject of an inquiry as damaging as an inquiry into throwing valuable stores overboard—either action could be officially justified only if it could be proved that the Leopard was unbelievably willing to go to extremes. Barron can be excused—certainly he was excused in his own mind—for all the decisions he made.

But the mischief was done; the court had reached a verdict and agreed upon a sentence which Mr. Jefferson confirmed, and Barron found—as could have surprised none except himself—that he was now remembered not as the man who delayed clearing for action but as the man who ordered the Chesapeake ’s colors to be hauled down. He was without means; he had to earn his bread. He had many of the qualifications needed in an officer of the merchant marine, but would any American shipowner employ the most unpopular man in the United States? Barron, understandably, went to Europe to seek employment, and disappeared for years out of American history.

Now there is the other side of the story. One of the members of the court that had reached that verdict and passed that sentence was Captain Stephen Decatur. He knew Barron well; he had had even greater opportunities for knowing him than many of the offcers of the small United States Xavy. He had been a midshipman in the U.S.S. United States when Barron had been a lieutenant in the same ship; he had been acting lieutenant and lieutenant when Barron was captain, and he had been first lieutenant to Barron in the New York . Few men have any opportunity of closer observation of another man than a first lieutenant has of his captain.

The affair with the Leonard had occurred on June 22, and the court was ordered on December 7. Decatur had already announced himself by letter as prejudiced, and had so informed Barren’s counsel. Barron had the right to protest against Decatur being a member of the court, but he did not avail himself of it. There could be no clearer proof of his consciousness of innocence, so that his mortification and surprise at the verdict can be easily estimated. Decatur was by ten years the younger man; his burning of the captured Philadelphia , his bravery in the gunboat battle in Tripoli, the death of his brother, revenged by Dccatur’s own hand, had won him the admiration and the affection of the public. It is clear enough that Decatur, in addition to his good looks and his happy turn of phrase, possessed a personal charm that could not be immortalized on canvas or paper and that later generations can only guess at. He was generally liked, while on the other hand Barron, to judge by his letters and the impressions recorded by others, was something of a dry-as-dust man of small imagination and little personal appeal.

Here are factors that might well result in a mutual personal antipathy. There was little chance that the mercurial Dec atur could be a hero to die man who had known him as a boy; there was a definite likelihood that Decatur would have a small opinion of the drab character who had held over him the crushing authority of a lieutenant over a midshipman, ft hardly seems necessary to add the factor that has been hinted at in some accounts to the effect that an unguarded speech by Bairon revealed to the woman Decatur intended to marry the existence of another girl in another port. The men did not like each other, as Decatur admitted in writing.


There are conflicting accounts as to how Barren occupied himself during the long years from 1808 to 1818, when he returned home. No record exists of his having requested through official channels assistance to return to his country at the outbreak of war in i8ia. He was eligible again for a captain’s command by February, 1813; he made no application for one. Decatur was to point out that numerous ships ran the British blockade, and that it would have been quite easy for him to return to the United States in order to take part in a war in which the services of every American would be of value. But Barren did not return; it is possible that he was engaged in menial work that left him too poor to make the attempt and which he was ashamed to admit to later.

Meanwhile Decatur had become a popular hero; the capture of the Macedonian had been a brilliant teat of arms and the expedition against the Barbary pirates had been remarkably well conducted and completely successful. Decatur had been the recipient of gold medals and services of silver plate; he had been feted everywhere; his speeches were reported verbatim and his advice listened to with attention.