I have been informed, in Norfolk, that you have said that you could insult me with impunity, or words to that effect. If you have said so, you will no doubt avow it, and I shall expect to hear from you.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
So this is how it starts. It’s June 12, 1819, and James Barron sends Stephen Decatur a letter that essentially says, “Yo, I heard you’ve been talking shit about me.” Nine months later, the two would meet at the Bladensburg dueling grounds and Stephen Decatur would be shot dead. So let me tell you how that shit happened. In case you need a refresher, you can go back and read part 1 and part 2. I apologize in advance, but I’m going to quote a few kind of long passages from letters. But, if you stick with me, you’ll see that this is the basically the 18th/early 19th century version of a hip hop beef. If you like them, you can go and read them all for free in a book that Decatur’s friends published after his death.
So, like I said, it’s 1819. In the years since the War of 1812 ended, Decatur has gotten hella famous. He’s now working in Washington as the Naval Commissioner. He’s polishing his high society type ways, reading voraciously, trying to increase his knowledge. He’s being groomed for office, with an unknown ceiling. A military hero, the Presidency is definitely not out of the question. There’s a decent chance he would’ve been President instead of Andrew Jackson if he didn’t act a damn fool all the time. In 1818, he acted as Oliver Hazard Perry’s second in a duel. Dude couldn’t stay away from duels.
Anyway, if you’ve read this far, you know that Decatur’s a crazy ass. So obviously he’s gonna lose his damn mind when he gets the letter from James Barron. He punks the shit out of Barron in his response. Remember, he doesn’t have the highest opinion of Barron because of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, and he let him know it.
...Whatever I may have thought, or said, in the very frequent and free conversation I have had respecting you and your conduct, I feel a thorough conviction that I never could have been guilty of so much egotism as to say that “I could insult you” (or any other man) “with impunity.”
I am, sir, your obedient servant.
Check this shit out! Decatur tells Baron that he talks shit about him all the time! And James Barron is such a damn idiot, he doesn’t even know it.
...Your declaration, if I understand it correctly, relieves my mind from the apprehension that you had so degraded my character, as I had been induced to allege.
I am, sir, your obedient servant,
This is James Barron saying, “whew. Glad to hear you weren’t talking shit about me, bro.” And Decatur likely wouldn’t have been killed in a duel if he had just left it there. But that ain’t how this guy operates. Check it:
...as you have expressed yourself doubtfully, as to your correct understanding of my letter, I have now to state, and I request you to understand distinctly, that I meant no more than to disclaim the specific and particular expression to which your inquiry was directed, to wit: that I had said that I could insult you with impunity.
Your obedient servant,
Shots fired! “No, I was talking shit about you, bro. I just didn’t say that exact thing that you thought I said.” Fucking a, right? That was June 29, 1819. If you thought shit would get crazy right away, you’d be totally wrong. Four months goes by with no response. On October 23, 1819, Barron responds with an extremely long and boring letter where he really whines like a baby and accuses Decatur of “ungenerously traducing [his] character.” Then, out of nowhere, “It calls loudly for redress at your hands: I consider you as having given the invitation, which I accept, and will prepare to meet you at such time and place as our respective friends, here after to be named, shall designate.”
Decatur is actually pretty surprised by Barron’s response. Like I said, it came out of nowhere after four months, and Barron seems to think Decatur challenged him to a duel. Decatur responds to Barron with an even longer letter explaining all the reasons he was talking shit about Barron: the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, Decatur’s role in the court martial, Barron’s suspension from military service, Barron’s failure to participate in the War of 1812 even though his suspension had ended. He also says, “I wasn’t trying to fight you, bro, but I definitely will if that’s what you want,” and, “if you want to fight so bad, you should have fought the British in the War of 1812.” Pretty fucking harsh.
I kept saying there was a conspiracy, and maybe there is. Why the four month gap in letters from Barron and the extreme ramp-up to a duel. Well, remember William Bainbridge, the guy who got all his glory stolen by Decatur? Turns out he had shown up into town in Norfolk in October and was hanging with Barron. Bainbridge had his own beef with Decatur, and maybe Barron was the perfect tool to help him get his revenge. Also, I cut a bunch of shit out from those first letters where Barron talks about how he basically “heard from a guy who heard from a guy” that Decatur had said all this nonsense and he wouldn’t tell Decatur who it was. Probably a good chance it was Bainbridge that started the whole damn thing.
When news that there’s going to be a duel spreads, Decatur tries to find a second. He gets turned down by everyone. First, they all tell him this fight is too stupid to duel over. Second, they know he’s going to kill Barron. Third, the rules of dueling are complex, but your second has to be the same rank as you or higher, and there aren’t too many people that fit that description. The one person who doesn’t turn him down is William Bainbridge. Pretty weird, right? Barron’s second is this asshole Jesse Elliott.
So there’s a bunch more letters going back and forth and whatnot. On March 22, 1820, Decatur, Bainbridge, Barron, and Elliott all roll up to the Bladensburg dueling grounds to get it cracking. Dueling is super illegal, so they have to cross state lines and go out in the middle of nowhere to do this thing. Pretty damn stupid to go get yourself shot while you’re far as hell away from anyone that can help you. Hey! They brought surgeons with them, though! Super awesome 1820’s surgeons.
The rules for this duel are stupid. They’re gonna stand real close to each other, face each other, and shoot. None of this fancy taking steps away from each other, turning, and firing like you see in the movies. Just stand and blast each other. Remember that conspiracy? The seconds set the rules in a duel, and the thought is that Bainbridge and Elliott set it up in a way that they knew one or both of the participants would get killed. Big if true, amirite?
Hey! Here’s more conspiracy stuff: before the duel, Barron and Decatur talk for a while about how they actually like each other, and it’s pretty stupid that they’re gonna duel. According to the weird ass rules of dueling, the seconds should have said, “hey, let’s just squash this beef” and had it be over. That’s what people that AREN’T assholes would have done.
So, they stand 8 paces apart. Decatur, being the nice guy he is, plans to wound Barron in the hip. Bainbridge gives the count and Decatur and Barron both fire. Barron is hit in the hip, Decatur is hit in his pelvis.
Decatur knew instantly, and as he fell to the ground, shouted, “Oh, Lord, I am a dead man.” Barron, also being a nice guy, says that he forgives Decatur. There’s a nice moment while they’re both being carried away from the field, as Barron shouts, “God bless you, Decatur!” and Decatur replies, “Farewell, farewell, Barron.”
Decatur is taken back to his home. His wife is obviously SUPER PISSED that her husband just got shot in a duel. So he dies and stuff. Major bummer. Washington society is shocked. His funeral is a HUGE event, and is attended by 10,000 people, including President Monroe, the Supreme Court, and most of Congress. Only 15,000 people live in D.C. at the time, so that’s a shitload of people.
Oh yeah. Remember William Bainbridge? He had all of his correspondence burned when he died. Maybe to cover up his involvement in Decatur’s death. Maybe not. Who knows.
Anyway, that’s a little bit about Stephen Decatur. Now the next time you’re driving through the middle of nowhere and you come across some horseshit town called Decatur, you can bore whoever you’re with by telling them some dumb ass story.
If you want to know more about this kind of stuff, here are some good books: