Military history

Service celebrating the peace, Harvard University (Library of Congress)

CHAPTER 11

“Praise to God for the Restoration of Peace”

NEWS OF the Treaty of Ghent reached the prisoners at Dartmoor on December 29, 1814, and on every one of the prison buildings the Americans hoisted a flag with the motto “Free Trade & Sailors Rights.” But the joy was brief. The winter of 1814–15 was the worst yet for the prisoners. A smallpox epidemic raged through the prison, made worse by the prison doctor’s theory that the best cure was cold baths and extinguishing the fires in the barracks, and so many more succumbed to pneumonia; 270 prisoners eventually died of disease, most during that final winter.

As the weeks and then months wore on with no word about their release, the situation grew more and more volatile. Beasley, the American prisoner agent, sent a letter informing the prisoners that any who had contracted a debt and did not pay it would be detained in Britain. Then another letter arrived from Beasley stating that prisoners would be permitted to leave the country only aboard an official cartel ship, still offering no word about when the first ships would arrive.

On February 13, 1815, a prisoner who had been confined in the “black hole” for eight months was allowed out to take exercise for two hours, leapt the picket fence into the prison yard, and was quickly ushered by his fellow prisoners into number 7. The next day Shortland demanded him back; the prisoners refused; and when three hundred soldiers then marched into the yard, the prisoners declared, in Benjamin Palmer’s words, that “they would never be forced in to any measure against their wills as long as there was a paving stone in the Yard to defend them.” Shortland ordered the soldiers back out but sent word that he would stop the market until the man was delivered up.1

A new militia unit arrived to relieve one of the regiments that had been guarding the Americans, and immediately there was new trouble: a prisoner was stabbed four times by a bayonet apparently for not moving fast enough when the prisoners were ordered in at night. “Immediately prepared for Action against the morroe,” Palmer wrote in his diary March 8, “fully determined to sacrifice the first Soldier that came in to the Yard.” Shortland announced the next day that he would keep the soldiers out of the yard and the one who had stabbed the prisoner would received four hundred lashes as punishment.

Everyone was cracking under the strain, and control of the prison seemed to be slipping day by day. A prisoner in the hospital “became insane & stabb’d two men.” Three Frenchmen “were Detected in the Act of buggery and this morning they were flog’d severely and turnd in to No 4 among the Negroes.” On March 25 the prisoners “tried” and hanged Beasley in effigy. “Still no prospect of getting home How is it that our Agent is so dilatory I cant tell,” Palmer wrote.2 On April 6 he added: “The Prisoners are growing daily more and more discontented. they seem determined to make some bold attempt to escape from this dam Prison.”

Two days before, tensions had risen alarmingly when a dispute over the bread ration led to a stampede of prisoners out of all the barracks; they burst open the iron gates into the market square, and an alarm bell rang as soldiers from Princetown rushed to join the guards, who were now threatening to fire on the prisoners if they did not disperse. “Fire away!” the prisoners taunted back. Again an uneasy peace was restored.3 On the evening of the sixth the inevitable explosion occurred. Again some trivial incident was the trigger—a ball kicked into an adjoining yard by the prisoners, who then tried to retrieve it—but at around five o’clock in the afternoon the alarm bell rang, the guards turned out on the parapets, and before the prisoners could get to their barracks they began firing. Some of the prisoners later claimed that Shortland had engineered the entire episode, others that he was in the midst of the melee, raving drunk, shouting at the troops to fire, but in the chaos the truth would never be known for sure.4 Seven Americans were killed and thirty-one wounded.

The incident finally shocked the British and American bureaucracies into action. Much of the delay in releasing the prisoners was due to the British government’s insistence that each side should supply the ships to return its own prisoners, which obviously was to Britain’s advantage given the imbalance in numbers. Now the British agreed to get the prisoners home as quickly as possible and work out the costs later. All Americans able to provide for themselves were released at once. Every day a contingent of freed prisoners could be seen on the road to Plymouth, marching with banners and flags inscribed “Remember the Sixth of April, 1815,” “Revenge Our Murdered Countrymen!” “Dartmoor Massacre, 1815,” and “Free Trade and Sailors Rights.”5

More than one group of returning American sailors commandeered the ships taking them home when the captain tried to sail to a port far from where most of their homes were, redirecting the ships from Norfolk to New York or other ports.6 Most arrived home without money and barely with clothes. One recalled the “deep, burning indignation” he and the two or three hundred of his fellow released prisoners felt upon arriving in Boston and, after appealing for help from the town’s authorities, were given a dollar each and a certificate reading:

This is to certify that ____________, having been a prisoner-of-war, has returned to this country destitute, and is anxious to get home to his family. We therefore recommend him to those upon whom he may call for assistance while on his journey.

“Is this the reception given to men who have endured sufferings and privations unutterable,” the man indignantly observed, “who have fought their country’s battles, defended the fire-sides which these functionaries now enjoy in peace and security?” He scornfully tore up what he called the “begging-ticket” he had been offered and found his way home as he could, arriving there feeling “like Rip Van Winkle” awakened from his long and troubled sleep.7

THE FEDERALISTS were certain that they would be the political winners of the war. The country had ended up with nothing Madison had promised and everything he claimed to abhor. The war had proved the Federalists right that America needed a strong navy and a sound system of taxation to pay for it; the peace had proved them right that it was folly to think that Britain could ever be made to yield its stance on impressment and free trade. The war had cost the country $158 million and left the government with a debt of $127 million—half as much again as the “moral canker” that Jefferson had inherited and vowed to eliminate, three times what the national debt stood at just before the war. The treaty that ended the war was an almost complete return to the status quo ante; in the end, the peace commissioners had chosen to deal with every single issue of serious contention between the two countries—from the major ones of impressment and free trade to a host of secondary issues such as British access to the Mississippi River and American fishing rights in Canada—by simply omitting any mention of them from the final text. “A Treaty, which gives us peace, is represented as glorious, when it has given us nothing else,” said Federalist senator Rufus King of Massachusetts.8 Senator Christopher Gore, his fellow Massachusetts Federalist, declared, “The treaty must be deemed disgraceful to the Government who made the war and the peace, and will be so adjudged by all, after the first effusions of joy at relief have subsided.”9

But the amnesia that sets in after all wars took hold with lightning swiftness. Simply, no one wanted to hear that a war in which men fought and died had been in vain; no one wanted to be reminded of all the blunders and incompetence and miscalculations of the generals, or all the inconsistencies and opportunism of the politicians. Almost immediately the Republicans were declaring the war not merely an American triumph but a “second war of independence.” And almost immediately the Federalists found that facts were no match for the patriotic fervor that the war’s end had set loose. The Hartford Convention was what Americans now remembered of the Federalist party, not their stand for a strong navy or their opposition to a futile war; the very words “Hartford Convention” became a synonym for treason in the American political lexicon for years afterward, as did “blue lights.” By 1816 the Federalists had ceased to exist as a national party. “Democrat” had originated as a term of abuse for the Republicans, used by Federalists and the British because it carried the same disparaging connotation as “mob rule,” but the Republicans soon adopted it themselves, and for the next four decades the Democratic party would dominate American politics. James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and William Henry Harrison would all ride their party’s popularity, and their own service in the war, to the White House. The historian Donald Hickey tallied one future vice president, three governors, four United States senators, and twenty congressmen whose presence at Harrison’s victory at the Battle of the Thames was their ticket to public office as well.10

Like the Federalists, many Britons were left sputtering and incredulous at American assertions of victory in the war. William James, a British admiralty court lawyer who was detained for part of the war in America and became almost unhinged over the American gloating he witnessed, quickly produced a popular account of the war that picked up where the editorials of the Times left off, belittling American naval triumphs and concluding that Americans were simply scoundrels who “will invent any falsehood, no matter how barefaced, to foist a valiant character on themselves.”11 In 1817 James’s book A Full and Correct Account of the Chief Naval Occurrences of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States of America appeared, and he followed that with a huge six-volume history of the Royal Navy. The books contained a breathtaking number of inaccuracies regarding the size, force, armament, and character of the American navy but were most notable for the dripping anti-American sarcasm that filled page after page, all in the service of showing not only that the British navy had really won the war, but that in every instance when an American vessel had prevailed in battle, it was only as a result of superior force, cowardly tactics, and the employment of inhumane weapons such as bar and chain shot.

Needless to say, the only thing such attacks succeeded in persuading Americans of was that the British were not only as arrogant as ever but sore losers as well. A deep-seated Anglophobia would be one of the most enduring legacies of the war in America; among American naval officers the tradition of antipathy and suspicion of the British that stemmed directly from the War of 1812 could still be seen as late as World War II.

But British navy men on the whole took a more collected and detached view of the war’s consequences, and saw the writing on the wall better and sooner than most. The war had heralded the rise of not only a new naval power but a new kind of naval warfare, more professional and less chivalric, based more on technical mastery and less on heroics. The old world, in which indignant remonstrations like James’s over who had the better of points of honor still mattered, was rapidly slipping into history, like it or not. “Sic transit gloria mundi,” declared the Naval Chronicle’s Albion in one final letter he wrote March 12, 1815, to “take my leave of the American contest” and offer a few measured observations:

An inglorious, unsuccessful, war must naturally end in such a peace as America chose to give; for assuredly we have now done our worst against this infant enemy, which has already shewn a giant’s power. Soon will the rising greatness of this distant empire … astonish the nations who have looked on with wonder, and seen the mightiest efforts of Britain, at the era of her greatest power, so easily parried, so completely foiled.12

Critics of the British government in Parliament were quick to take up the theme too, attacking the Admiralty for being stuck in the past, failing to keep pace with technical advances, and honoring tradition and bureaucratic ritual over modern practicalities. Parliament reprinted a pointed and lengthy collection of documents clearly intended to embarrass the government for its handling of the war. Especially galling were the page after page of urgent requests from ships’ captains to the Admiralty asking for additional firepower to match that of the American ships, and the withering replies from Secretary Croker informing them that those requests could not possibly be entertained. (One captain, unusually, was permitted to add five extra guns on his thirty-eight frigate, but when he subsequently asked for twenty additional men in order to man them, Croker replied, “As he applied himself for these Guns, the Establishment of Men cannot be altered; but he may put the Guns on Shore again if he does not think the Complement sufficient to serve them.”)13 Croker was a political survivor, though, and remained in office until 1830, continuing to savage his political and literary enemies with undiminished zeal, and leaving a small footnote to political history by being the first to use the term “conservative” as a description of his party’s political ideology.

When America’s first professional historians, led by Henry Adams, began examining the war three-quarters of a century after its end, they cast a perhaps inevitably jaundiced eye on all the patriotic hero worship, national chauvinism, and factional pleading that had hitherto dominated popular American accounts. Adams’s brilliant, sweeping, and often extraordinarily funny account of the Jefferson and Madison administrations was hugely influential and helped solidify the settled historical judgment for most of the twentieth century that the War of 1812 was a futile miscalculation brought on by a weak and indecisive president.

But there were consequences of the war so lasting that they would become apparent only when seen across distances of time measured in a century of more. The fact was that regardless of Madison’s ignominious abandonment of America’s positions on impressment and free trade in the negotiations at Ghent, the British never again attempted to press an American seaman and never again attempted to hinder American neutral trade on the high seas. The American legal position that both neutral vessels and neutral goods were immune from seizure by a belligerent slowly became the accepted international norm, and was adopted by Great Britain and other major European powers in the Treaty of Paris in 1856. (Other countries were invited to join as well; the United States ironically refused, objecting to another provision of the treaty abolishing privateering, for fear that this would give large naval powers an advantage over countries such as the United States. But the United States in fact never issued a privateering commission again. The United States also was holding out for the complete abolition of the right of belligerents to capture or destroy enemy civilian property at sea, arguing that the same principles of international law that protect noncontraband civilian property on land should apply on the oceans. That position never has been adopted; international law to this day allows a combatant to capture and take as a lawful prize an enemy’s merchant ships.)14

Though it was only clear in long hindsight, America had in fact gained a significant point even in fighting a war to such a formally inconclusive end. Henry Adams implicitly acknowledged as much in noting the cost America had succeeded in imposing on Britain. As a result of trying to maintain her traditional maritime policies, Great Britain had spent £10 million a year waging an ultimately unsuccessful war with a tiny upstart naval power one-hundredth its size. As Adams noted, that meant Britain was spending something like $50,000 a year for each of the impressed Americans it detained in its service. For half as much the Royal Navy could have tripled the pay of all its sailors and obtained the manpower it needed without resorting to impressment at all.15

While no one in Britain ever seemed to have made so explicit a calculation, there was widespread recognition that the cost of continuing the fight had indeed become intolerable by late summer and early fall of 1814, largely as a result of the adroit attacks on British seagoing commerce by the American navy and privateers. In the end, the British were as eager to end the war as the Americans were; at Ghent they soon dropped one after another of the “nonnegotiable” demands they had insisted on when the negotiations began. The British had been particularly adamant on retaining northern Maine and establishing the Indian buffer in the northwest. By November 1814 they had conceded both points, and the remaining month of negotiations was spent mainly reducing the agreement to its final wording. The British had been forced to learn a lesson that the United States would later have to relearn for itself in the seemingly one-sided fight it would find itself in a century and a half later in Vietnam: that a determined enemy facing a vastly superior military force can win simply by not losing.

For better or worse, the war’s other great enduring consequence was to end the last real challenge to American sovereignty over North America by its native inhabitants. The Indian tribes who allied themselves with Britain were the war’s greatest losers; the confederacy that united under Tecumseh’s leadership collapsed after his death on the battlefield, and never again would the Indians be able to organize such unified or broad-scale resistance to the relentless press of American western expansion.16

MIRRORING THE war’s untidy end, the war at sea sputtered on for months after its formal conclusion. Recognizing the time it would take for news of the peace to reach distant oceans, the treaty allowed prizes taken at sea for varying periods of time after ratification—from 12 days along the coast of North America to 120 days in the northern Pacific—to be kept by the victors. And so the American navy had the satisfaction of getting in two last blows.

On December 17, 1814, the Constitution, taking advantage of the momentary absence of all three British frigates that had been watching Boston harbor, quickly got to sea, for the first time in eight months. She took a number of prizes, including a British ship carrying $75,000 worth of hides and pelts and two tame jaguars, which the ship’s Scottish captain asked to have back. The Constitution’s acting chaplain, Assheton Humphreys, remembered him pleading with Captain Charles Stewart if he “wad na restore his pet kitties,” but Stewart demurred and the cats soon were at home on the Constitution, perfectly friendly most of the time, except that every now and then they would “capsize” the frigate’s pet dog—a terrier named Guerriere—with a cuff from their paws if he got too close.17

In early February 1815 the Constitution spoke a Frenchman north of Madeira who told them of the treaty of peace having been sent for ratification to America. Then on the afternoon of the twentieth they spotted a sail east of Madeira and gave chase. Soon another man-of-war was in sight, and shortly after the two ships “appeared to be making preparations to receive us,” the Constitution’s logbook recorded: they formed a line half a cable length from each other and hoisted the English ensign.

The two ships were the twenty-four-gun corvette Cyane and the sloop of war Levant, and together they threw a broadside slightly heavier than the Constitution’s 704 pounds. But most of the British ships’ guns were carronades, and Stewart proceeded to engage both ships in a series of skillful maneuvers that maximized the effect of his guns while keeping out of the enemy’s range. The Constitution came alongside the rearward of the two, the Cyane, and exchanged a series of broadsides. When the smoke cleared, Stewart discovered he had pulled nearly alongside the Levant and the Cyane was preparing to cross his stern and rake him. In quick succession, Stewart ordered a broadside fired into the Levant and the sails backed to check his ship’s way and bring him back alongside the Cyane, and then as the Levant tried to cross his bow for a raking shot, he wore around the opposite direction, passing between the two ships and catching Levant’s stern with a raking broadside. The Cyane struck her colors at 6:45 p.m., less than an hour into the fight; the Levant was finally brought to three hours later after a long chase. “The mizzen mast for several feet was covered with brains and blood; teeth, pieces of bones, fingers and large pieces of flesh were picked up from off the deck,” recorded Midshipman Pardon Whipple after going aboard the Levant the next morning at daylight. Aboard the Constitution the two British captains spent most of their time in the ensuing days blaming each other for the defeat.18

The Levant was recaptured in a long chase off the Cape Verde Islands by the very same three frigates that were to have been guarding Boston to prevent the Constitution’s escape, but the Constitution and the Cyane sailed free and made it to New York on May 16. Technically the recapture was illegal, as it was past the grace period allowed by the treaty, and Congress subsequently voted the Constitution’s crew $25,000 in compensation.

On May 18, 1815, the Constitution was ordered to return to her home port of Boston, and she entered the harbor on May 29 to a thundering salute. “She struck the first and last blow in the unhappy contest,” editorialized the Salem Gazette, “and under three successive commanders has been crowned with glory.” She was now back at the place of her birth and was welcomed home “as a darling child” by the citizens of Boston.19

The last blow of the war actually took place a few weeks later, a half a world away. Master Commandant Lewis Warrington, the aggressive-minded commander of the American sloop of war Peacock, refused to believe the hail from the captain of an East India cruiser he approached June 30 near Sumatra that the war was over, and ordered him to strike his colors; when the British ship refused, he fired a broadside into her. The British commander, Lieutenant Charles Boyce, was seriously injured and had his right leg amputated two weeks later. It had been five months since the ratification of the “Treaty of Peace and Amity between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America.”

IF THERE was one unambiguous victor of the war, it was the United States navy. American hostility to a standing navy vanished with scarcely a trace, and never again would there be any doubt that a permanent navy was the backbone of American security. “Experience has taught us that a certain degree of preparation for war is not only indispensable to avert disasters in the onset, but affords the best security for the continuance of peace,” Madison acknowledged to Congress in his message announcing the end of the war.20

In August 1815, John Adams, now in his eighth decade, came aboard the line-of-battle ship Independence in Boston harbor, accompanied by Governor Strong. The Massachusetts governor had become notorious for his lament that America had gone to war against the country that was in so many ways the progenitor of America, indeed the very “bulwarks of our religion.” Adams reviewed the six hundred assembled sailors and the magnificent ship of war and then turned to his entourage and loudly proclaimed, “Let Mr. Strong say what he will, THESE are the bulwarks of OUR religion!” Strong blushed, choked, tried to speak, failed, and the other visiting dignitaries applauded as the sailors “snickered from stem to stern.”21

For some time Adams had been deluging the Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey with mountains of papers from his files for a revised edition of Carey’s Naval History of the United States from the Commencement of the Revolutionary War to the Present Time. The first edition, appearing in May 1813, had been perfectly timed to take advantage of the surge of popular enthusiasm over American victories at sea and sold out instantly. Adams hectored Carey to add a second volume in his next edition making the case for a strong permanent navy—and not incidentally vindicating the former president’s long-ignored attempts to get the country to recognize “the naval resources of America as her Arm of Defense and the Instrument of her Prosperity and Glory,” as Adams told him. The second edition of the Naval History appeared in 1814 and did just that, urging a gradual buildup of American naval power to a strength sufficient to break any blockade of the coast and recommending the establishment of a naval academy to professionalize the officer corps. It too was a huge success and immensely influential.

The stunning effectiveness of William Jones’s countervailing strategy of striking at British commerce with small and fleet vessels was not lost on observers, either. With two sloops of war, an improvised supply system, and empty coffers, the American navy by the end of the summer of 1814 had succeeded in making the cost of war intolerable to the British merchant classes that had once been the most ardent advocates of vigorous prosecution of the war against America. Had the United States entered the war with the ships and money and efficient organization to fully realize Jones’s commerce-raiding strategy from the start, the war might have been over in the summer of 1813, and on terms America might have had even more power to choose. With speeches noting the recent “brilliant” cruises of the navy’s sloops of war, which had been “annoying, mischievous, and discreditable to the enemy,” Congress in November 1814 approved with little opposition a naval expansion bill authorizing the construction of twenty vessels of eight to sixteen guns each. Though it would be 1845 before Congress would establish the Naval Academy at Annapolis, it took a major step toward professionalizing the service by quickly enacting one of William Jones’s parting recommendations for reorganizing the department, establishing a board of commissioners made up of professional officers who would be responsible for overseeing naval construction and supply while relieving the secretary of some of the crushing administrative burdens that had threatened to overwhelm Jones more than once.22

Other measures in support of the navy sailed through Congress in the years following the war’s end. In April 1816 “an act for the gradual increase of the navy” allocating $1 million a year for the next eight years for the construction of nine ships of the line and twelve heavy frigates was passed. For the first time America would possess in peacetime a fleet comparable to the European powers’.23

But there were many prices to be paid for the navy’s emergence as a permanent establishment. A large peacetime force had all the jealousies and enmities of the young navy without the overriding sense of urgent national purpose—the “indignant feelings” that had brought William Jones out of private life and that galvanized men of energy and ability like Joshua Barney and Isaac Hull to come to the fore in a time of crisis. The following decades, which brought a return of petty rivalries and brutal discipline and prejudices large and small, were not a glorious chapter in the American navy’s history. As one historian noted, the postwar navy was “torn with feuds and cliques,” its leadership hidebound and conservative, falling behind in technological innovations such as steam propulsion, armored plating, rifled cannon, and explosive shells that were revolutionizing European navies in the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s.24

It would be 1850 before public outcry over accounts of increasingly brutal discipline in the American navy led to a statutory ban on flogging, and another century before African Americans regained the ground they had held in the American navy of the War of 1812. In the midst of the war Isaac Chauncey had chastised his subordinate Oliver Hazard Perry for not wanting to recruit any blacks, who constituted probably 10 percent of the total number of American navy men and 20 percent of the privateersmen during the fight against Britain. Chauncey told him, “I have nearly 50 Blacks on board of this Ship and many of them are amongst my best men … I have yet to learn that the Colour of the skin, or cut and trimmings of the coat, can affect a mans qualifications or usefulness.” But after the war African Americans were effectively barred from the navy except as messmen. Not until well into World War II was the wrong righted, and not until 1949 did the first African American graduate from the Naval Academy.

The four thousand slaves who had flocked to the British lines from the Chesapeake faced a miserable fate too in the war’s aftermath. The Treaty of Ghent required the return of all runaway slaves still in American territory or American waters at the time of ratification, but Cockburn insisted that any blacks who had taken refuge with his forces up until that point were not going to be surrendered. Most were resettled in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, where many died from smallpox or malnutrition. In 1826 the British government agreed to pay $1.2 million in compensation to American slave owners for the loss of their property.25

Hull, Decatur, Porter, Bainbridge, and Macdonough became celebrities, heroes immortalized in hagiographic biographies, their portraits painted by the leading artists of the day and reproduced by the thousands on English papier-mâché snuffboxes and Staffordshire ware sold in America with a certain ironic commercialism. But, like most of the men who gave so much to the American cause, they too paid a high personal price. David Porter settled in northwest Washington on 157 acres on the highest hill in the district and tried to live the life he thought was expected of him. He imported pedigreed British bulls at $1,200 apiece, hired stable boys and dairy maids plus a gardener to tend a five-acre kitchen garden, and hauled in thousands of cartloads of manure, but nothing paid. He fought with his wife and children, the spring rains washed away the top dressing from the soil, and it took so long to erect the huge barns he thought would store his bumper crops that the crops never got planted. By 1818 he was writing navy friends trying to cadge tiny sums, even $20 at a time, to stay afloat.26

Bainbridge took command of the Independence and was appointed commander in chief of an expedition to the Mediterranean ordered in the spring of 1815 to deal once and for all with the Algerines. But the new ship was plagued by troubles: her guns were delivered late, and then she rode so low in the water that her lower row of gunports could not be opened at all. Meanwhile Decatur had been appointed to command another squadron of the expedition and got out of New York on May 20 while Bainbridge was still in Boston readying the Independence. Adding to the injury, Bainbridge had been kept largely in the dark by the new navy secretary, Benjamin W. Crowninshield, about the priority the Navy Department was giving Decatur behind the scenes in men and material and about the orders Crowninshield sent Decatur instructing him to depart “without delay.” Bainbridge finally got under way July 2, only to learn from a passing ship at Gibraltar a month later that Decatur had already captured the dey’s warships and was on his way to Algiers to dictate the peace terms. “I have been deprived of the opportunity of either Fighting or Negotiating,” Bainbridge wrote his old navy friend Porter.27

Bainbridge returned to Boston in a seething resentment toward Decatur. He also once again began insisting that the command of the navy yard was his by right. Hull once again had been appointed to succeed Bainbridge in that command, and Hull came downstairs to breakfast on the morning of November 20, 1815, to find a note from Bainbridge “couched in not a very pleasing style,” as Hull told Rodgers, “saying that he had been ordered from this station without his consent and that he now claimed it again, that he considered his removal merely temporary, to be held for him until his return.”28

Hull refused to budge; Secretary Crowninshield confirmed his appointment; but Bainbridge was now the senior commander afloat in Boston and did everything he could to make Hull’s life miserable, constantly giving orders about details of the management of the yard and forcing Hull to appeal to the secretary to have them overruled. Bainbridge managed to get the clerk of the navy yard to secretly supply him with copies of Hull’s correspondence; Susan Bainbridge began gossiping around town with disparaging stories about Ann Hull; then Bainbridge began spreading a story in navy circles that Hull had pledged to keep the place for him and had gone back on his word. He wrote sneeringly to Porter about “Hull’s just claim,” adding, “Captain Hull and myself cannot be on friendly terms.” Porter was growing weary of Bainbridge’s campaign and tried to suggest he desist, which prompted another typical Bainbridge plaint of wounded innocence: he was merely exercising “the honesty of self-defense,” he insisted.29

For his part, Hull angrily wrote Secretary Crowninshield about Bainbridge, “I am not willing to allow that he has done more than I have for the good of the country, his opinion to the contrary notwithstanding.” Rodgers had been asked by the secretary to provide a confidential evaluation of all the captains in the service, and his brief remarks on Bainbridge spoke volumes, especially the crossed-out word that was still perfectly legible, as it was no doubt intended to be: “An excellent officer, uniting much practice with considerable theory; he is also industrious, and if there is any objection to him, it is because he feels the importance of his own consequence abilities too sensibly to qualify him as well as he otherwise would for subordinate position.”30

One day late in 1819 Decatur was walking along a street in Washington when a carriage came to a sudden stop alongside and Bainbridge leapt out, seized Decatur’s hand in both of his, and said, “Decatur, I behaved like a great fool, but I hope you will forgive me; but you always contrive to reap laurels from my misfortunes.”31 Susan Decatur was instantly suspicious of Bainbridge’s motives. A year earlier James Barron had returned to the United States for the first time since the war. Barron had again appealed to be reinstated to the navy; Decatur along with almost every other senior officer opposed him. In June 1819 Barron initiated what became an increasingly heated exchange of letters between the two men that was unmistakably an attempt by Barron to generate a pretext for challenging Decatur to a duel. Decatur’s official actions as an officer of his court-martial back in 1808 or now as one of three members of the new Board of Naval Commissioners could not be considered the kind of personal insult that could justify a duel. So the entire correspondence turned on an almost hairsplitting discussion of a point of honor in which Barron in effect tried to get Decatur to say that he believed Barron was unworthy of meeting on a field of honor—which would be the kind of insult that would allow Barron to issue a challenge. Charles Morris tried to get Decatur to agree to a short statement that would clear the air, but Decatur refused to conceal his contempt for Barron as their correspondence grew more heated. By November, Decatur’s letters were running nineteen pages long and heading to their inevitable conclusion.32

And so Bainbridge had shown up, professing sudden friendship for a rival he had keenly disliked for years, and on March 8, 1820, Bainbridge was negotiating the arrangements for a meeting on the dueling grounds of Bladensburg as Decatur’s second. Barron’s second was Captain Jesse Elliott, another officer full of petty resentments who, it would later come out, had pushed Barron again and again to keep the feud with Decatur going whenever it threatened to die out. Decatur left all the details for the arrangement to the seconds, and the terms they agreed to were extraordinary in several ways. The distance was eight paces, and the parties were to take aim before the signal to fire was given, rather than standing with their arms at the side as was usual. It virtually guaranteed a fatal outcome.

On March 22, 1820, the two men met at ten o’clock in the morning. “I never was your enemy,” Decatur said, a declaration that should have prompted the seconds to halt the affair then and there according to the rules of honor; but Elliott hurriedly shouted, “Gentlemen, back to your places,” and gave the word to fire. Each man was struck in the hip; Barron’s wound was not fatal, but the bullet he fired glanced off Decatur’s hip socket and severed both arteries in the groin. Decatur died in agonizing pain twelve hours later at his house a block from the White House. He was forty-one years old.33

Ten thousand people came out for the funeral procession that bore Decatur’s body through Washington two days later, including President Monroe, the Supreme Court, and members of both houses of Congress. Susan Decatur was forever convinced that Bainbridge and Elliott had conspired to bring about her husband’s death and was probably right, though when the correspondence between Barron and Decatur was subsequently published, public sympathy shifted somewhat toward Barron. John Quincy Adams wrote sadly that Decatur possessed “a sense of honor too disdainful of life.”34

William Jones managed to recoup his lost personal fortune by going into business with the Philadelphia shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys in a successful venture to build steamships.35 He died in 1831 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on his way to the Pocono Mountains to escape the summer fever raging in Philadelphia, and was granted his dying request to be buried in the beautiful cemetery of the Moravian Church, whose pacifism and neutrality between Britain and America during the Revolution had made its members outcasts in a country born and periodically sustained by the disdain of life and bloodshed of war.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!