Just after nine o’clock – 186 years ago this very morning – two men armed with dueling pistols faced each other on an isolated field in Bladensburg, Maryland. The field, known as the “Valley of Chance,” was located just off the main Baltimore-Washington stage route.
Both men were celebrated Naval officers. One was Commodore James Barron, whose successes at sea had been tarnished by a court martial in which he was found guilty of “negligence” prior to his ship’s ill-fated action with a British frigate in 1807. The other was Commodore Stephen Decatur; hero of Tripoli, a U.S. Naval officer often compared to the Royal Navy’s legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson, and the author of the famous aphorism, “Our country, right or wrong.” Decatur had served on the court martial that convicted Barron, and a post-trial series of accusations and caustic letters between the two officers had led both to this place in time.
The two were accompanied by their “seconds” – representatives for the duelists who were responsible for loading weapons, ensuring compliance with the rules of conduct for dueling, and calling-out the countdown to fire. The seconds were Commodore William Bainbridge (for Decatur) and Captain Jesse Duncan Elliot (for Barron).
In his book, A Rage for Glory, author James Tertius de Kay describes the final moments before shots rang out: “The two men stepped to their marks and faced each other. Bainbridge [Decatur’s second] went over the details one last time. He explained that he would first give the order to ‘present,’ that is, to cock their weapons and take aim, then he would count out the numbers ‘one-two-three.’ The duelists were instructed not to fire before hearing the word ‘one,’ or after hearing the word ‘three.’”
An eerie silence washed over the field.
Bainbridge prepared to issue the first command, “Present!” when in an unexpected interruption, Barron said, “I hope, Commodore Decatur, that when we meet in another world, we shall be better friends than we have been in this.”
Decatur replied, “I have never been your enemy, sir.”
It was a stunning exchange of words that violated the code of conduct for dueling, but starkly illustrated the respect the men truly felt toward one another. At this point, however, they were caught up in a deadly proceeding for which there was no honorable way out.
The seconds had the authority to stop the engagement. The exchange of words was clearly an opportunity to move toward possible reconciliation, but neither Elliot nor Bainbridge had any intention of preventing the tragedy about to take place.
The next words were Elliot’s: “Gentlemen, your places.”
Then Bainbridge’s: “Present!”
Both Barron and Decatur, facing one another sideways so as to present the smallest possible target to the other, raised their weapons, taking aim at one another’s hip.
“One, two, …”
Both pistols fired.
Barron was struck and spun around by the force of the impact. He dropped to the ground.
Decatur was also struck. He stood for a moment, his face paled, he exclaimed, “Oh Lord, I am a dead man,” and collapsed.
THE DEATH OF DECATUR
Surgeons waiting in nearby woods, raced from the cover of trees to the sides of the wounded men. Barron’s wound was serious, but quickly diagnosed as non-life-threatening. Decatur’s wound, however, was mortal. And the surgeon informed him of that fact almost immediately. Decatur reportedly accepted the diagnosis “stoically.”As the duelists were carried off the field toward waiting carriages, Barron purportedly mustered enough strength to shout, “God bless you, Decatur.”
The dying Decatur replied, “Farewell, farewell, Barron.”
The pistol ball had struck Decatur in the hip, glanced off the bone, and smashed into his groin, severing arteries along the way. He subsequently suffered a conscious, agonizing death lasting 13 hours.
When Decatur finally passed away around 10:30 p.m., church bells tolled throughout the city of Washington, cannons boomed, and newspaper publishers directed their pressmen to reset the copy. Earlier, President James Monroe had cancelled a reception slated for that evening, and statesmen of every stripe – including Secretary of State John Quincy Adams – converged on the Decatur home.
AMERICA’S “LORD NELSON”
So just who was this 41-year-old Naval officer, whose death grieved an entire nation in 1820; who has since had five American warships and several American towns and counties named after him; and who military historians today are so enamored of?
Decatur was – and is – according to the writings of British historian John Keegan, “remembered as the most dashing of the frigate captains whom the Corsair and 1812 Wars produced.”
Indeed he was. During a deployment in 1804, Decatur sailed his ship, the USS Intrepid, into the harbor at Tripoli. There he recaptured and burned the USS Philadelphia which had been seized earlier by Tripolitan pirates. When British Admiral Nelson, himself busy blockading Napoleon’s harbor at Toulon, learned of Decatur’s action, he said it was “the most bold and daring act of the age.”
Despite his myriad other battles and adventures that were every bit as dramatic as the burning of the Philadelphia, Decatur is best known for his 1816 toast to the nation at a dinner party in his honor. Raising his glass, he said, “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country right or wrong.”
It remains one of the most endearing statements to those who love America’s history, traditions, and greatness.
REJECTING DECATUR’S WORDS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Then there are those like Hollywood film star George Clooney and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy who today have their own takes on Decatur’s words.
In a recent interview for The (U.K.) Guardian, Clooney said, “My country right or wrong means women don’t vote, black people sit in the back of buses and we’re still in Vietnam. My country right or wrong means we don’t have the New Deal. I mean, what, are you crazy? My country, right or wrong?”
Kennedy spins them his way.
Addressing Congress after the first Iraqi elections in 2005, the Senator said, “When America is at its best, our deeds match our words. But many of us feel we haven't done that in Iraq. We care about our country. Stephen Decatur famously said, ‘My country, right our wrong.’ But others through the years have said it better - ‘our country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right. When wrong, to be set right.’”
There is, of course, a clear distinction between Decatur’s and Kennedy’s statements.
Decatur’s utterance was aimed at infusing all Americans with a bit of the soldier–sailor commitment to all things: It is a sense of we are in this thing together, no matter what, “right or wrong.” That doesn’t mean we as Americans don’t endeavor to right our wrongs, but it does mean we should stand together despite our shortcomings as a nation. And we should do so because America’s greatness – and what we each have gained personally from that greatness – far outweighs America’s shortcomings.
Kennedy’s statement was more divisive, interjected with his own negative opinions about Iraq, and spoken at a time when armed American troops were in the field. It was in fact a statement first made by German-born Carl Schurz, a Civil War-era U.S. Army general turned Senator, and later editor-in-chief of The New York Evening Post.
Schurz’s version of Decatur’s toast includes a qualifier – which Kennedy prefers – admitting wrong-doing prior to any wrong-doing; subtly suggesting that there is “wrong-doing” afoot; or suggesting that the nation by virtue of the fact that not everyone is of Schurz’s or Kennedy’s mind, is going to commit misdeeds in the future.
Decatur, on the other hand, was expressing unwavering devotion to a nation that – in addition to its offerings of freedom – had nurtured his life’s calling and that of so many millions of others then and yet–to–become Americans. Perhaps Clooney, Kennedy, and their ilk might reflect on the words of Decatur – not Schurz’s cynically amended version, but Decatur’s pure statement of loyalty, affection, and gratitude that simply cannot be improved upon. Nor dismissed.