Sunday, May 13, 2007

Book Review: "Stephen Decatur"

In Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779-1820, (UMass Press, 2007), Robert Allison (history professor at Suffolk University in Boston) provides an excellent updated biography of one of America's first great naval champions. Decatur, who holds the distinctions of being the youngest man ever to serve as captain in the Navy and the last captain killed in a duel, managed to have an almost unbelievably successful naval career back when the American navy barely existed at all.

From the Barbary Wars (during which Decatur led a swashbuckling raid on Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured American ship Philadelphia) to the War of 1812 (when he defeated the British frigate Macedonian and hauled it back to the U.S. as his prize) and the Algerian wars in the aftermath of the Treaty of Ghent, Decatur sailed his way into the great esteem of his fellow citizens. Even when defeated in the closing days of the War of 1812, he was honored by his victorious opponent, who refused to take "the sword of an officer, who had defended his ship so nobly."

Allison's biography draws on vast contemporary sources (well noted, although a full bibliography would have been a good addition) to provide additional and very useful context to Decatur's life and the times in which he and the country lived and labored. His battle accounts are excellent, and he's captured well the naval culture as it began to form during the period. The opening and closing vignettes of the duel which killed Decatur are also marvelous; it surprised me that even more than fifteen years after Hamilton's death at Weehawken duels were still so common.

A balanced, well-written and attention-holding treatment of Decatur and the early republic. Highly recommended.