- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

A few days back, a Washington Post sports columnist visited the WashingtonNationals

stadium construction site and cast his eye about the neighborhood. He was struck by the “battleships” tied up at the Washington Navy Yard, less than a mile away.

Battleships? In the Anacostia? As I asked the Post’s omsbudman, how the dickens did the U.S. Navy manage to slip such a mammoth vessel under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and many miles upstream without being noticed? She chose not to answer. Perhaps I am stretching to make a point, but that a supposedly intelligent male adult would mistake a decommissioned 1950s era destroyer, the USS Barry, for a battleship, says much about how flat-out ignorant too many people — and especially newspaper journalists — are today about our military.

During my long-ago boyhood in far-inland Texas, friends and I held such World War II Navy icons as William F. “Bull” Halsey and Chester Nimitz in the same esteem as current kids hold rock and sports stars; a Time magazine cover of “the Bull” was taped to my bedroom wall. Such was the era when the public accepted military figures as heroes. Two new books explain why the U.S. Navy had a special grip on public affection.

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy, by Ian Toll (W.W. Norton, $27.95, 560 pages, illus.) recounts how the fledgling United States was forced to form a Navy to protect its sea-going commerce from the “Barbary pirates” of the Mediterranean, and as a counter to hundreds of British warships. President George Washington signed legislation in 1794 authorizing the construction of six heavy frigates, in as many ports, at a cost of $688,888 (a precursor of the manner in which the military still spreads around military spending).

Economic necessity — the need for trade beyond Great Britain — overrode political objections by persons who feared that a navy would drain meager U.S. coffers and lead, eventually, to a militarized society. Another driving force was pirate seizure of ships that ventured into the Mediterranean without paying tribute to the ruling pashas. The tactics of Algerian corsairs were typical: Once a merchantman was stopped, “ferocious men armed with pistols and cutlasses swarmed aboard and slaughtered any who resisted. The captives were beaten, stripped, and chained together belowdecks, and then returned to Algiers, where they were imprisoned or sold into slavery.” Hundreds were so seized.

The design of the frigate was the brainchild of the brilliant naval architect Joshua Humphreys. Lighter than the battleships beloved by the British, the 175-foot frigate “represented a compromise between power and speed … [with] enough firepower to overawe any merchantman or privateer.” Other shipwrights scoffed at his design, but Humphreys prevailed. One of the more interesting sections of this fascinating book relates the specifics of what Humphreys had in mind, and how he accomplished his task. Mr. Toll’s vivid account of the early years of the U.S. Navy is in the must-read category for old salts and landlubbers alike.

A valuable complementary volume is Leonard F. Guttridge’s Our Country, Right or Wrong: The Life of Stephen Decatur (Forge, $24.95, 304 pages., illus.). The act that brought Decatur initial fame, ironically, was the destruction of an American warship. Here an explanation surely is in order.

In late 1806, the frigate Philadelphia ran aground off Tripoli, and its master struck his colors rather than risk the lives of his crew. He and more than 300 men were marched into captivity. Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli, the Tripoli ruler, boasted of now having the grandest warship of all the pirates, and hinted that freeing the crew would require a $500,000 ransom.

Enter now Decatur from Berlin, Md., the hot-tempered son of a Revolutionary War ship commander, at age 27 one of the rising stars of the new Navy.

In February 1807, Decatur stole into the harbor on the frigate Intrepid under dead of night. His crew, disguised in Arabic garb, disposed of the occupying pirates in fierce hand-to-hand fighting, and then set Philadelphia ablaze. The ransom demand melted to a few thousand dollars, and the hostages went free. After several other battles in which Decatur played major roles — including a to-the-death knife fight with a much larger Arab — the Barbary wars ended.

Decatur’s exploits in the Mediterrean, and in the War of 1812 with the British, brought him instant public acclaim — and also provoked considerable jealousy among officers who outranked him.

Some perhaps resented his popularity. As Mr. Guttridge writes, “Unlike many another officers in the American navy who depended on curses and the lash to sustain morale, he preferred mutual respect. He never bullied, seldom swore or raised his voice.”

By Mr. Guttridge’s account, Navy officers were a contentious lot, swift to perceive slights to their honor. Duels were the secret shame of the early Navy: “At least 82 duels involving naval officers would be recorded between 1798 and 1848. Thirty-six officers died on the ‘field of honor,’ half the survivors [were] wounded.” Most duels involved “midshipmen scarcely out of their teens.” Although Congress outlawed duels between military officers in 1806, most such conflicts in the Navy occurred overseas, out of the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. The Naval establishment felt that such affairs were no one else’s business.

The seeds of the dispute between Decatur and a onetime friend, Captain James Barron, are concealed in the mists of history. Mr. Guttridge feels the bitterness began with a careless remark by Barron concerning Decatur’s future wife (the exact words do not survive). Later, when Barron was tried for the surrender of the Chesapeake, Decatur asked to be excused from the court because “my opinion of him … was not favourable.” (Barron was suspended for five years.)

Then commenced a barrage of abusive letters from Barron which Decatur chose to answer in kind, rather than ignore. So on March 22, 1820, Decatur rode a carriage to Bladensburg, Md., where Barron waited on “the field of honor.”

With their seconds, the officers walked down into a ravine behind the Indian Queen Hotel (now called George Washington House) and faced one another at eight paces. They fired. “A ball struck each man in the groin. Decatur’s hit the edge of Barron’s ilium, ricocheted down his thigh. Barron’s tore into his opponent’s entrails, cutting pelvic arteries.” Decatur dropped his pistol and fell, moaning, “Oh, Lord, I am a dead man!” Taken by coach to Decatur House (on Lafayette Square) he died within hours.

The Navy stood behind Barron, who had subsequent appointments as head of various Naval yards, including Norfolk. He died in 1851, having been the senior officer of the U.S. Navy for a decade.

Schoolboys perhaps remember Decatur for a toast he offered at a dinner in April 1816 in Norfolk. As Mr. Guttridge notes, “He spoke as one who had indeed served his country heroically if not always with prudence, and his words were an acknowledgment of its admiration.”

Decatur declaimed, “Our Country — in her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right, but always successful, right or wrong.” Mr. Guttridge would have lopped off the last phrase. “Shorn of its chauvinistic tagline, it is by no means out of date,” he concludes. A good read about an authentic American hero.

Joe Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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