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Commodore John Rodgers: Paragon of the Early American Navy

by John H. Schroeder, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2006, $59.95.

A Call to the Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the USS Constitution

by Claude Berube and John Rodgaard, Potomac Books, Washington, D.C., 2005, $35.

Our Country, Right or Wrong: The Life of Stephen Decatur, the U.S. Navy’s Most Illustrious Commander

by Leonard F. Guttridge, Forge Books, New York, 2006, $24.95.

In 1797 tensions with revolutionary France led the young United States into an undeclared naval war when the French began seizing American vessels. President John Adams authorized the first expenditures on navy ships, the recruitment of sailors and commissioning of officers since the decomissioning of the Continental Navy at the end of the American Revolution.

The new navy sought to enlist experienced merchant captains and seamen, and the few who stepped forward became the founding fathers of the U.S. Navy. They included John Rodgers, Charles Stewart and Stephen Decatur.

All three men had maritime backgrounds, and their fathers had all fought in the War of Independence. As a boy Stewart had the formidable experience of meeting the giant of the age, George Washington. All three young men were ardent patriots. By the age of 13, both Rodgers and Stewart had gone to sea in merchant ships, and both had become captains of their own vessels by age 19. Decatur was the grandson of a French naval officer and the son of a Revolutionary War privateer.

The newly built American naval ships set sail like privateers, searching out French merchantmen and naval units to capture as “prizes” and profit thereby. Rodgers’ initial success came while serving as the first lieutenant of USS Constellation, a frigate carrying 44 guns. On February 9, 1799, Constellation outfought the 40-gun French frigate L’Insurgente. The captured ship was refitted and added to the budding American navy. The victory was sweet, and for the rest of his career Rodgers sought in vain to duplicate it.

For prize money though, it was Decatur who shone. Privateering was the family business, and he went at it with a will. When the sea war with France ended, a new enemy arose, the so-called Barbary pirates. Along the North African coast in the Mediterranean Sea four feudal states existed in today’s Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. Nominally subject to the Ottoman sultan, each acted independently in preying upon the Mediterranean shipping of nations that did not pay them tribute. The European powers, distracted by the Napoleonic wars, paid up. The young United States would not.

President Thomas Jefferson dispatched his pitifully few frigates and brigs to the Mediterranean to counter the threat. Captains Rodgers and Stewart each took a turn at commanding the little American squadron, but it was Decatur who got the glory.

When the frigate Philadelphia ran aground off the port of Tripoli, it was captured and its crew imprisoned. Using a captured Tripolitan slave ketch, Decatur sailed alongside Philadelphia on a dark night and set it aflame. He and his crew escaped before the fire reached the magazine and blasted Philadelphia to splinters.

During the Napoleonic wars the British navy was faced with an enormous manpower problem. Desertions were rampant, and any sailor who could steal away to America might find easier and more profitable employment in U.S. merchant or naval vessels. The Admiralty struck back. American ships were routinely boarded, and British citizens and sometimes Americans were taken off, leading to the War of 1812.

Once again Rodgers, Stewart and Decatur sought fame and glory. Rodgers took a few prizes but could not come to grips with a British man-of-war. Decatur, commanding the frigate United States, captured the smaller British frigate Macedonian. Every American victory, though seemingly only a pinprick to the British, was a triumph for the Americans.

Stewart, in the frigate Constitution, scored a twin victory over HMS Cyane and Levant in the waning days of the war. British naval historians have been critical of American prowess in this fight because Constitution was a stronger ship than either of its opponents. Yet for sheer moxie the Americans deserve credit for taking on the Royal Navy’s 700 or more men-of-war with no more than a dozen of its own.

The War of 1812’s conclusion brought a renewed threat from the Barbary states. With a much more powerful squadron, Decatur rushed to the scene and convinced the North Africans not to prey upon American shipping. His reputation and fame grew.

A long peace followed the War of 1812. The Navy had grown beyond the ability of one cabinet officer to administer. A three-man commission of naval officers was set up to assist him. All three men would sit on that board, and Rodgers would chair it for most of its existence. But while Rodgers opposed advances in steam power and other modernizations, Stewart and Decatur were much more receptive to the innovations of the age.

There are some discrepancies in the three books. For instance Claude Berube and John Rodgaard claim that their Stewart was a childhood friend of Decatur, but Leonard Guttridge’s book on Decatur does not admit to this.

A duel with disgraced naval officer James Barron ended the life of Decatur in 1820 (see P. 64). Decatur had been opposed to Barron’s reinstatement to active duty. Guttridge wonders why, but both Stewart’s and Rodgers’ biographers provide the answer: If Barron had been reinstated on the naval list, he would have regained his seniority and outranked the younger man.

Stewart outlived both Decatur and Rodgers. From the Mexican War to the beginning of the Civil War he was his nation’s highest-ranking naval officer. Like his counterpart in the Army, Winfield Scott, he would step down in 1861 and leave the fighting to younger men.

Of the three books, Guttridge’s Decatur biography is perhaps the most readable, if only because of his active life and tragic death. But anyone who is especially interested in American naval history should find all three studies inspiring.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here