An excerpt from Daniel Wattenberg’s new nonfiction novella, Decatur’s Wake: The Fateful Rivalry Behind the Lightning Defeat of Barbary Terror, available as a Kindle Single from Amazon.
Within five days of his arrival in the Mediterranean in June 1815 in command of a squadron of ten ships, Commodore Stephen Decatur had captured two Algerine warships, including her flagship Meshuda, and killed the commander of the enemy fleet.
With word of the American squadron rippling through the region, Decatur sensed that his chances of catching more enemy vessels out at sea were dwindling. Perhaps they would be withdrawing to the safety of their home port. “I shall proceed to the Port of Algiers, in the hope of impeding their return,” he reported.
After more than a month at sea and with scurvy spreading among his own men, his squadron was in need of fresh supplies of water, fruit, and vegetables.
The time had come, he decided, to open talks.
Decatur’s squadron arrived off Algiers on June 28. The city was protected from naval attack by more than 400 cannon. On June 29 Decatur’s flagship Guerriere raised two flags, a white flag of truce and the flag of Sweden to summon the Swedish consul to serve as an intermediary between the Americans and the ruling dey of Algiers.
The Swedish consul, Johan Norderling, and the captain of the port of Algiers were ferried to the Guerriere. Decatur was resplendent in navy blue coat with gold trim and white trousers, the pale blue and white ribbon and gold leaf bald eagle of the Order of Cincinnati pinned to his lapel. Radiating a proconsular authority, Decatur led his guests to his great cabin, where William Shaler, the former merchant seaman and diplomat appointed to assist in peace negotiations, awaited.
The Algerine fleet, it turned out, had not returned home. Where were the Algerine ships? Decatur affected to wonder.
Hearing of the American squadron, they had all found refuge in neutral ports, the port captain bluffed in reply.
Not all of them, Decatur retorted — his squadron had captured two of them.
Reading the port captain’s disbelief, Decatur had a subordinate bring in the ranking surviving officer of the Meshuda. Immediately recognizing the officer, the port captain lunged for the prisoner’s throat, latching onto a handful of beard. Decatur stepped in to pry them apart.
The port captain was visibly shaken by the confirmation of the Algerine losses. He turned to Decatur: What were the American terms?
Decatur presented him with two letters for the dey, one from President Madison, the other from Shaler and himself.
The port captain invited Decatur ashore to begin formal negotiations.
No, Decatur answered, all negotiations would take place on his ship.
The Americans would suspend military operations during the talks, the port captain tried. Would they not?
No — and if it had been up to him, Decatur confided, there would be no peace talks. “My officers have come out to fight and put themselves in practice,” he said. Alas, he had his orders.
The Algerines had much to ponder. The port captain, accompanied by the Swede, returned to shore to report, deliver the letters to the dey, and await new instructions.
“Your Highness having declared war against the United States of America, and made captives of some of their citizens,” President James Madison had written, the Congress of the United States had authorized “hostilities against your government and people. A squadron of our ships of war is sent into the Mediterranean sea, to give effect to the declaration. It will carry with it the alternative of peace or war. It rests with your government to choose between them.”
The Algerine port captain and the Swede returned to the Guerriere the following day. “Their anxiety appeared extreme to conclude the peace immediately,” Decatur and Shaler recorded in their report to Secretary of State James Monroe.
In Decatur’s great cabin, the Americans presented the port captain a proposed treaty with 22 articles that Shaler had drafted on the voyage over. Its main demands: release of all the American prisoners without ransom; $10,000 in compensation for the captured American commercial brig Edwin and her cargo; favorable treatment for American vessels; the right to sell prize ships and cargo at Algiers during wartime; an end to all tribute (the polite term for the maritime protection money extorted by the Barbary powers) — forever.
The Algerine gagged on one of the demands. Financial restitution for the seized ship and plunder would be a concession unprecedented for one of the Barbary states. Impossible. The confiscated property had already been distributed.
“As it was unjustly taken, it must be restored or paid for,” Decatur insisted.
But the dey had to come away with something, the Algerine pleaded, or face the wrath of his political enemies. Anything would suffice, even token tribute. Perhaps a small yearly present of gunpowder?
“If you insist upon receiving powder as a tribute,” Decatur replied, “you must expect to receive balls with it.”
The port captain was desperate to salvage something from the parley. It was not the current dey, Omar, who had declared war on the United States in 1812, he explained; it had been a predecessor. Omar needed a face-saving concession from the Americans. The captured Algerine ships — Meshuda and Estedio. Would the Americans consent to return them? It was that or the dey’s life. (Omar had reason to fear internal threats. His two immediate predecessors were both assassinated by their own palace guards.)
Decatur and Shaler withdrew to confer privately. Decatur stood to lose a small fortune by relinquishing his two prize ships to Algiers. On the other hand, it was safer to nail down an agreement immediately with a chastened Omar than to take his chances later with a less tractable successor. So Decatur made an oral, off-the-books commitment to return the ships as a favor, on the condition the dey signed the treaty as presented without alteration.
The port captain requested a cease-fire — even if only for a few hours — while his side deliberated ashore.
“Not a minute,” Decatur replied. “If your squadron appears in sight before the treaty is signed by the Dey and the prisoners sent off, ours will capture them.” Hostilities would not be suspended until the negotiators’ returning boat, flying a white flag of truce, was in sight.
The port captain and the Swede made it to shore and back to the Guerriere with the signed treaty and the freed prisoners — a round trip of five miles — in a brisk three hours.
The treaty appeared “to secure every interest within the contemplation of the government,” Decatur and Shaler wrote in a July 4 letter to Monroe transmitting the document.
With the expedition’s original objectives accomplished, Decatur had already, within six weeks of his departure from New York, whipped the cream off the enterprise — and he wasn’t finished yet.