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James Barron Court-Martial: 1808

A Fatal Backfire

Few verdicts would have such profound repercussions. Although his family and close friends stood by Barron, in general, his fellow naval officers shunned him. In 1812 he was hired to command a merchant vessel to transport materials to Portugal; from there he sailed to Sweden and then in July to Copenhagen. Before he could set sail for home, the United States had declared war on Britain. Although he made several attempts to return home, Barron had to be especially careful as he was technically still an officer of the U.S. Navy, and so he was stranded in Copenhagen throughout the war. After the war, Barron stayed on in an effort to promote some of his inventions such as machinery to improve a ship's windlass, windmills, rope-making, and cork-cutting, finally returning home in 1818.

He found no support in Washington in his efforts to regain active duty assignment. Instead, he began to hear that Stephen Decatur, his former protege and a leader in the move to court-martial him, was making what he considered libelous and derogatory remarks. In 1820, Barron challenged him to a duel, and although both wounded each other, Barron survived and Decatur died. Barron did in fact regain an active duty assignment with the navy in 1824, but it was his fate to go down in American history as "the man who killed Decatur."

John S. Bowman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Proceedings of the General Court Martial Convened for the Trial of Commodore James Barron … January 1808. Washington, D.C.: James Gideon, Jr., 1808.

Stevens, William Oliver. An Affair of Honor: The Biography of Commodore James Barron, U.S.N. Chesapeake, Va.: Norfolk Historical Society, 1969.

Watson, Paul Barron. The Tragic Career of Commodore James Barron, U.S. Navy. New York: Coward-McCann, 1942.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832James Barron Court-Martial: 1808 - The Chesapeake-leopard Incident, The Court-martial, A Fatal Backfire