YEARS AFTER THE TRIPOLITAN War, Stephen Decatur, commander of the United States, would send the flag of the British frigate Macedonian to Dolley Madison by a young lieutenant, the son of Paul Anderson, Secretary of the Navy at the beginning of the War of 1812. When the lieutenant, arriving during the Naval Ball of the Christmas festivities of 1812, laid the trophy at her feet, the usually self-controlled Dolley, the center of warmth and witticisms, conceded that she blushed like a schoolgirl. The reason has never been well explained.
But one is privileged to believe it was because the enemy standard had been sent to her by one of the most intrepid and certainly the most handsome officer of the U.S. Navy, whose physical strength and virility were in such contrast, as the bewitchingly feminine Dolley must have observed, to the frail delicacy of her beloved but diminutive Jimmy Madison, the President. If Dolley was not stirred by Decatur’s magnetism she was different from virtually all other women who met him, and most men also, because few could be indifferent to this graceful, athletic officer whose broad shoulders, slim waist, curly brown hair and warm, dancing brown eyes, usually tender in conversation but alert and piercing under the excitement of action, made him distinguished physically in nearly any gathering.
His biographers—and quite a number have written of him in sympathetic and none in disparaging vein—seem to agree that he drew the notice of ladies wherever he appeared, and the allurement went much beyond the appeal of the resplendent naval uniform of the day; while the seamen and others who kept journals dealt with him in terms ranging from admiration to reverence.
Said Marine Private Ray: “The intrepid Decatur is as proverbial among sailors, for the good treatment of his men, as he is for his valour. Not a tar, who ever sailed with Decatur, but would almost sacrifice his life for him.”
There was something more mystical about Decatur than his vivid personality and the stimulating glow of his presence, for when he married Susan Wheeler, daughter of Luke Wheeler, wealthy merchant and Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, his union was with a young lady who had fallen in love with him desperately before she had ever seen him, merely from looking at an Italian miniature of him.
And it was characteristic of his devotion to the United States and to its naval service that he told the beautiful girl, when he proposed, that he had already made vows to his flag which had precedence, because if not steadfast to it, he would not then be worthy of her. Somewhere along the line he had read Richard Lovelace.
17 November 2019
Dolley and Decatur, Idols of Their Day
From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. 5043ff: