Obscure wars breed little known and forgotten heroes. The job of the historian is to resurrect these paladins and explain their deeds to a new generation. Stephen Decatur is one such forgotten soldier: the youngest captain in American naval history, a hero of two wars and the star of a new generation of civic leaders. His life, so replete with action and honor, is vividly chronicled by naval historian James Tertius de Kay in his latest book, A Rage for Glory: The Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur, USN. Decatur's life was epitomized by the pursuit of glory, honor and fame, and de Kay admirably sticks to those core elements in his examination of the man and his many accomplishments. Decatur fought daringly against Barbary pirates, even torching a captured U.S. ship in the enemy's own harbor, and likewise bested the British navy during the War of 1812, towing the frigate Macedonian 2,200 miles back to America as a trophy. Unfortunately, it was his code of honor that also led to Decatur's fatal duel with his former comrade, James Barron. The duel imbues the entire narrative with its malevolent inevitability, and de Kay details a cogent conspiracy theory against Decatur that drew him to his death.
Decatur's hero status is undeniable, but heroes are not infallible, and de Kay's narrative suffers from occasional touches of hero-worship and hyperbole. Decatur's arrogance is sometimes dismissed as elan, his failures as victories, and his death as a tragedy unparalleled in American history. Yet, this audacity of narration mirrors Decatur's own boldness in warfare and self-promotion, creating a kind of synergy between the biographical portrait and the character at its center. In this well researched work of popular history, de Kay skillfully brings Decatur to life and weaves together a narrative that reads like an adventure novel. Jason Emerson is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Virginia.