Image 51

Figure 5: Decatur’s Conflict

In a footnote to the text of the History of the United States, Spencer described the spectacular early nineteenth-century rescue from Algerian pirates of Commodore Stephen Decatur by a sailor, Reuben James, who interposed his head before the sword of an attacker to save the life of his commander. His description was positively understated, however, in comparison with the elaborate illustration of “Decatur’s Conflict” by Chappel, depicting the highly-charged moment of the seaman’s heroic sacrifice [Image 51]  Part of the stirring effect of the depiction is created by the perspective of the illustration, Chappel using a dramatic angle-of-vision to place the viewer on deck of Decatur’s gunboat to witness firsthand the death struggles of the combatants. The intense stares of all the participants bespeak the high stakes of the struggle, as do the strongly-modeled quality of their contorted bodies and the dramatic gestures of their limbs.

Lest the specific historical episode be lost to some viewers amidst the high drama of the scene, Chappel provided small clues as to the identities of the contenders, especially Reuben James, who is distinguished by the tattoo of his name on his left forearm. This image, one of the most successful Chappel ever created, was reproduced again and again in pictorial histories of the United States, and it had an independent life of its own as a lithographic print which Chappel sold by subscription. The image was not completely accurate, perhaps, since it was later proven that Daniel Frazier, not James, was the sailor who interposed his head between Decatur’s and the sword of the pirate. Nonetheless, Chappel’s “Decatur’s Conflict” evinced the growing power of illustrators as historical image-makers at mid-century. [80]

[80] Charles Lee Lewis, “Alonzo Chappel and His Naval Paintings,” Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute (March 1937): 450.