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Gold freedom box awarded by the city of New York to Stephen Decatur.

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However, taking on the still relatively young US navy proved a rude awakening. Although the RN did win a good proportion of the ship-to-ship encounters, their American opponents often gave them a bloody nose and their fighting spirit and seamanship was a big surprise.

A gold freedom box awarded by the city of New York to Commodore Stephen Decatur coming up at auction in February next year at James D Julia in Fairfield, Maine, recalls a US naval hero.

Fierce battle

At dawn on Sunday, October 25, 1812, the frigate USS United States encountered the vessel HMS Macedonian under full sail just off the island of Madeira, 500 miles west of the Canary Islands.

Decatur, captain of the USS United States, resolved to overtake and engage the British vessel. He gained ground on her and launched a constant barrage of fire from her long guns. So outgunned was the British ship that they decided to come to close quarters where their cannon could be more effective in the hopes that the tactic would save them.

A ferocious battle developed with both ships having constant volleys of cannon fire. The British ship thought that they had defeated the American ship as the amount of smoke generated must be the sign that the USS United States was on fire and going to be completely destroyed.

When the smoke cleared it was the British ship that had sustained the most damage and Decatur’s ship was barely scratched. The American ship tacked and came along side and was ready for battle again but the British ship struck her colours and surrendered.

Freedom fighting

Decatur decided to abandon his cruise and take the HMS Macedonian into an American port. On January 1, 1813, the prize was anchored in New York - the first British warship ever to be brought into an American harbour. For his victory Decatur was given the Freedom of the City in the form of this gold box.

The box has been held by Decatur’s descendants after so many years, along with many other important historical items from the family archive.