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Susan Decatur (Wheeler)

Birthdate: (83)
Birthplace: Norfolk, Norfolk County, Virginia
Death: July 21, 1860 (79-87)
Georgetown, Washington, District of Columbia
Place of Burial: Georgetown, District of Columbia
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Luke Wheeler
Wife of Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr.

Managed by: Glen Woodford Balzer
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Susan Decatur

Susan Decatur was born the daughter of Luke Wheeler, who served for a time as mayor of Norfolk, Virginia. In 1826, several years after her husband's death, she began her efforts to obtain the prize money owed her husband for his capture of the "Philadelphia." In time, Susan Decatur became one of Georgetown College's most important benefactors at a time when the college experienced financial trouble. In 1834, she decided to donate $7,000 to the college, and she provided that sum of money in 1837 after being awarded a federal pension. Under the agreement with Georgetown College, Mrs. Decatur received an annuity payment of $644 per year until her death. At the time of her death on July 21, 1860, her claim for the prize money from the "Philadelphia" was still unresolved by Congress. Susan Decatur lived for a time in a house known as Decatur Cottage, which was located on land adjacent to Georgetown College on a site close to what is now the site of the White-Gravenor building. While the land is now part of Georgetown University, in Mrs. Decatur's time it was not on college grounds. The Decatur Cottage was built by William Brook, the father of carpenter Joseph Brook. For a history of Decatur Cottage and a description of its many inhabitants, see the "Georgetown College Journal" (Vol. 5, No. 7, p. 73-4, April 1877; Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 34, December 1877; and Vol. 6, No. 5, p. 52, February 1878). A photograph of Decatur Cottage is preserved in the University Archives photo file. Falling into disrepair by 1877, the house was torn down on November 21 and 22 of that year. Susan Decatur converted to the Catholic faith in 1828. Rev. John Curley, S.J. was her confessor. She was buried in the Old Georgetown College Cemetery located immediately to the northwest of the current White-Gravenor building. Her remains were subsequently moved to Holy Rood Cemetery and subsequent to that to St. Peter's churchyard in Philadelphia, where she rests beside her husband. The records of Holy Rood Cemetery are stored in the Georgetown University Library Special Collections Division.

On March 8, 1806, Stehen Decatur, Jr. married Susan Wheeler, the daughter of Luke Wheeler, the mayor of Norfolk, Virginia. She was well known for her beauty and intelligence among Norfolk and Washington society. They had met at a dinner and ball held by the mayor for a Tunisian ambassador who was in the United States negotiating peace terms for his country's recent defeat at Tunis under the silent guns of John Rodgers and Decatur. Before marrying Susan, Decatur had already vowed to serve in the U.S. Navy and maintained that to abandon his service to his country for personal reasons would make him unworthy of her hand. Susan was once pursued by Vice President Aaron Burr and Jérôme Bonaparte, brother to Napoleon, both of whom she turned down. For several months after their marriage the couple resided with Susan's parents in Norfolk, after which Stephen received orders sending him to Newport to supervise the building of gunboats. For reasons not clear to historians the couple never had children during their fourteen years of marriage.

In 1834, at a moment when Georgetown College “experienced financial trouble”, Decatur advanced $7000––the equivalent of three million dollars today. Her good deed was also a good investment: each year Georgetown paid her $630, and this continued for many years after the original sum had been repaid. Decatur lived out her days in a cottage on the college campus, and when she died in 1860, at age 84, she was laid to rest––just steps from where she resided––in the College Ground, one of several cemeteries that served Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church. (William W. Warner, At Peace With All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital, 1787-1960; Deaths, Holy Trinity Church – Beginning 8th of December 1818, Holy Trinity Church Archives, p.106, July 21, 1860; Stephen and Susan Decatur Papers, Georgetown University; Georgetown College Journal, Vol.5, No.7, p.73-4, April 1877; Vol.6, No.3, p.34, December 1877; Vol.6, No.5, p.52, February 1878)

What Susan Decatur’s in-laws thought of her conversion to Catholicism is not known; but it is safe to surmise that they saw no great need for her to be moved to a Protestant cemetery. This was confirmed in 1904, when William Decatur Parsons––the author, in 1921, of The Decatur Genealogy––came to Georgetown to supervise the restoration of Susan Decatur’s tomb, and to express his view regarding its future. “It is deemed more appropriate that the remains of Mrs. Decatur be permitted to remain undisturbed here than to have them transferred to Philadelphia, even though her husband lies there.” (“Restoring The Tomb Of Susan Decatur––Descendant of the Admiral of National Fame in Georgetown for That Purpose”, Washington Times, November 3, 1904, p.12)

In 1953 Georgetown University removed the College Ground to make way for expansion. The public was given to understand that the number of graves that would need to me moved was negligible: parish records were said to show that exactly one hundred and eighty-nine persons buried there. This disarmingly precise figure cannot be taken seriously, as the College Ground had been the only parish cemetery available between 1818 and 1833, and the number of parishioners that died in those years, according to the death register of Holy Trinity Church, was about nine hundred. When it is taken into account that burials in the College Ground continued for decades after that, the total number of graves there is likely to be nearer to a thousand. As the official record of the transfer of remains from the College Ground to a mass grave in Mount Olivet Cemetery states that it consisted of “fifty bodies, more or less”, it seems safe to estimate that ninety-five percent of the College Ground graves were lost. (“GU to Transfer Ancient Graves“, Washington Post, April 17, 1953; Deaths, Holy Trinity Church – Beginning 8th of December 1818, Holy Trinity Church Archives; Interments, Mount Olivet Cemetery)

Only the remains of Susan Decatur––an American hero’s widow, and Georgetown’s benefactor in its time of need––were spared this indignity; they were quietly reburied in Holy Rood Cemetery, which was also University property. Her tombstone, mentioned in the 1953 article, was not part of the transfer; the new grave was unmarked. Thirty years later, when Georgetown University began to contemplate commercial development of Holy Rood––and was taking steps to foresee potential repercussions––Susan Decatur’s grave was once again a problem. (See Holy Rood and Georgetown University, elsewhere on this site.)

In 1988, Susan Decatur was exhumed again, and buried for a third time, this time in Philadelphia, at the foot of 30-foot granite column that marks the grave of her husband. ”And today, in the quiet yard of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the reunion of the hero and his belle will be completed. At 11 a.m. in a private ceremony, members of the clergy, university officials, a Navy admiral, Decatur descendants and guardians of Philadelphia’s maritime history are scheduled to dedicate Susan’s “final” resting place, beside that of her husband.” (”Reunited, A Naval Hero And His Belle”, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 30, 1988)

A representative of Georgetown University was in attendance that day to express satisfaction at having brought about this reunion in death, and to inform Philadelphia ––Washington was not notified of the good deed––with no apparent sense of irony, that the cemetery where Susan Decatur had previously lain buried had been “neither notable nor beautiful”. (Address of Charles Meng, Vice President for Administration and Facilities, Georgetown University, on the occasion of the internment [sic] of Susan Wheeler Decatur at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Memorial Day, May 30,1988, Georgetown University Archives)

In the federal census of 1850 and 1860, Susan (Wheeler) Decatur lived in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

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Susan Decatur's Timeline

Norfolk, Norfolk County, Virginia
July 21, 1860
Age 83
Georgetown, Washington, District of Columbia
Georgetown, District of Columbia