Reuben James saving the life of Stephen Decatur, engraving by Alonzo Chappel, 1858
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Navy|
|Years of service||?-January 1836|
Born in Sleaford around 1776, James joined the United States Navy and served on several ships, including the frigate USS Constellation. During the First Barbary War, the American frigate Philadelphia was captured by the Barbary pirates when it ran aground in the city of Tripoli, on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. During the course of the naval blockade of the harbor, there were numerous engagements, the most intense being the Gunboat Battle of August 3, 1804. During the battle, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur boarded a Tripolitan gunboat that he believed was crewed by the men who had mortally wounded his brother after supposedly surrendering. While Lieutenant Decatur was locked in hand-to-hand combat with the Tripolitan commander, another Tripolitan sailor swung his saber at him. According to early accepted accounts, Reuben James interposed himself between the descending sword and his commander, taking the blow on his head. The blow did not kill him, and he recovered later to continue serving in the Navy.
This account, though, is now considered to be in error. No one by the name of James is recorded as having received medical treatment after the battle. Another of Decatur's crewmen, Daniel Frazier, did receive medical treatment for a serious saber slash to the head. This supports some initial accounts that it was Frazier, not James, who saved Decatur's life.
James continued his Naval career, serving many years with Decatur. He was forced to retire in January 1836 because of ill health. He died in 1838 at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Washington, DC.
Three warships of the Navy have been named Reuben James in his honor:
- Reuben James (DD-245), a four-stack Clemson-class destroyer
- Reuben James (DE-153), a Buckley-class destroyer escort
- Reuben James (FFG-57), an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate
There are two songs with the title Reuben James:
- The Sinking of the Reuben James is a folk song written by Woody Guthrie about the ship Reuben James (DD-245) and her sinking while on convoy duty shortly before the U.S. entered World War II. It became a hit by Johnny Horton and the Kingston Trio.
- The second song has no connection with the mariner; it is instead a reminiscence by a young man of an African-American sharecropper named Reuben James that the singer knew as a boy. It was a hit for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition in 1969, written by Barry Etris, and is devoted to his father (see the details at The Art & Music of Barry Etris). It was also recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis and by Scott Walker in 1970.
3. Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson's War: American's First War on Terror 1801--1805, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.