Born December 31, 1783
The Trap (now Macdonough), Delaware
Died November 10, 1825
At sea, aboard the ship Edwin
Several of the relatively few battles in the War of 1812 that ended in victory for the United States were fought at sea or on inland lakes. In general, the U.S. Navy performed better than anyone could have expected, given its lack of preparation for fighting a war against Great Britain, which was known as the Mistress of the Seas because of the dominance of the British navy. Perhaps the brightest of the naval stars was thirty-year-old Thomas Macdonough, who led his men to an unexpected victory over a larger British fleet on Lake Champlain.
Thomas Macdonough was the sixth of ten children born to Major Thomas Macdonough, a physician and a veteran of the Revolutionary War (1775-83) who was active in Delaware politics, and his wife Mary Vance Macdonough. The major's father had emigrated from County Kildare, Ireland to the United States around 1730.
Gaining experience as a midshipman
Young Macdonough was orphaned at the age of eleven. Luckily, some of his father's powerful political friends were looking out for him, and managed to get him a commission (assignment) as a midshipman (the lowest-ranking officer) in the U.S. Navy. He was seventeen when he stepped aboard the ship Ganges, on which he traveled to the West Indies to take part in actions against the French, who were interfering with trade in the area. There Macdonough survived a bout with yellow fever, a serious disease common to tropical regions.
In 1801 the U.S. government ordered a reduction in the size of the navy, and Macdonough was almost pushed out. But his father's influential friends intervened again. Soon he was headed across the ocean to the Mediterranean region, where the U.S. Navy had gone to head off piracy by the Barbary States. These were countries along the northern coast of Africa (such as Algeria, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunisia) who had broken treaties in which they had agreed not to interfere with American trade.
At the beginning of his tour of duty, Macdonough served on the USS Constellation under Captain Alexander Morris, who was very conscientious about training young seamen. Macdonough received a thorough education in all the skills a young naval officer would need, such as navigation and gunnery. He had been transferred to the Philadelphia when the ship succeeded in capturing an enemy ship, the Mirboka ; Macdonough was made second officer on the captured vessel.
Moving up the ranks
In 1803 Macdonough joined the crew of the Enterprise, which was commanded by a dynamic young captain named Stephen Decatur Jr. (1779-1820), who also would become a naval star during the War of 1812. In this position Macdonough formed what would be a lifelong friendship with Decatur, and also took part in two important actions. In February 1804 he aided in the burning of his former ship, the Philadelphia, which had been captured by the enemy. Six months later Macdonough took part in the capturing of two Tripolitan gunboats. In recognition of his good performance, Macdonough was made an acting (not yet official) first lieutenant on the Enterprise (the promotion would become permanent in 1807).
Macdonough had recently returned to the United States when, in October 1806, he was ordered to Middletown, Connecticut, to join Captain Isaac Hull (1773-1825) in constructing new gunboats for the U.S. Navy. Macdonough spent three months in Middletown, during which he made some good friends, joined the Episcopal church, and met a young woman named Lucy Ann Shaler, whom he would marry six years later.
From 1807 to 1808 Macdonough served as first lieutenant aboard the Wasp, spending most of his time cruising along the Atlantic coast to enforce the Embargo Act. This law prohibiting trade between the U.S. and foreign countries was intended to punish France and Great Britain who, in the course of their own war with each other, had been harassing the U.S. shipping industry. The act was repealed in 1809.
The War of 1812 begins
The years 1807 and 1808 were not particularly active or interesting ones for members of the tiny U.S. Navy, so in 1810 Macdonough requested a leave of absence. He spent the next two years making profitable cruises aboard various merchant ships to ports in the East Indies, Great Britain, and India. But then, in June 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. The war was provoked by two major issues. The first was Britain's maritime policy of impressment in its war with France. This policy was where British officials boarded U.S. ships to capture deserters from their own navy, often wrongfully taking American citizens in the process. The other issues that led to the war was Great Britain's overly friendly relations with Native Americans. Americans believed that the British were encouraging Native Americans to attack white settlers who were moving west. The Native Americans believed that the settlers were encroaching (gradually taking over) on their land. It was at the beginning of the war that Macdonough returned to active duty. He was ordered to Washington, D.C., to join the Constellation as first lieutenant, but he arrived to find the ship not yet ready to go to sea.
The disappointed Macdonough was next given command of a division of gunboats stationed at Portland, Maine. Soon, however, he had a new assignment: to take charge of the U.S. fleet on Lake Champlain, a large body of water wedged between the borders of New York and Vermont. During the Revolutionary War there had been some major battles on the lake but it was now a sleepy, isolated place. The fleet there consisted only of two leaky gunboats and three transport sloops. The British also had maintained a presence on the lake, but it was not much more impressive than that of the United States.
Preparing the fleet at Lake Champlain
The energetic young officer immediately set out to build up the Lake Champlain fleet. Working under difficult conditions—weapons, supplies, equipment, and people (including craftsman to build ships as well as seamen to sail them) had to be moved inland to the lake from the Atlantic seacoast—Macdonough joined forces with Noah Brown (born c. 1770), a highly skilled shipbuilder from New York. They started by adding more guns to two of the existing sloops, the Growler and the Eagle, so that each were equipped with eleven guns. (Sloops were small warships with guns on only one deck.)
With the arrival of cold weather came a halt to the work, and in late 1812 Macdonough went into his winter quarters at Shelburne, Vermont. The spring thaw brought a renewed effort, but there was a setback during the summer of 1813. One of the officers serving under Macdonough made a strategic error when he sent the fleet's sloops too far down the Richelieu River (which branched off from Lake Champlain) and the Growler and Eagle were both captured by the British.
The two fleets are ready for battle
In July the Navy showed its confidence in Macdonough by making him a master-commandant. By September, Macdonough felt that his fleet of three sloops and two gun-boats was ready for action, but the British had now retreated into Canadian waters. When 1814 began, both the United States and Great Britain stepped up their construction programs. By summer, the U.S. fleet consisted of thirteen ships, including Macdonough's flagship (the ship flying the American flag and on which Macdonough himself would sail during a battle) Saratoga, carrying twenty-six guns, and the Ticonderoga (seventeen guns) as well as three sloops and six gunboats.
Not yet satisfied, Macdonough asked the Navy to approve construction of another ship. Less than five weeks after construction had begun on this vessel, the 20-gun Eagle was launched on August 11.
U.S. lake patrols had detected signs that the British were ready to launch a major offensive. Indeed, the recently improved British fleet was ready, and fully expecting to destroy or capture the American ships. Captain George Downie (d. 1814) commanded the Confiance (thirty-seven guns), the Linnet (sixteen guns), the Chubb (eleven guns), and the Finch (eleven guns), along with twelve gunboats. (The brand-new Confiance would be under construction until just before the battle.)
Careful planning leads to victory
Macdonough thought long and carefully about how the United States should proceed, concluding that a cautious approach was best. He wanted to put off a confrontation until circumstances favored the U.S. side; in a June letter to a fellow naval officer, as quoted in David and Jeanne Heidler's Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, Macdonough had noted that "Tis better to save a force by retiring from a superior foe than to lose it even by hard fighting." Knowing that the British ships were equipped with many long-range guns, while the strength of the U.S. vessels lay in their short-range weapons, Macdonough decided to keep his ships inside Plattsburg Bay rather than sending them out onto the lake.
On the morning of September 11, the enemy appeared in Plattsburg Bay, and the battle began. The Saratoga and the Confiance were the first to engage, and the Saratoga immediately took a broadside (in which a ship fires all of the guns on one side at the same time) that killed forty men. The crews' drooping spirits were lifted when they heard the loud crowing of a rooster that had escaped from its cage and flown into the ship's sails. The men cheered and kept fighting.
In a battle that lasted only an hour and a half, dominance and luck kept shifting from one side to the other. Downie was killed in the first fifteen minutes of the battle, delivering a big blow to British morale. Macdonough fared better, although he was knocked down twice (once by the severed head of a soldier). When the battle finally did come to an end, it was due to a brilliant move devised by Macdonough. Before the battle began, he had secured the Saratoga with a special anchor that allowed the ship to be maneuvered around without the aid of wind. Thus the Americans were able to surprise the British by pivoting the Saratoga around to deliver a fresh broadside to the Confiance. The British ship tried to respond with the same maneuver but it had been too heavily damaged, and the British fleet soon surrendered. British casualties (men killed, wounded, or captured) numbered more than one hundred, while the Americans lost only fifty-seven men. Most of the British ships were captured.
Hailed as a hero
The victory at the Battle of Lake Champlain (also called the Battle of Plattsburg) proved to be one of the finest moments in the entire history of the U.S. Navy. It crushed British hopes of gaining dominance and new ground in the north and put the United States in a stronger position for the peace negotiations, which had just begun at Ghent, Belgium. The victory also was a general morale booster for the American public, and particularly welcome after the late-August sacking of Washington, D.C., where the British burned many of the public buildings in the capital city.
Praised for the careful planning and foresight he had practiced before the battle as well as his coolness and bravery while it raged, Macdonough became a nationally known hero. He also received many material rewards, including a Congressional medal, $22,000 in prize money (naval crews were allowed to split the profits gained from captured ships), and even large plots of land donated by grateful citizens of New York and Vermont. On November 18, Macdonough was promoted to the rank of captain.
The war ended in early 1815. Macdonough went on to command the U.S. naval yard at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for three years. In 1818 he was given command of the Guerriere and assigned to deliver U.S. diplomat G. W. Campbell to his post as minister (diplomatic representative) to Russia. Macdonough briefly joined the navy squadron stationed on the Mediterranean Sea, but a disagreement with the commanding officer there resulted in his return to the United States. In 1820 he assumed command of the seventy-four-gun Ohio, and four years later he returned to the Mediterranean, this time as commander of the squadron.
Macdonough had contracted tuberculosis (a serious disease of the lungs that was not then treatable) while serving on Lake Champlain, and he had never fully recovered. His health now took a turn for the worse, so he set out for the United States aboard the merchant ship Edwin. The forty-one-year-old Macdonough died at sea while he was still about six hundred miles from the U.S. coast. His body was taken to New York and given military honors and a memorial service there, then buried in Middletown, Connecticut.
For More Information
Eckert, Edward K. "Thomas Macdonough: Architect of a WildernessNavy." In ed., Command under Sail: Makers of the American Naval Tradition, edited by James C. Bradford. Annapolis, M.D.: Naval Institute Press, 1985.
Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997.
Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
War of 1812. [Online] http://www.galafilm.com/1812/e/index.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).
"War of 1812." KidInfo. [Online] http://www.kidinfo.com/American_History/warof1812.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).
Letters from Commodore Thomas Macdonough
The following letter comprises a part of Macdonough's report to Secretary of the Navy William Jones on the U.S. victory at Lake Champlain on September 10, 1814.
U.S. Ship Saratoga, Plattsburg Bay, September 13th, 1814.
I have the honour to give you the particulars of the action which took place on the 11th instant, on this lake.
For several days the enemy were on their way to Plattsburg by land and water, and it being well understood that an attack would be made at the same time by their land and naval forces, I determined to await, at anchor, the approach of the latter.
At eight A.M. the look-out boat announced the approach of the enemy. At nine, he anchored in a line ahead, at about 300 yards distance from my line; his ship opposed the Saratoga, his brig to the Eagle.
In this situation, the whole force on both sides, became engaged, the Saratoga suffering much, from the heavy fire of the Confiance. I could perceive at the same time, however, that our fire was very destructive to her. The Ticonderoga, lieutenant commander Cassin, gallantly sustained her full share of the action. At half past 10 o'clock, the Eagle not being able to bring her guns to bear, cut her cable, and anchored in a more eligible position, between my ship and the Ticonderoga, where she very much annoyed the enemy, but unfortunately, leaving me exposed to a galling fire from the enemy's brig. Our guns on the starboard side being nearly all dismounted, or not manageable, a stern anchor was let go, the bower cut, and the ship winded with a fresh broadside on the enemy's ship, which soon after surrendered. Our broadside was then sprung to bear on the brig, which surrendered in about 15 minutes after.
The sloop that was opposed to the Eagle, had struck some time before, and drifted down the line; the sloop which was with their gallies having struck also. Three of their gallies are said to be sunk, the others pulled off. Our gallies were about obeying with alacrity, the signal to follow them, when all the vessels were reported to me to be in a sinking state; then it became necessary to annul the signal to the gallies, and order their men to the pumps. I could only look at the enemy's gallies going off in a shattered condition, for there was not a mast in either squadron that could stand to make sail on; the lower rigging being nearly shot away, hung down as though it had been just placed over mastheads.
The Saratoga had 55 round shot in her hull, the Confiance 105. The enemy's shot passed principally over our heads, as there were not 20 whole hammocks in the nettings at the close of the action, which lasted, without intermission, two hours and twenty minutes.
…Acting lieutenant Vallette worked the 1st and 2nd division of guns with able effect. Sailing master Brum's attention to the springs, and in the order to wind the ship, and occasionally at the guns met my entire approbation; also captain Youngs, commanding the acting marines, who took his men to the guns, and in carrying my orders through the ship with midshipman Montgomery. Master's mate Joshua Justin had command of the third division; his conduct during the action was that of a brave officer. Midshipmen Monteath, Graham, Williamson, Platt, Thwing and acting-midshipman Baldwin, all behaved well and gave evidence of their making valuable officers. The Saratoga was twice set on fire, by hot shot from the enemy's ship.
I close, sir, this communication, with feelings of gratitude, for the able support I received from every officer and man attached to the squadron which I have the honour to command.
I have the honour to be etc.
Source: "The War on Lake Champlain 2." Copies of Official Documents. [Online] http://www.cronab.demon.co.uk/lake2.htm (accessed on November 26 , 2001).