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Commodore Thomas Macdonough (1782-1825)

By W.S. Murphy

Commodore Macdonough’s first American forebear was Dr. James McDonough, who emigrated from County Kildare, Ireland, about 1730, and settled in what is now the State of Delaware, where he became a prosperous physician. Upon the outbreak of the American Revolution, his son, Dr. Thomas Macdonough, [Spelling of the name varied from generation to generation] later father of Commodore Macdonough, discarded his lancet and buckled on a Continental sword to fight as a major. Major Macdonough’s younger brother, James, died in that war. The youngest of these brothers was Micah Macdonough, who went off to fight American Indians in 1791. When, therefore, later Commodore Macdonough was born in New Castle County, Delaware, on December 23, 1782, he was already part and parcel of an interesting American military record, to which his older brother, Midshipman James Macdonough, added his bit when he lost a leg in the frigate Constellation, in 1799.
At sixteen, Thomas Macdonough received his midshipman’s warrant in the puny United States navy and, in 1800, shipping in the Ganges, Captain John Mullowney, plunged into the undeclared war on French privateers. In the next twelve years, Macdonough strode the decks of Constellation, Philadelphia, Constitution, Enterprise and Wasp, serving under such distinguished commanders as Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, Alexander Murray, James Lawrence and Edward Preble. In 1801, aboard Constellation, Macdonough experienced his first brush against the gunboats of Tripolitan pirates. In 1803, aboard the frigate Philadelphia, he participated in capture of a Moorish vessel of 30 guns. In February, 1804, under Decatur, he slipped into Tripoli harbour with a crew of sixty and helped to burn and sink the captured Philadelphia. It was “the boldest act of the age,” said Lord Nelson.
In 1806 Macdonough joined Commodore Isaac Hull at Middletown, Connecticut, for a few months, a most important preparation for his later career, since, there, he superintended the construction of gunboats. Between 1807 and early 1812, he helped to enforce the American Embargo of 1807, directed against Napoleon’s Berlin Decrees and British Orders in Council, and spent two years commanding merchant ships. In October, 1812, he took command of a squadron of two gunboats and three sloops on Lake Champlain. By this time, he had acquired a relish for gunfire, had boarded enemy vessels with cutlass in hand, and had won the deepest respect from fighting sailormen.
The British and American encounters of the next year – notwithstanding Commodore Perry’s spectacular victory on Lake Erie, September 10, 1813 – taught the British and Canadians that they could not attain their objectives through the then American Northwest. General William Hull similarly demonstrated the impossibility of successful American invasion of Canada. If, however, Britain could control Lake Champlain and support that position with an army, her troops could descend on New York and conquer the American upstart. Immediately after his arrival, therefore, Macdonough hastened to replace his weak squadron with a real one. By October, 1813, he had rebuilt old ships and built new ones. Now he sailed them through Lake Champlain to contest its possession. But Napoleon’s armies were already reeling back in Europe and, wisely, the British commanders in Canada decided to postpone the American decision. For close to a year, Macdonough and his British opponent, Admiral George Downie, continued to complete the building and arming of their fleets.
By early September, 1814, Downie had seventeen ships carrying 91 guns on Lake Champlain, and General George Prevost had stationed 10,000 British veterans near adjacent Plattsburg. Macdonough’s fleet now embraced sixteen ships with 102 guns. But President, of 10 guns, was blown ashore in a storm, leaving 92 American guns to clash with 91 British guns. General Alexander Macomb had only 1,500 uncertain troops with which to oppose Prevost’s 10,000. Everything depended on the outcome of the naval engagement on the lake. On September 3, the American fleet sailed into Plattsburg Bay, with Eagle (20 guns) in the van, followed by Macdonough’s flagship Saratoga (26 guns), then Ticonderoga (17 guns), Preble (7 guns), and Montgomery (6 guns). Ten sloops and so-called gunboats or galleys with a total of 16 guns completed the line, which pointed almost due north. Then the American flotilla anchored, close to southward-pointing Cumberland Head, which the British ships, approaching from the north, would be forced to go round. By dawn of Sunday, September 11, 1814, Admiral Downie had sailed his squadron into the area which Macdonough had assigned him and on Macdonough’s starboard side. Thus Downie would be forced to fight precisely where and as Macdonough had arranged.
Chubb (11 guns) provided the British van; then came Linnet (16 guns). Downie’s flagship Confiance (39 guns), and Finch (11 guns), all in a straight line, with thirteen small sloops and gunboats (18 guns in all) bringing up the rear. The battle opened about nine o’clock that morning, a distance of about 300 yards separating the two lines. Chubb contrived to reach the head of the American formation, but devastated by American fire and with half her crew casualties, did not succeed in anchoring and soon fell into American hands. Finch, despite small loss, failed to close, then ran aground well out of the encounter. But the small British craft kept Ticonderoga too busy to play any part in the main battle and forced Preble out of line. This left Macdonough, in Saratoga, and Eagle, with considerable help from his gunboats at the end of the line, fighting Linnet and Downie’s flagship Confiance, both at anchor. For over two hours the battle waxed and waned, with the advantage moving from one side to the other. At first, the British gunfire was highly effective; and twice Macdonough was knocked into semi-consciousness by flying debris, though he quickly revived. Soon, however, Downie and several other officers on his flagship having been killed, effectiveness of the British fire fell fast away.
Now Eagle and Saratoga executed an extraordinary manoeuvre. In preparation for the encounter, Macdonough had provided his flagship with kedge anchors. So as the fight was approaching its climax, Eagle cut the cable at her bows and anchored by her stern, thus confronting the enemy with a fresh broadside of ten guns. Macdonough, in turn, dropped an anchor astern, hauled up one kedge anchor, passed the stern cable to the bows, and hauled in on it. Saratoga came slowly around and opened fire from her undamaged port broadside of thirteen guns. The surviving lieutenant of Confiance attempted similarly to turn his own ship; but as it had suffered cruel losses and was filling with water, the effort was useless. She turned only far enough to permit herself to be raked; then helpless, she surrendered. Now making use of his second kedge anchor, Macdonough brought his fresh broadside to bear on Linnet, which shortly was also helpless, sinking, and could only surrender. With 388 British killed and wounded and 220 similar American casualties in the action, the British small craft were allowed to withdraw from the lake without pursuit. “Trafalgar,” said one British participant, “was but a fleabite to this.” Macdonough, with his battered squadron and his patched-up prizes, was in uncontestable control of Lake Champlain. That night, General Prevost led his useless army of 10,000 back to Canada.
Commodore Macdonough’s spectacular victory on Lake Champlain constituted the apex of his career and of his short life. Immediately following his triumph, he was officially wined, dined, and accorded numerous honours, including the award of a gold medal by a grateful and still scary Congress. The States of Vermont and New York – which he had saved from British capture and possible severance from the American Union – presented him with 1,100 acres of land. “In one month,” Macdonough said, “from a poor lieutenant I became a rich man.” But his health having being seriously impaired, he was compelled, thereafter, to accept modest assignments. First, he took command of the 150-foot steamboat, Fulton First, designed by distinguished Robert Fulton, himself of Irish stock. Macdonough’s post on this ship – mounting 30 guns and able to throw hot water as well as shot – made him the first commander of a steam vessel of war. Shortly after Fulton First’s trial run, however, in June, 1815, he took charge of the Portsmouth (New Hamphire) Navy Yard. In the summer of 1824, his last assignment carried him, in command of an American fleet, to the Mediterranean. On October 14 of that year, wasted by pulmonary tuberculosis to sixty pounds weight, he left “Old Ironsides” to sail for home. Less than a month later, he died aboard the merchant brig Edwin, 600 miles off the Delaware Capes, close to his beginnings.

[Full article 'Four American officers of the War of 1812,' by W. S. Murphy in The Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, Vol. VI Summer, 1963, No. 22.] 

US Navy hero Commodore Macdonough’s first American forebear was Dr. James McDonough, who emigrated from County Kildare, about 1730

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