Captain Thomas Macdonough

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Thomas Macdonough, Commodore

Also Known As: "Thomas MacDonough", "Jr"
Birthdate: (41)
Birthplace: McDonough New Castle County Delaware, USA
Death: November 10, 1825 (41)
At Sea (pulmonary consumption)
Place of Burial: Riverside Cemetery Middletown Middlesex County Connecticut, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Major Thomas Macdonough, Sr. and Mary Macdonough
Husband of Lucy Ann Shaler MacDonough
Father of Thomas Nathaniel Macdonough; James Edward Fisher McDonough; Mary Ann Louisa Macdonough; William Joseph Macdonough; Charles Shaler McDonough, Capt. and 4 others
Brother of Lydia Macdonough; Hannah Pennington; James Macdonough; Mary Foard; Hester Macdonough and 4 others

Managed by: Private User
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About Captain Thomas Macdonough

Thomas Macdonough (December 21, 1783 – November 10, 1825) was an early-19th-century American naval officer noted for his roles in the first Barbary War, and the War of 1812. He was the son of a revolutionary officer, Thomas Sr. who lived near Middletown, Delaware. He was the sixth child came from a family of ten siblings and was raised in the countryside. He entered naval life at an early age, receiving a midshipman's commission at the age of sixteen. Serving with Stephen Decatur at Tripoli, he was a member of "Preble's Boys", a select group of U.S. naval officers who served under the command of Commodore Preble's during the First Barbary War. Macdonough achieved fame during the War of 1812, commanding the American naval forces that defeated the British navy at the Battle of Lake Champlain which helped lead to an end to that war.

Early life

Major Thomas Macdonough Senior, Captain Thomas Macdonough's father, lived at a farm referred to as “The Trap” (also spelled 'Trapp'), in the county of New Castle, Delaware. He received a contemporary education here but it remains uncertain if he attended any sort of formal schools or was taught by family members or a tutor. Macdonough was a tall, dignified man with a commanding character which suited him well for military service. He was a devoutly religious man of Episcopal faith, as were his parents and greater family. He was known to adhere to a set of steadfast principles in his personal and military life.

Thomas Macdonough Jr. was born in New Castle County, Delaware which later was named MacDonough, Delaware in his honor. He was employed in Middletown as a clerk upon the return of his brother James who lost a leg in a naval battle with a French vessel in 1799 during the Quasi-War with France. Shortly after Macdonough requested a commission with the United States Navy with the assistance of Senator Latimer from the state of Delaware.

Before joining the Navy, Thomas, Jr., for unknown reasons, changed the spelling of his last name from "McDonough" to "MacDonough.

On May 27, 1800 at the age of sixteen Macdonough secured a warrant and served as a midshipman aboard the 24-gun USS Ganges, a corvette class ship, converted over from a merchantman vessel and outfitted as a man-of-war.

Under the command of Captain John Mullowny the Ganges then set sail for the West Indies. During operations there she captured three French merchant ships between May and September. When hostilities between the United States and France had finally ended the following year on October 20, 1801, Macdonough was assigned to the, USS Constellation, a 38-gun frigate, commanded by Alexander Murray which was about to embark on its mission in the Mediterranean sea. While serving aboard Constellation he received a thorough education in seamanship, navigation and gunnery from Murray.

First Barbary War

Macdonough served aboard the Constellation in January 1802 under the command of Captain Alexander Murray, and served with distinction in naval operations against Tripoli during the First Barbary War. This was the same ship that his brother James had served on a few years earlier. While serving aboard this ship Macdonough received lessons from Captain Murray in the nautical sciences and on how to improve his service as a junior office.

In 1803 Navy Secretary selected Macdonough to serve aboard the USS Philadelphia, a 38-gun frigate, commanded by William Bainbridge. Macdonough was aboard this ship when it captured the Moroccan ship, the Mirboka on August 26, 1803. Shortly before the Philadelphia ran aground and was consequently captured by the Tripolitans Macdonough had gone ashore on leave. He was reassigned on October 31 to the 12-gun sloop USS Enterprise under the command of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur. Macdonough volunteered to join Decatur's successful raid into the harbor of Tripoli. On February 6, 1804, they succeeded in burning and destroying the Philadelphia. His role in the operation was a crucial one as Macdonough had recently served aboard that ship and knew the layout of the vessel from stem to stern. For his heroic actions he was promoted to acting Lieutenant.

Other service

After winning promotion to Lieutenant for his participation in the raid on the Philadelphia, Macdonough served aboard the 18 gun Brig the USS Syren, the same vessel used to assist the Intrepid at Tripoli. Assisting Isaac Hull he then supervised the construction of several gunboats in Middletown, Connecticut. In January 1806 Macdonough was promoted to a commission of Lieutenant.

As commander of the 18-gun USS Wasp, Macdonough served patrolling waters near Great Britain and in various points in the Mediterranean before finally returning to America and enforcing the Embargo Act and the Atlantic blockade from 1807 and 1808.

In 1809 he served aboard the USS Essex with Captain Smith but later requested reassignment and was placed in charge of several gunboats located in Middleton, Connecticut, the town where his future wife Ann Shaler happened to be living.

With the repeal of the Embargo Act, the role of the navy became less active, with a fifth of its officers away on furlough at half pay. MacDonough remained in Middleton for only eight months before requesting a furlough in June 1810. From 1810 to 1812, Macdonough took a leave of absence for two years as the captain of a British merchantman ship that was en-route to India.

War of 1812

At the beginning of the War of 1812 American naval forces were very small, allowing the British to make many advances into the Great Lakes and northern New York waterways. The roles played by commanders like Oliver Hazard Perry at Lake Erie and Isaac Chauncey at Lake Ontario and Thomas Macdonough at Lake Champlain all proved vital to the naval effort that was largely responsible for the American maritime successes during that war.

Assigned to the USS Constellation, as 1st Lieutenant, Macdonough returned to active service just prior to the outbreak of the war in June 1812. The ship at this time was being outfitted and supplied in Washington, DC, for its next mission but was still months away from being ready, moreover it did not escape from the British blockade at the Chesapeake Bay until 1814.

Taking leave from his assignment at Lake Champlain Macdonough married Lucy Anne Shaler on December 12, 1812 at the Christ Church in Middleton by Bishop Abraham Jarvis.

After he requested transfer to a more active front and was assigned command to a squadron of gunboats defending Portland, Maine. His stay there was brief when he received new orders from Secretary of the Navy Hamilton and was reassigned to Burlington, Vermont to command U.S. naval forces in Lake Champlain in October 1812.

On June 2, 1813, Macdonough sent Lieutenant Sidney Smith with the USS Growler along with Sailing Master Loomis with USS Eagle to guard against British advances at the Canadian border at the Richelieu River. The impatient Smith sailed into British waters, an action which was contrary to his orders, and at once found himself overpowered by the British squadron. After enduring four hours of battle Smith was finally forced into surrendering.

Lake Champlain Campaign

On July 24, 1813 Macdonough was promoted to the rank of master commandant.

When the War began in 1812 there were only two American naval vessels on Lake Champlain, the Growler and the Eagle, each carrying ten guns with a crew of fifty. On June 3, 1813 the two vessels were pursuing a British gunboat but were caught up in a strong current that prevented them from maintaining their heading and position, giving the advantage to British forces, resulting in their capture. The loss of the two and only American vessels on the lake gave undisputed control of this strategic waterway to the British. This prompted MacDonough to begin the construction of the corvette Saratoga and the sloop Eagle and several gunboats at the shipyard in Otter Creek at Vergennes, Vermont. While construction was underway, the Ticonderoga, a steamboat, was being converted to a warship carrying seventeen guns.

In 1814 the ice covering Lake Champlain, which usually lasted well into May, began melting and breaking up early in April and MacDonough feared that the British, who he assumed by now knew of the ship construction going on there, would use the opportunity to capture or destroy the vessels being built. Having learned of MacDonough's ship building activity the British constructed a heavily armed brig and five large gunboats at 'Isle Aux Noix' over the winter. As Macdonough had predicted, British forces attempted to navigate the lake but because of unfavorable winds British commander Daniel Pring, whose forces were based at Isle Aux Noix in upper Lake Champlain, didn't complete the 65 mile journey to Otter Creek until May 14. Upon arrival Pring situated his squadron in the lake just off Otter Creek with eight galleys and a bomb sloop, preventing the American forces passage north and to the sea. For one hour commander Pring maintained a heavy fire, however Macdonough had already learned of the attack beforehand from his observers on land and had prepared a defense in anticipation of this likely event. Using the guns of his ship he had landed them on shore at the mouth of Otter Creek, constructing a battery with which he repelled the attack and drove the Royal Navy back to Isle Aux Noix in Canadian waters by autumn. With the way now clear Macdonough's squadron sailed out of Otter Creek and made their way to Plattsburgh where they dropped anchor just off shore in anticipation of the next and inevitable British advance.

Battle of Plattsburgh

By late August 1814, approximately 10,0000 British troops under the command of George Prevost had assembled near Montreal at the US - Canadian border. Many of these soldiers were well-trained, regular troops who served under Wellington, already battle hardened from their recent defeat of Napoleon in Europe. Macdonough himself had little naval combat experience. His service in the Barbary wars was limited to gunboat actions and the capture and destruction of the Philadelphia. He had yet to experience a ship to ship action, being on a vessel that was receiving broadsides, surrounded by dead and wounded men. Regardless of this lack in experience Macdonough well understood that defending and holding Plattsburgh and not allowing General Macomb's troops to be surrounded by British forces on land and water was vital to winning the war.

On September 3 Prevost's army crossed the border and marched into northern New York State and were advancing on Plattsburgh, which was held by General Macomb with less than 2,000 regular troops. Macomb's troops also had the support of the New York militia, under the command of General Mooers and the Vermont volunteers, under the command of General Strong. However Prevost who had arrived in earnest was yet aware of enemy strength and positions and refused to march on the city itself without adequate naval support to divert the American forces. A squadron under the command of Commodore George Downie sailed southward into the open lake to engage the American fleet commanded by Macdonough. In anticipation of the British fleet, Macdonough strategically positioned and anchored his fleet a short distance off shore from Plattsburgh and made further preparations for Downie's advance.

On September 11, Downie's forces departed from Isle-aux-Noix and sailed southward along the Richelieu River into Lake Champlain. Upon encountering Macdonough's fleet waiting in Plattsburgh harbor, Downie immediately attacked, achieving the upper hand early in the battle, largely because of the great firepower of the 36-gun British flagship HMS Confiance. As the battle unfolded the British squadron incurred considerable damage from close-range cannon fire. In the process an American cannon shot blasting a British cannon off its mount crushing and killing Downie himself. Through use of anchor and cable tactics, Macdonough in command of USS Saratoga was able to swing his ship around the undamaged side of the British flagship gaining firepower superiority over the British fleet. As the poorly and hurriedly equipped Confiance with its inexperienced crew attempted the same tactic, Macdonough siezed the opportunity and fired a broadside, severely damaging the British vessel and forcing its surrender. Having removed the British flagship from action, the Americans forces captured or destroyed the remaining larger ships in the fleet. Upon wresting control of Lake Champlain from the British, Macdonough's victory forced the British forces to retire to Canada, the actions of which left no grounds for any claims by the British for any territory when the Ghent peace conference convened on December 24. For his success in forcing the retreat of Prevost into Canada, Macdonough was duly promoted to the rank of Captain. He was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of honor at this time. He was also awarded by the State of New York a thousand acres of land in Cayuga county, with another hundred acres awarded to him from the State of Vermont, making the once modest commodore a wealthy man.

See main article: Battle of Plattsburgh

Later days

Macdonough relieved Isaac Hull of command on July 1, 1815, and was placed in command of the Portsmouth Navy Yard for three years after which he returned to the Mediterranean Squadron as commander of the USS Guerriere, a frigate bearing 44 guns. In April 1818 Macdonough was striken with tuberculosis but he still remained on duty for as long as possible.. After returning to America later in the year, he was given command of the USS Ohio a Ship of the line, bearing 74 guns, which at the time was still under construction in New York harbor. From 1818 to 1823 Macdonough served as her captain.

After submitting several requests for active sea duty, Macdonough finally received command of the USS Constitution a 44-gun frigate, in 1824. However, after he returned to the Mediterranean on October 14, 1825, Macdonough had to relieve himself of his command as his health continued to worsen. Intending to return to New York, Macdonough departed in USS Edwin, but his condition continued to worsen and on November 10, 1825, he died aboard ship while it was passing Gibraltar.

MacDonough's body was returned to the United States and was buried in Middletown, Connecticut. He was laid to rest alongside his wife Ann Shaler, a lady of a prominent family in Middletown, she having died just a few months earlier.


The first USS Macdonough, 1900

U.S. postage, Navy Issue of 1937
Several U.S. Navy ships have been named USS Macdonough in his honor.
In 1937, at the urging of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. Post Office issued a series of five postage stamps honoring the U.S. Navy and various naval heroes in American history. Stephen Decatur and Thomas MacDonough (right) appearing on the two-cent denomination, were among the few chosen to appear in this commemorative series.
The annual Commodore Macdonough sailboat race, is a nonstop 74-nautical-mile (137 km) overnighter sponsored by the Lake Champlain Yacht Club located in Shelburne, VT that has been held every September on the lake since 1968.
The New York State University of New York located at Plattsburgh, Plattsburgh, N.Y. has a dormitory with the name Macdonough Hall; the hall being the oldest dormitory, and initial dorm building.
MacDonough Hall, at the United States Naval Academy, is home to the boxing, sprint football, water polo, and gymnastics programs, as well as housing a gymnasium, racquetball courts, a swimming pool, and recreational weight rooms for Midshipmen.
There is a 135-foot (41 m) tall obelisk that is located across from City Hall in Plattsburgh, N.Y. known as the Macdonough Monument which honors the victory of American soldiers and sailors in the Battle of Plattsburgh.
Camano Island (formerly known as Macdonough Island), Washington. Charles Wilkes, during the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842, named the island in honor of Macdonough in tribute to his victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh (aka Battle of Lake Champlain) that ended the War of 1812.
McDonough County, Illinois is named after Thomas MacDonough, its seat being located in Macomb.
Two elementary schools, one in St. Georges, Delaware and one in Middletown, Connecticut are named in honor of MacDonough.
MacDonough Street in the Stuyvesant Heights section of Brooklyn, New York is named after Thomas MacDonough. MacDonough Street runs parallel to Decatur Street, one block away, named after Stephen Decatur, with whom MacDonough served during the Barbary War.
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Captain Thomas Macdonough's Timeline

December 31, 1783
McDonough New Castle County Delaware, USA
October 25, 1814
Age 30
April 12, 1816
Age 32
June 6, 1817
Age 33
June 28, 1818
Age 34
Middletown, Middlesex County, Connecticut, United States
June 28, 1818
Age 34
Middletown, Middlesex County, Connecticut, United States
November 20, 1820
Age 36
July 11, 1822
Age 38
September 30, 1823
Age 39