|Delaware Military History
Thomas MacDonough(December 21, 1783 – November 10, 1825) was an early-19th-century
American naval officer. He was a leading member of "Preble's Boys", a small group of naval
officers who served during the First Barbary War. His most notable achievement occurred
during the War of 1812. As commander of American naval forces in Lake Champlain he won
the decisive Battle of Lake Champlain, also known as the Battle of Plattsburgh.
Background and early life
Major Thomas MacDonough, the father of Captain Thomas MacDonough, was an eminent
physician, who resided at a farm called “The Trapp”, in the county of New Castle, Delaware.
In the year 1775, he entered the army, and was appointed a major in a regiment raised by the
State of Delaware, of which Mr. John Haslett was colonel, and Gunning Bedford, lieutenant-
colonel. Major MacDonough retired early from the army, and returned to The Trapp. After
the establishment of independence, he was appointed a judge, and held that office till his
death, which took place in 1796. He left several children, of whom three were sons.
Thomas MacDonough Jr. was born in New Castle County, Delaware, present-day
MacDonough, Delaware, and was working as a clerk in Middletown when his brother James
returned home in late 1799 or early 1800 after losing his leg in a naval engagement with
France during the Quasi-War with France. He requested an appointment to the United States
Navy with the help of U.S. Senator Latimer of Delaware. On 5 February 1800, aged 16, he
received a warrant as a midshipman in the United States Navy. Prior to entering the Navy,
Thomas, Jr., for unknown reasons, changed the spelling of his last name from "McDonough"
MacDonough served as a midshipman aboard the 24-gun corvette USS Ganges, after joining
her on 15 May 1800. Ganges sailed to the West Indies, where she captured three French ships
between May and September. With the cessation of hostilities between the United States and
France the next year, MacDonough was assigned on 20 October 1801, to the 38-gun
Constellation, which was about to embark on cruise of the Mediterranean.
First Barbary War
While serving with Constellation, MacDonough participated with distinction in early naval
operations against Tripoli during the First Barbary War. MacDonough transferred to the 38-
gun Philadelphia in 1803 shortly before its capture by the Tripolitans. (By chance
MacDonough was on shore leave at the time of her capture.) He was reassigned on October
31 to the 12-gun sloop Enterprise under the command of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur.
MacDonough volunteered to participate in Decatur's successful raid upon the harbor of
Tripoli on 6 February 1804, which succeeded in burning the Philadelphia.
After winning promotion to Lieutenant for his participation in the raid, MacDonough served
aboard the 16-gun schooner Syren. He then assisted Isaac Hull in overseeing the construction
of gunboats in Middletown, Connecticut, before earning a permanent commission to
Lieutenant in January 1806. As commander of the 18-gun Wasp, MacDonough served in the
waters around Great Britain and in the Mediterranean before enforcing the Atlantic blockade
from 1807 and 1808. From 1810 to 1812, MacDonough passed a two-year leave of absence as
captain of a British merchantman enroute to India.
The War of 1812
Shortly before the outbreak of the War of 1812, MacDonough returned to active duty on the
USS Constellation, then being outfitted in Washington, DC. After he requested transfer to a
more active front, MacDonough was assigned to gunboats defending Portland, Maine and
then reassigned in October to Burlington, Vermont to command US naval forces in Lake
On June 2, 1813, MacDonough sent Lt. Sidney Smith with the USS Growler and Sailing
Master Loomis with the USS Eagle to guard the Canadian border at the Richelieu River.
Going against orders, Smith sailed into British waters and found himself overpowered
against British warships. After four hours of fighting Smith was forced to surrender.
He was promoted to master commandant on July 24, 1813. After he lost the two sloops,
British forces gained naval superiority in Lake Champlain as MacDonough struggled to
rebuild his fleet. Still, once he had succeeded in constructing three sloops and four gunboats,
MacDonough was able to drive the Royal Navy into Canadian waters by autumn.
The following year, the British launched a major offensive to control Lake Champlain.
General Sir George Prevost invaded New York, but refused to advance beyond Plattsburgh
without adequate naval support. A squadron under Commodore George Downie sailed south
to engage MacDonough's fleet. Anticipating the British, MacDonough anchored his fleet off
Plattsburgh and prepared for battle while awaiting Downie's arrival.
As Downie's forces attacked on September 11 in the Battle of Plattsburgh, they met with early
success mostly due to the firepower of the 36-gun flagship HMS Confiance. However, the
British squadron suffered heavy damage in the close-range fighting, with an American shot
dismounting a cannon, killing Downie himself. Through the use of cables, MacDonough was
able to swing around the undamaged side of his flagship, the 26-gun Saratoga, and gain
firepower superiority over the British fleet. As Confiance attempted the same maneuver,
MacDonough opened fire, severely damaging her. With the British flagship out of action, the
Americans sank or captured the remaining major warships. In denying control of the lake to
the British, MacDonough’s victory forced the invading army to retire to Canada, and left no
grounds for British territorial claims in the area at the Ghent peace conference. For his role in
forcing Prevost to retreat into Canada, MacDonough was promoted to Captain, and
Congress awarded him a Gold Medal.
After relieving a Isaac Hull of command on July 1, 1815, MacDonough served as commander
of the Portsmouth Navy Yard for three years. He then returned to the Mediterranean
Squadron as commander of the 44-gun Guerriere in April 1818, despite suffering from
tuberculosis. On his return to the US later that year, MacDonough was given command of
the 74-gun ship of the line Ohio, then under construction in New York. He served as her
captain from 1818 to 1823.
After several requests for sea duty, MacDonough received command of the famed 44-gun
frigate Constitution in 1824. However, after again returning to the Mediterranean,
MacDonough relieved himself of command on October 14, 1825 due to his increasingly poor
health. Intending to return to New York, MacDonough departed in Edwin but died at sea
near Gibraltar on November 10, 1825.
He was later buried in Middletown, Connecticut, where for several years before his death, he
made his home. He had married Miss Shaler, a lady of a highly respectable family in
Middletown, though his wife had predeceased him by a few months.
Several Navy ships have been named USS Macdonough in his honor. So was the city
of McDonough, Georgia and the town of McDonough in New York. Other place names
include McDonough County, Illinois and MacDonough, Delaware. He was also honored
with a stamp. The United States Naval Academy has MacDonough Hall named in his honor.
A portion of New York State Route 314on Cumberland Head (near Plattsburgh, New York) is
named the Commodore Thomas MacDonough Highway. At one point there was a
Commodore MacDonough Elementary School in St. Georges, DE and there is a still-
operational school by that name in Middletown, CT.
The Commodore MacDonough sailboat race, a nonstop 74-nautical-mile (137 km)
overnighter sanctioned by the Lake Champlain Yacht Club in Shelburne, VT has been held
every September since 1968 on Lake Champlain.
The New York State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Plattsburgh, NY has a
resident dorm named MacDonough Hall; the hall is the oldest dorm, and initial dorm
building, rumor is that the hall's basement is haunted.
There is a 135-foot (41 m) tall obelisk located across from City Hall in Plattsburgh, New
York which is known as the Macdonough Monument and commemorates the American
victory in the 1814 Naval battle.
Camano Island (formerly MacDonough Island), Washington. Charles Wilkes, during
the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842, named it MacDonough Island in honor of MacDonough
for his victory of the Battle of Lake Champlain during the War of 1812. Following this theme,
Wilkes named the body of water between Camano and Whidbey Island after MacDonough's
flagship the Saratoga. When Henry Kellett reorganized the official British Admiralty charts in
1847, he removed Wilkes' name MacDonough and bestowed the name Camano, named for the
Spanish explorer Jacinto Caamaño, and the name which the Spanish had originally given to
Admiralty Inlet in 1790. Wilkes' name Saratoga Passage was retained.
Frost, John, "The Pictorial Book Of The Commodores; Comprising Lives Of
Distinguished Commanders In The Navy Of The United States." Nafis & Cornish, New York,
Dean, Leon W. Guns over Champlain (1948) - New York
Forester, C.S. Victory on Lake Champlain, American Heritage, Vol. 15, 1963.
Langguth, A. J. (2006). Union 1812:The Americans Who Fought the Second War of
Independence. New York: Simon & Shuster. ISBN 0743226189.
McDonough, Rodney. The Life of Commodore Thomas MacDonough, United States
Navy, Boston, 1909.
Muller, Charles G. The Proudest Day: Victory on Lake Champlain, New York, 1960.
Delmarva Heritage Series, by Dr. William H. Wroten, Jr.
Commodore Thomas Macdonough
Salisbury Times - December 14, 1960
From the War of 1812, often called the "second war for American independence," came such
well-known heroes as Capt. Oliver H. Perry and two future presidents of the United States,
Andrew Jackson and William Harrison.
It would be difficult to pass through our public school systems without hearing about these
men and their actions, but few people know of another hero, even in his native region, whose
actions in the War of 1812 were equal if not superior to those of either Jackson, Harrison or
Thomas Macdonough of Delaware was the hero of the Battle on Lake Champlain.
Lewis C. Vandegrift in 1894 told the following story.
"An American Women in England, soon after the War of 1812, was discussing with an
Englishman the merits of the opposing sides. The Englishman was somewhat more brusque
than gallant, and insisted that the lady's compatriots did not fight fairly, like brave men, but,
on the contrary, gained their advantages over the English by fighting from behind trees and
stumps, like the Indians, to which unfair criticism she retorted effectually by asking if there
were any trees and stumps in Lake Champlain."
By the summer of 1814, this was from the American standpoint had become one of defense
against a greatly superior British force. According to Alfred Thayer Mahan, one of America's
foremost naval historians, it was believed that the British wished to make the northern lakes
British waters, to which the Americans should have only commercial access. This was to be
done to weaken any American advantage toward future attempts to invade Canada.
Napoleon had fallen, for the first time, and the British government was asking about the
United States: "Are we prepared to continue the war for territorial arrangements? Is it
desirable to take the chances of the campaign and then be governed by circumstances?"
This was the policy followed, but the hope of success dimmed when Thomas Macdonough
destroyed the British fleet on Lake Champlain. Except at Baltimore and New Orleans (the
other major battles near the close of the war), which were more defensive successes, nothing
but calamity befell the American military units.
"To the Battle of Lake Champlain it was owing that the British occupancy of United States
soil at the end of the year was such that the British occupancy of the United States soil at the
end of the year was such that the duke of Wellington advised that no claim for territorial
cession could be considered to exist, and the basis upon which it was proposed to treat, was
Thomas Macdonough was born on December 31, 1783 at The Trap, Delaware, which the Post
office Department in 1844 changed to Macdonough. He was sixth of the ten children born to
Mary Vance Macdonough and Major Thomas Macdonough, physician, military officer in the
Revolutionary War, and judge of the State of Delaware.
The military tradition was carried on in the family when an older brother, James, enlisted in
the Navy and served on the Constellation in our difficulties with France just before 1800. In
the battle with L'Insurgente, in which the Americans were victorious and only one was killed
and two wounded, James lost one of his legs.
Through the influence of Senator Latimer of Delaware, Thomas received an appointment as
midshipman from President John Adams on February 5, 1800. Thomas' first cruises were to
the West Indies, where the more or less undeclared war with France continued. Although
after these cruises his ship was sold, the Navy reduced, and many officers dismissed, through
the influence of C.A. Rodney of Delaware he continued in the service.
Macdonough then joined the Constellation for Mediterranean duty in the Tripoli War. He was
transferred to the famous Philadelphia but escaped the fate if the crew and ship which was
captured, when just prior to this sad event he was ordered as second officer to board the
captive Morrish vessel, Mirboka. Upon return of the Mirboka to the proper authorities, he
joined the Enterprise under the command of Captain Stephen Decatur. He took part in the
two daring and exciting exploits of Decatur-the burning of the captured Philadelphia and an
attack on the Tripolitan gunboats. He was among those especially mentioned for gallantry in
Macdonough stayed in the Mediterranean service for two more years, taking command of
several vessels before being ordered to Middletown, Conn., to help supervise the construction
of naval vessels. Later on he served on such ships as the Wasp, John Adams, and the Essex. In
1810 he was given a type of furlough and ordered to make a voyage in the Merchant Marine.
According to a grandson of Macdonough's, it was on this voyage that the future hero had a
run-in with the British. In Liverpool a British pressgang seized Macdonough and tried to
impress him in the British Navy, which was a rather common practice during this period,
and one of the reasons we soon declared war on Great Britain.
Despite Macdonough's protests that he was an officer of the American Navy, the British
meant to keep him. He was able to escape, however, by a daring plan and rejoin his own
ship. The next morning as Macdonough sailed by the British ship he is supposed to have
remarked to himself: "If I live, I'll make England remember the day she impressed an American
sailor." When the war was declared two years later, the rallying, "No Impressment," had
special significance to Macdonough.
Shortly after the war was declared in 1812, Macdonough returned to active duty and was
ordered to take command of the fleet on Lake Champlain in upper New York State. He had
the difficult task of outfitting a small fleet and maintaining a superiority of naval strength
over the enemy. It was not an easy task when it necessitated moving most of the materials
and seamen from the sea coast to the interior, several hundred miles distance.
According to Mahan, at the beginning of the hostilities the balance of naval power on Lake
Champlain rested with the Americans and this remained true until about June 1813. The
forces of both sides were rather small and neither made a serious attempt to obtain a marked
preponderance. However, in June 1813 the British caught the Americans in a "trap" and
superiority on the lake passed to the British, and remained so until May 1814.