Captain Thomas Macdonough
1783 - 1825
Thomas Macdonough, Jr. was born in Trap (McDonough), Delaware on December 31,
1783, the sixth child and second son of Thomas, Sr. & Mary Vance McDonough. Thomas,
Sr. was a well respected physician in Delaware. In March of 1776, Delaware elected Dr.
McDonough to be a major in a battalion in the Revolutionary War. He served as a
commander at the battle of Long Island in August, where he won the praise of General
Washington for gallantry, and also in the battle of White Plains, NY. During the battle of
White Plains, he received a wound which incapacitated him from active duty. Dr.
McDonough later served as a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Dr. McDonough
died at the age of 48 when Thomas, Jr. was only 12.
Thomas, Jr. worked as a clerk in a store in Middletown while a teenage. He requested
an appointment to the United States Navy with the help of U.S. Senator Latimer of
Delaware. On February 5, 1800, at the age of 16, he received a warrant as a midshipman
in the navy. Prior to entering the the Navy, Thomas, Jr., for unknown reasons, changed
the spelling of his last name from "McDonough" to "Macdonough."
He was ordered to the U.S. Ship Granges, a 24-gun corvette on May 15, 1800. They
sailed to the West Indies, where the U.S. and France were fighting. The Granges crew
captured three French ships and sent them all back to the U.S. Thomas was assigned to
the Constellation on October 20, 1801, for its cruise of the Mediterranean sea. During
this cruise they fought with Tripolitanian gunboats at Tripoli. He later served in 1803 on
the new ship Philadelphia, a 38-gun frigate. In October of 1803, the Philadelphia was
captured and taken to Tripoli. Luckily, Thomas was on shore leave at the time of capture.
On December 14, 1803, he was assigned to the Enterprise, a 12-gun schooner. The
Enterprise along with the Constitution was sent out to either retake the Philadelphia or
destroy it so that Tripoli could not use her against the U.S. They decided it was to risky of
an operation too retake her so they set her a fire. Thomas, along with others, volunteered
to sail to the Philadelphia and set her on fire. They sailed up to the Philadelphia and
stated to the Tripolitanian crew that they were a merchant ship having trouble and
requested to tie up to the Philadelphia. They did exactly that....boarded the ship and after
fighting with the Tripolitanian crew, set her on fire and quickly left. This was the last action
in which he was involved during the war with Tripoli. In 1805 or 1806, Thomas was
appointed a lieutenant of the Enterprise.
During the coming years the British began impressing American sailors. This act, of
course, helped lead the United States into the war of 1812. While in Liverpool, England
Thomas Macdoungh was impressed into the English Navy. The story is related that he
was taken on board a British Ship and assigned sleeping quarters with the corporal of the
guard. Once the corporal fell asleep Macdonough put on his clothes and went out onto the
deck. Shortly thereafter, he saw the corporal poke his head out of the hatchway.
Macdonough immediately knocked him down, jumped into a small boat, broke loose and
was on his way. The sentry shot at Macdonough but he safely made his way to shore.
Thomas swore "If I live, I'll make England remember the day she impressed an American
soldier." .....and he did!
In October of 1806, Macdonough was ordered to Middletown, Connecticut, to work
under Captain Isaac Hull superintending the construction of gunboats. It was here that he
met and fell in love with his future wife, Lucy Ann Shaler. However it would be six more
years before they finally wed.
On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britian. On June 26,
Thomas Macdonough wrote the following note to the Secretary of the Navy, Alexander
Sir: The United States now being at war, I solicit your order for service in the
navy and hope you will favor me with such a situation as in your opinion I am
suited to hold. I have the honor to be, your most obt. (obedient) sert. (servant)
In August, Macdonough received orders to command a division of gunboats, this time
in Burlington, Vermont. This division included 6 sloops and 2 gunboats. These vessels
were located on Lake Champlain, between New York and Vermont. When he first arrived
he saw the gunboats "one was partly sunk and the seams of both were so open as almost to
admit the hand." He immediately hired carpenters to prepare the vessels for war. After
repairs he took his converted, patched-up warships down the lake to the Plattsburgh, NY
area to start patrols of Lake Champlain.
On June 2, 1813, Macdonough ordered Lt. Sidney Smith with the sloop Growler and
Sailing Master Loomis with the Eagle to sail north to the Canadian border. There they
were to block the mouth of the Richelieu River to prevent British warships from entering
Lake Champlain. Macdonough gave specific orders not to cross the border. However, Lt.
Smith deliberately sailed into British territory where they met up with British warships.
After a four hour battle the British captured both sloops and sent all the men to prison.
Now that the British could add two more sloops to their fleet, they had complete control of
the Lake. At this point Macdonough moved his fleet farther down the lake to Burlington,
On June 17th, after receiving a full report from Macdonough, the new Secretary of the
Navy, William Jones, sent the following orders to Macdonough:
....regain by every possible exertion the ascendancy which we have lost, for
which purpose you are authorized to purchase, arm and equip two of the best
sloops to be procured on the lake. You have unlimited authority to procure the
necessary resources of men, material and munitions for that purpose. I rely
upon your efficient and prudent use of the authority vested in you. The naval
command is exclusively vested in you and for which you are held responsible.
On July 24, 1813, Lt. Thomas Macdonough was designated Master Commandant. He
was there after called "Commodore" out of respect or courtesy even though that rank did
not exist at that time.
The last of July 1813, a British flotilla landed at Plattsburgh's wharf with 1,000
soldiers. They promised the frightened citizens that they would not destroy private
property. However, they started burning public property and stole the contents of many of
the private homes in the area. They then sailed south and attacked Macdonough at
Burlington. After a small battle they sailed on and continued to raid villages. The
American fleet was no where near ready to battle on the open lake at this time.
After repairs were completed on his fleet, he moved the fleet to Vergennes, Vermont
for the winter. There he received authorization in January, 1814 from Secretary Jones to
construct a new ship. The brothers Adam & Noah Brown of New York promised to
construct a ship within 60 days. To everyone's delight the Browns completed the new ship
in 40 days. On April 11, 1814, Lucy Ann Macdonough, Thomas' wife, christened the
26-gun ship Saratoga. Macdonough was not ready to do battle with the enemy.....
Commodore Macdonough anchored his fleet in Plattsburg Bay in a line northeast to
southwest. The Eagle was at that north end, then Macdonough's flagship Saratoga; next
the Ticonderoga and last the Preble at the south end. While Macdonough prepared his
fleet, General Alexander Macomb prepared his small army to defend Plattsburgh from the
About nine o'clock Sunday morning, September 11, 1814, British Captain George
Downie brought his fleet around Cumberland Head into Plattsburgh Bay. Since his ships
had to tack into the north wind, Downie had trouble lining up his vessels between
Macdonough's ships and Cumberland Head as Macdonough had expected. The British
ships were now in a trapped position. Rodney Macdonough wrote the following description
of the scene on his grandfather's ship minutes before the battle commenced:
There was now a hushed, expectant moment like the stillness which precedes
the storm. Macdonough, whose manly courage was supported by a childlike
faith, knelt on the deck of the flagship with his officers around him and
repeated the following prayer: "Stir up Thy strength, O Lord, and come and
help us, for Thou givest not always the battle to the strong, but canst save
many or few....through Jesus Christ, our Lord."
Macdonough fired and his fleet opened fire..... British Captain Downey was killed
during the battle. Macdonough was knocked down twice due to explosions, once remaining
senseless for a few minutes. Another shot cut off the head of the captain of the gun and
drove it against Macdonough with such force that he was knocked across the deck and fell
between two guns. The Saratoga caught fire twice during the battle.
Julius Hubbell, a young lawyer from nearby Chazy, was among the spectators and
wrote this description:
The firing was terrific, fairly shaking the ground, and so rapid that it seemed
to be one continuous roar, intermingled with the spiteful flashing from the
mouths of guns, and dense clouds of smoke soon hung over the two fleets.....
At 11:20 a.m. the British ships struck their colors. Victory belong to the Americans!
However the decks of all ships had torn hulls, masts and spars and they held those that
had parished in this terrific battle. It was obvious that Macdonough's foresight, valor,
ingenuity and perserverance won the day.
The entire country praised Macdonough's victory as equal to Commodore Perry's on
Lake Erie September 10, 1813. The Battle of Plattsburgh is one of the decisive battles in
American History. It prevented the invasion and conquest of New York State as
effectively in 1814 as the surrender of the British under Burgoyne in 1777.
Commodore Macdonough continued in the service of his country after the war of 1812
finally ended. On October 20, 1824, Macdonough, commanding the frigate Constitution,
set sail for the Mediterranean to take charge of the United States naval force. There in
the fall of 1825, he received the news that his wife, Lucy Ann had died. However, Thomas
was sick as well with tuberculosis, weighing only sixty pounds. The news devastated him.
Thomas was carried from the Constitution to the Edwin for the long journey home, one
journey he was not to complete. On November 10, 1825, Commodore Thomas
Macdonough, the hero of Lake Champlain, died six hundred miles from his homeland. He
was forty-one years old.
Thomas and his wife are interred in the Riverside Cemetery in Middletown,
Connecticut. Together they had 5 children: James, Charles Shaler, Augustus Rodney,
Thomas, and Charlotte.