Thomas MacDonough

Born 12/21/1783 in New Castle, Delaware
Died 12/21/1783 in Gibraltar, Great Britain


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" to "Macdonough."

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.

Between wars

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 Champlain.

In June 1813, MacDonough prepared his fleet of three sloops (USS Growler, USS Eagle, and the USS President, and two gunboats, despite suffering from a shortage of experienced sailors and of supplies, particularly guns and stores. He sent Growler and Eagle in pursuit of some vessels, which led to their capture.

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.

Later career

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.