Alexander Macomb

Born 4/3/1782 in Detroit, Michigan
Died 6/25/1841 in Washington, D.C.


Alexander Macomb (April 3, 1782–June 25, 1841) was the commanding general of the United States Army from May 29, 1828 to June 25, 1841. Born in Detroit, Michigan, which at the time was part of British North America, Macomb was the son of Alexander Macomb and Mary Catherine Navarre.

He moved with his parents to New York City and at a Newark, New Jersey, academy received a "classical education".

Early career

At the age of 16, he joined a New York militia company. In January, 1799, with the recommendation of Alexander Hamilton during the French emergency, he was commissioned a Cornet in the Regular Army. In March he was promoted to second lieutenant, and honorably discharged, June 1800.

In February, 1801, he was commissioned a second lieutenant, 2d Infantry, serving as secretary to a commission that treated with the Indians of the Southeast.

He was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, which was established in 1802 at West Point to constitute a military academy, thereby being one of the first officers to receive formal training there.

He then spent five years in charge of coastal fortifications in the Carolinas and Georgia. He also established fortifications at Fort Gratiot, Michigan, Chicago, Mackinaw, Prairie du Chien, St. Peter's, and St. Mary's.

Command at the Battle of Plattsburgh

He won acclaim during the War of 1812 as brigadier general in command of the frontier of northern New York. At the Battle of Plattsburgh on September 11, 1814, with only 1,500 regular troops and some detachments of militia, he was opposed by a British force of 10,531 men under Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost. Macomb's heavily outnumbered troops fell back before the British columns in a series of skirmishes as Prevost advanced towards the American defensive works. In the weeks leading up to the battle, Macomb, knowing full well he would be outnumbered heavily, worked with his men to move trees and create fake roads in order to obscure the genuine roads and lead the British into dead-end traps far from the three nearby American forts. (Macomb called this maneuver abattis.) The British attack was diffused. Long narrow lines of marching soldiers were unable to easily stop and about-face. They became entangled in the narrow false road maze, and were sitting targets for the waiting Americans. The British were about to launch an assault on the American defenses when the news came through of the defeat of the British naval squadron on Lake Champlain. Prevost needed the British Lake Champlain squadron to supply his planned advance into Vermont. Without it, he had no choice but to abandon the Expedition. The British invaders marched off back to Canada. Although Commodore Thomas MacDonough's sailors and not the Army had been largely responsible for stopping the British invasion,[citation needed] Macomb was nevertheless showered with praise and styled "The Hero of Plattsburgh" by some of the American press. He was promoted Major General for his conduct at this battle, receiving both the thanks of Congress and a Congressional Gold Medal.

Commanding General of the U.S. Army

When Major General Jacob Brown, the U.S. Army’s commanding general, died in February 1828, Macomb was the senior Brigadier-General on the Army List and President John Quincy Adams promoted him substantive Major-General as was Macomb's right. The Army's 2nd and 3rd ranking Brigadier-Generals bitterly contested this; Winfield Scott and Edmund P. Gaines — denounced each other publicly and for months had been contesting for the position. Their quarrels scandalized the Army and drove Adams to nominate Alexander Macomb, the Chief of Engineers, who by then had reverted rank to colonel, as the Army’s top general.

His last active service in a theater of battle was in the Seminole War in 1835.

Macomb’s tenure as Commanding General was marked by "continuing uncertainty about the responsibilities and authority of his position. To secure his seniority over the other two-star brevet major generals, Macomb added a provision in the 1834 Regulations that 'the insignia of the major general commanding in chief should be three stars.'" In the same document he sought to define his relationship to the Secretary of War and establish his primacy over the bureau chiefs, including his successor as Chief of Engineers. This was easier said than done. Most issues were not fully resolved until early the next century."

He advocated doubling Army strength, increasing enlisted pay, providing relief for some widows and orphans, and a regularizing the officer retirement and replacement system. In 1840 the Army Corps of Engineers adopted the castle uniform insignia and first described the Corps of Engineers’ distinctive Essayons (Motto: "Let us try") button.

In 1809 and 1841, he was the author of a seminal book (republished in the 21st century) on conduct of courts martial and martial law. See Further Reading, infra.

Macomb was the first of five Commanding Generals/Chiefs of Staff (after the 1903 reorganization) who held Engineer commissions early in their careers. All transferred to other branches before rising to the top. The others were George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck, Douglas MacArthur, and Maxwell D. Taylor.

A curious feature of Macomb's career is that, like Dwight Eisenhower, he became a military hero without ever actually coming under enemy fire in his life.

Congressional Gold Medal

Following the Battle of Plattsburgh and the end of the War of 1812, a Congressional Gold Medal honoring Alexander Macomb and his men was struck by Act of Congress (3 Stat. 247), to wit:[11]...

Resolved, That the thanks of Congress[12] be, and they are hereby presented to Major General Macomb, and, through him, to the officers and men of the regular army under his command, and to the militia and volunteers of New York and Vermont, for their gallantry and good conduct, in defeating the enemy at Plattsburg on the eleventh of September; repelling, with one thousand five hundred men, aided by a body of militia and volunteers from New York and Vermont, a British veteran army, greatly superior in number, and that the President of the United States be requested to cause a gold medal to be struck, emblematic of this triumph, and presented to Major General Macomb. -- Resolution of Congress November 3. 1814.
Obverse: MAJOR GENERAL ALEXANDER MACOMB. Bust of Gen. Macomb, in uniform, facing the right FÜRST. Fecit. indicates the engraver Moritz Fuerst (1782-1840), who designed several medals of 1812 heroes for the Philadelphia mint. The bust of Macomb found on the Congressional Medal, however, is reminiscent of the 1809 portrait of Macomb by Saint-Mémin (1770-1852), in which Macomb is wearing the undressed coat of blue with black velvet collar and cuffs typical of an Engineering officer.

Reverse: RESOLUTION OF CONGRESS NOVEMBER 3. 1814. The American army repulsing the British troops, who are striving to cross the Saranac river. To the left, Plattsburgh in flames; to the right, naval battle on Lake Champlain; in the distance, Cumberland Head. Exergue: BATTLE OF PLATTSBURGH September 11. 1814. FÜRST. Fecit. See the reverse.