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Delmarva Heritage Series

 * 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 Perry.

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 untenable."

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 later action.

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.

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