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Thomas Macdonough


The Battle of Plattsburg Bay

Thomas Macdonough was born in Delaware and was the sixth of the ten children. His father was a physician and major in the Revolutionary War who later gained some fame in Delaware politics. Orphaned by the age of eleven, Thomas gained a commission as a midshipman in the United States Navy through the help of his late father’s powerful political friends.

Macdonough served several years under Captain Alexander Murray on the U.S. Constellation, fighting the Barbary States in the Mediterranean. By the time he returned home in 1806, he had gained an impressive education in seamanship, navigation, and gunnery. During his stint in the Mediterranean, Macdonough also served under Captain Decatur on the Enterprise. He distinguished himself during the destruction of the Philadelphia, an American ship that had been taken over by pirates, and the capture of two Tripolitan gunboats. He was subsequently promoted to lieutenant. The next few years were slow ones for the US Navy and Macdonough remained on active service largely through the influence of his father’s political friends.

At the outset of the War of 1812, Macdonough was given the command of a division of gunboats. Then, in September of 1812, he was ordered to take charge of all US vessels on Lake Champlain. At this point, the Lake Champlain fleet amounted to two leaky gunboats and three transport sloops.

Macdonough was a deeply religious man whom a contemporary described as a “Christian Gentleman.” He quoted scripture readily, believed God was on his side, and enjoyed the genuine respect of his men and superiors. His religious beliefs apparently didn’t prevent him from being a fierce fighter. According to one story, he is reported to have broken his cutlass while boarding a Barbary pirate ship. Undaunted, he wrestled a pistol away from one of his opponents and then used it to shoot and kill the man.