War of 1812: Captain Thomas MacDonough

Thomas MacDonough, US Navy
Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough, USN. Photograph Source: Public Domain

A native of Delaware, Thomas MacDonough became a noted officer in the US Navy during the early part of the 19th century. From a large family, he followed an older brother into the service and obtained a midshipman's warrant during the final months of the Quasi-War with France. MacDonough later saw service in the First Barbary War where he served under Commodore Edward Preble and took part in the daring raid which burned the captured frigate USS Philadelphia (36 guns). Shortly after the start of the War of 1812, he received command of American forces on Lake Champlain. Building fleet, MacDonough won a decisive victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814 which saw him capture the entire British squadron.

Early Life

Born December 21, 1783 in northern Delaware, Thomas MacDonough was the son of Dr. Thomas and Mary McDonough. A veteran of the American Revolution, the senior McDonough served with the rank of major at the Battle of Long Island and was later wounded at White Plains. Raised in a strict Episcopal family, the younger Thomas was educated locally and by 1799 was working as a store clerk in Middletown, DE.

At this time, his elder brother James, a midshipman in the US Navy, returned home having lost a leg during the Quasi-War with France. This inspired MacDonough to seek a career at sea and he applied for a midshipman's warrant with the aid of Senator Henry Latimer. This was granted on February 5, 1800. Around this time, for unknown reasons, he changed the spelling of his last name from McDonough to MacDonough.

Going to Sea

Reporting aboard USS Ganges (24), MacDonough sailed for the Caribbean in May. Through the summer, Ganges, with Captain John Mullowny in command, captured three French merchant vessels. With the end of the conflict in September, MacDonough remained in the US Navy and moved to the frigate USS Constellation (38) on October 20, 1801. Sailing for the Mediterranean, Constellation served in Commodore Richard Dale's squadron during the First Barbary War.

First Barbary War

While aboard, MacDonough received a thorough nautical education from Captain Alexander Murray. As the composition of the squadron evolved, he received orders to join USS Philadelphia (36) in 1803. Commanded by Captain William Bainbridge, the frigate succeeded in capturing the Moroccan warship Mirboka (24) on August 26. Taking shore leave that fall, MacDonough was not aboard Philadelphia when it grounded on an uncharted reef in Tripoli harbor and was captured on October 31.

Without a ship, MacDonough was soon reassigned to the sloop USS Enterprise (12). Serving under Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, he aided in the capture of the Tripolitan ketch Mastico in December. This prize was soon refitted as USS Intrepid (4) and joined the squadron. Concerned that Philadelphia would be salvaged by the Tripolitans, the squadron commander, Commodore Edward Preble, began formulating a plan to eliminate the stricken frigate.

This called for Decatur to sneak into Tripoli harbor using Intrepid, storming the ship, and setting it ablaze if it could not saved. Familiar with Philadelphia's layout, MacDonough volunteered for the raid and played a key role. Moving forward, Decatur and his men succeeded in burning Philadelphia on February 16, 1804. A stunning success, the raid was termed the "the most bold and daring act of the Age" by British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.


Promoted to acting lieutenant for his part in the raid, MacDonough soon joined the brig USS Syren (18). Returning the United States in 1806, he aided Captain Isaac Hull in overseeing the construction of gunboats at Middletown, CT. Later that year, his promotion to lieutenant was made permanent. Completing his assignment with Hull, MacDonough received his first command in the sloop of war USS Wasp (18).

Initially operating in the waters around Britain, Wasp spent much 1808 off the United States enforcing the Embargo Act. Departing Wasp, MacDonough spent part of 1809 aboard USS Essex (36) before leaving the frigate to direct gunboat construction at Middletown. With the repeal of the Embargo Act in 1809, the US Navy reduced its forces. The following year, MacDonough requested leave and spent two years as the captain of a British merchant vessel sailing to India.

The War of 1812 Begins

Returning to active duty shortly before the beginning of the War of 1812 in June 1812, MacDonough initially received a posting to Constellation. Fitting out at Washington, DC, the frigate required several months of work before being ready for sea. Eager take part in the fighting, MacDonough soon requested a transfer and briefly commanded gunboats at Portland, ME before being ordered to take command of US naval forces on Lake Champlain that October.

Arriving at Burlington, VT, his forces were limited to the sloops USS Growler (10) and USS Eagle (10). Though small, his command was sufficient to control the lake. This situation changed radically on June 2, 1813, when Lieutenant Sidney Smith lost both vessels near Ile aux Noix.

Building a Fleet

Promoted to master commandant on July 24, MacDonough began large a shipbuilding effort at Otter Creek, VT in an effort to regain the lake. This yard produced the corvette USS Saratoga (26), the sloop of war USS Eagle (20), the schooner USS Ticonderoga (14), and several gunboats by late spring 1814. This effort was matched by his British counterpart, Commander Daniel Pring, who commenced his own building program at Ile aux Noix.

Moving south in mid-May, Pring attempted to attack the American shipyard but was driven off by MacDonough's batteries. Completing his vessels, MacDonough shifted his squadron of fourteen warships across the lake to Plattsburgh, NY to await Pring's next sortie south. Out-gunned by the Americans, Pring withdrew to await the completion of the frigate HMS Confiance (36).

Showdown at Plattsburgh

As Confiance neared completion, British forces led by Lieutenant General Sir George Prévost began gathering with the intention of invading the United States via Lake Champlain. As Prévost's men marched south, they would be supplied and protected by British naval forces now led by Captain George Downie. To oppose this effort, badly outnumbered American forces, commanded by Brigadier General Alexander Macomb, assumed a defensive position near Plattsburgh.

They were supported by MacDonough who arrayed his fleet in Plattsburgh Bay. Advancing on August 31, Prévost's men, which included a large number of the Duke of Wellington's veterans, were hampered by a variety of delaying tactics used by the Americans. Arriving near Plattsburgh on September 6, their initial efforts were turned back by Macomb. Consulting with Downie, Prévost intended to attack the American lines in force on September 10 in concert with a naval effort against MacDonough in the bay.

MacDonough's Plan

Blocked by unfavorable winds, Downie's ships were unable to advance on the desired date and were forced to delay a day. Mounting fewer long guns than Downie, MacDonough took a position in Plattsburgh Bay where he believed his heavier, but shorter range carronades would be most effective. Supported by ten small gunboats, he placed Eagle, Saratoga, Ticonderoga, and the sloop Preble (7) in a north-south line. In each case, two anchors were used along with spring lines to permit the vessels to turn while at anchor. After scouting the American position on the morning of September 11, Downie chose to move forward.

The Fleets Engage

Passing around Cumberland Head at 9:00 AM, Downie's squadron consisted of Confiance, the brig HMS Linnet (16), the sloops HMS Chubb (10) and HMS Finch (11), and twelve gunboats. As the Battle of Plattsburgh began, Downie initially sought to place Confiance across the head of the American line, but shifting winds prevented this and he instead assumed a position opposite Saratoga. As the two flagships commenced battering each other, Pring was able to cross in front of Eagle with Linnet while Chubb was quickly disabled and captured. Finch moved to take a position across the tail of MacDonough's line but drifted south and grounded on Crab Island.

MacDonough's Victory

While Confiance's first broadsides did significant damage to Saratoga, the two ships continued to trade blows with Downie being killed when a cannon was driven into him. To the north, Pring opened fire on Eagle with the American vessel unable to turn to effectively counter. At the opposite end of the line, Preble was compelled to withdraw from the fight by Downie's gunboats. These were finally halted by determined fire from Ticonderoga.

Under heavy fire, Eagle severed its anchor lines and began to drift down the American line permitting Linnet to rake Saratoga. With most of his starboard guns out of action, MacDonough employed his spring lines to turn his flagship. Bringing his undamaged portside guns to bear, MacDonough opened fire on Confiance. The survivors aboard the British flagship sought to conduct a similar turn but became stuck with the frigate's vulnerable stern presented to Saratoga.

Incapable of further resistance, Confiance struck its colors. Pivoting Saratoga a second time, MacDonough brought its broadside to bear on Linnet. With his ship out-gunned and seeing that further resistance was futile, Pring elected to surrendered. Having gained the upper hand, the Americans proceeded to capture the entire British squadron.


MacDonough's triumph matched that of Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry who had won a similar victory on Lake Erie the previous September. Ashore, Prévost's initial efforts were delayed or turned back. Learning of Downie's defeat, he elected to break off the battle as he felt any victory would be meaningless as American control of the lake would prevent him from being able to resupply his army. Though his commanders protested the decision, Prévost's army began retreating north to Canada that night. For his efforts at Plattsburgh, MacDonough was hailed as hero and received a promotion to captain as well as a Congressional Gold Medal. In addition, both New York and Vermont presented him with generous grants of land.

Later Career

After remaining on the lake into 1815, MacDonough took command of the Portsmouth Navy Yard on July 1 where he relieved Hull. Returning to sea three years later, he joined the Mediterranean Squadron as captain of HMS Guerriere (44). During his time abroad, MacDonough contracted tuberculosis in April 1818. Due to health issues, he returned to the United States later that year where he began overseeing the construction of the ship of the line USS Ohio (74) at the New York Navy Yard.

In this position for five years, MacDonough requested sea duty and received command of USS Constitution in 1824. Sailing for the Mediterranean, MacDonough's tenure aboard the frigate proved brief as he was forced to relieve himself of command due to health issues on October 14, 1825. Sailing for home, he died off Gibraltar on November 10. MacDonough's body was returned to the United States where it was buried in Middletown, CT next to his wife, Lucy Ann Shale MacDonough (m.1812).


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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Captain Thomas MacDonough." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-captain-thomas-macdonough-2361131. Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). War of 1812: Captain Thomas MacDonough. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-captain-thomas-macdonough-2361131 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Captain Thomas MacDonough." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-captain-thomas-macdonough-2361131 (accessed May 30, 2023).