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Thomas MacDonough

naval hero of the War of 1812

Thomas MacDonough

Thomas MacDonough was born on December 23, 1783, at The Trap (now MacDonough), Delaware. He was the sixth of the ten children born to Thomas MacDonough, a physician and Revolutionary War officer, and Mary Vance MacDonough. An orphan by age eleven, he worked in a Middletown, Connecticut, store until being appointed a Midshipman in the U.S. Navy on February 8, 1800.

Assigned to the Ganges on May 15, 1800, MacDonough first saw action in the West Indies, where he and his shipmates captured three French ships and sent them back to the United States as prizes. On October 20, 1801, he was assigned to the Constellation, which operated with distinction in the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War. In 1803, he returned to the Mediterranean as a crewman on the Philadelphia, under William Bainbridge. MacDonough was in command of a prize ship when, on October 31, 1803, the Philadelphia ran aground on rocks off Tripoli and her crew was captured by pirates. He subsequently volunteered to serve on a mission led by Stephen Decatur that led to the rescue of the Philadelphia's crew and the destruction of that ship to prevent its being used by pirates against other ships, on February 6, 1804.

After being promoted to Lieutenant for his participation in Decatur's mission, MacDonough was assigned to the Syren, which served in the Mediterranean until hostilities between the United States and the Barbary Pirates ended in 1805. As commander of the Wasp, he patrolled the waters off Great Britain and the Mediterranean before returning to America to help enforce the Embargo Act and the Atlantic Blockade of 1807-1808. In 1809, at his own request, he was placed in charge of several gunboats at Middletown, Connecticut. From 1810 to 1812, MacDonough took a leave of absence to serve as the captain of a merchant ship bound for India.

MacDonough began the War of 1812 as a crewman on the Constellation, but after seeing little action he requested a transfer and was assigned to a squadron of gunboats defending Portland, Maine. Again desiring more action, he again requested a transfer. This time he was put in charge of a ragtag squadron on Lake Champlain. Knowing that the British could use Lake Champlain to get troops into New England and potentially encircle American forces, MacDonough spent two years upgrading his fleet and training his crews. Once his fleet was ready, he took his flagship, the Saratoga, into the harbor at Plattsburg, New York, carefully placed his other ships, and calmly awaited the British. On September 11, 1814, his squadron met and defeated a British fleet at Plattsburg, destroying the British plan to invade New York state and forcing them to retreat into Canada. In appreciation of this victory, Congress awarded him a Gold Medal and promoted him to Captain, and the State of Vermont gave him an estate overlooking Plattsburg Harbor.

After the War of 1812 ended, MacDonough was made Commandant of Portsmouth Navy Yard. He remained in that position until 1818, when he was given command of the Guerriere, then stationed in the Mediterranean. After only a few months aboard the Guerriere, he was made Captain of the Ohio, in which capacity he served until 1823. In 1824, MacDonough commanded the Constitution on a voyage to the Mediterranean, but was relieved at his own request due to poor health the following year. He was sailing back to the United States aboard the Edwin when he died, on November 25, 1825; he was buried in Middletown, Connecticut.

Delaware Biographies

William Bainbridge
Stephen Decatur

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Revolution to the Civil War, 1775/1783-1861 >> Middle 19th Century, 1845-1861 >> James Madison's Administration, 1809-1817

This page was last updated on September 25, 2017.