Historical Happenings for November 2020

THOMAS MACDONAGH

by Mike McCormack, NY AOH Historian

                 Thomas Macdonagh Jr

Many believe the War of 1812 ended when Irish-American Andy Jackson beat the British at New Orleans on January 8, 1815.  Actually that’s not true.  The Brits were already beaten and had signed a peace treaty on December 24, 1814.  The fact is that Major General Edward Pakenham, commander of British forces in North America, decided that before sailing back to England, he would loot a major U.S. city and headed for the richest plum in the south – New Orleans.  He was also the man who beat the French who came to help the Irish in 1798.  Packenham was a loyal Brit and hated the Irish and America.  Fortunately, General Jackson also hated the Brits since his parents had been driven into exile from their Irish home.  He went to New Orleans to stop Packenham, aided by the very same French General that Packenham had defeated in Ireland, but that’s another story for another time.

The war had started over the issue of British naval vessels stopping American ships on the high seas and removing crew members they felt were British citizens. The fact is that they were grabbing Irishmen since their loss in the American Revolution just 30 year earlier was due to the large number of Irish in Washington’s army. Writing about the Revolution, James Froude, English historian noted: Washington’s Irish supporters were the foremost, the most irreconcilable, and the most determined to push the quarrel to the last extremity.  Major General Marquis de Chastellux wrote: On more than one occasion Congress owed their existence, and America her preservation to the fidelity and firmness of the Irish.

However, 30 years later, England was at war with Napoleon and the U.S. was trading with France.  That made American shipping targets in the eyes of the Brits and if a war with America was in the cards, they didn’t want to face Irishmen in the American army again so they began impressing American seamen and also inciting Native Americans to attack American citizens on the frontier. On 18 June an angry Senate, following an equally furious Congress, voted to declare, for the first time in the young nation’s history, war against a foreign nation – Great Britain.  President James Madison signed the declaration into law and the War of 1812 began.  Sometimes called the Second War of Independence, battles raged on the high seas and British soldiers invaded American soil, captured Washington D.C., and even burned the White House.  But it all boiled down to a major area of conflict on the 120 mile long Lake Champlain extending from British Canada into New York and Vermont.  That 435-square-mile lake was the scene of several naval battles as the Brits sailed down from Quebec into the U.S.

Fortunately, one of Washington’s Irish-American revolutionary officers, Major Thomas McDonough, Sr., a hero of the battle of Long Island who was  praised by Washington for gallantry, had a son who was just as ready as his father to fight the Brits. Grandson of James McDonough who migrated from Ireland in 1725, his name was Thomas Macdonagh Jr. He joined the new U.S. Navy, formed  just a few years earlier in 1797, when President Washington gave Wexford-born Commodore John Barry Commission Number One.  Three years later, in 1800, Thomas received a midshipman’s commission at the age of 16.  He served with Stephen Decatur at Tripoli and as a member of a select group of U.S. naval officers under Commodore Preble attacking Barbary pirates. He was reassigned to command U.S. naval forces in Lake Champlain in October 1812 and in 1813, was promoted to  master commandant. When the war began, there were only two American naval vessels on Lake Champlain and both were captured by the Brits giving them undisputed control of this strategic waterway.  In a secret Vermont shipyard, MacDonough began construction of a corvette, a sloop, several gunboats and converted a schooner into a 17-gun warship. The Brits found and attempted to attack the shipyard with eight galleys and a sloop, but Macdonough learned of the coming attack and prepared a defense using his ship’s guns as a shore battery and repelled the attack driving them back to Canada. 

With the way now clear, Macdonough’s squadron sailed out of the shipyard and made its way to Plattsburgh, NY, where it awaited a two-pronged British advance by land and lake.  In August 1814, 10,000 British troops assembled at the US border to march south and attack Brigadier General Alex Macomb’s, army defending America’s northern border.  Macomb, grandson of an Irish immigrant, had only 1500 men, but knowing he was greatly outnumbered, had his men fell trees and create fake roads to lead the Brits, unsure of the terrain, into dead-end traps where they became lost in the narrow maze of false roads and were targets of American ambush. Meanwhile, the Brits depended on their Navy which was headed for Plattsburgh to supply their planned advance into Vermont.  This was now the most crucial part of the war.  Macdonough knew Macomb was holding Plattsburgh and not allowing him to be surrounded by Brits forces on land and lake, was vital.  The Royal Navy was on its way south to trap Macomb’s forces and open the door to an invasion of the U.S.   However, Macdonagh had his back and his fleet was ready.  On September 11, the Brits arrived and attacked Macdonough’s fleet with the firepower of a 36-gun flagship. As the battle unfolded, Macdonough fired a broadside severely damaging the British ship and forcing its surrender.  Having removed the British flagship from action, the American forces captured or destroyed all the remaining ships in the fleet.  On shore, the British, about to launch an assault on the American defenses, learned of the defeat of the British fleet.  Without it, they had no choice but to abandon the expedition.  They turned tail, returned to Canada and sued for peace.  The War of 1812 was over. Both Macomb and Macdonagh received Congressional Gold Medals, a precursor to the Medal of Honor. In 1882, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote:  Macdonough in this battle won a higher fame than any other commander of the war, British or American. He had a decidedly superior force to contend with and it was solely owing to his foresight and resource that we won the victory. His skill, seamanship, quick eye, readiness of resource, and indomitable pluck, are beyond all praise. Down to the time of the Civil War he is the greatest figure in our naval history.  Macdonagh continued serving until 1818 when he was stricken with tuberculosis, yet at his request, he was granted command of the 44-gun frigate USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, in 1824.  However, his health continued to worsen. On 14 October 1825, at Gibraltar, Macdonough turned command of Constitution over to another Irish-American – Captain Daniel Patterson who was born on Long Island to a Donegal immigrant father. Intending to return to New York, on 10 November 1825, 195 years ago this month, Thomas Macdonough, the hero of the War of 1812, died aboard ship as it was passing the Rock of Gibraltar.  Shouldn’t Irish-Americans like that be remembered?  Well, they are!

Standing on Washington Boulevard in Detroit where he was born is the statue of Gen. Alex Macomb, but Macdonogh is more celebrated. Several U.S. Navy ships have been named USS Macdonough; in 1937, he was on a US Postage Stamp; an annual 74-mile Commodore Macdonough sailboat race is held on Lake Champlain every September; the State University of NY at Plattsburgh has a dormitory  named Macdonough Hall; the NY towns of Macdonough and East Macdonough and the greater Town of Macdonough in Chenango County are named after him; there is a Macdonough Hall at the US Naval Academy; the Macdonough Monument, a 135-foot-tall obelisk is located across from City Hall in Plattsburgh, N.Y. and in 1925, a Macdonough Monument was erected on the city green in Vergennes, Vermont to commemorate the secret building of the ships there used in the Battle of Plattsburgh.  Macdonough County, Illinois is also named for him; two elementary schools in Delaware and  Connecticut are named in his honor as are Macdonough Street in Montgomery, Alabama and Macdonagh Street in Brooklyn, NY.  Macdonough is also the county seat of Henry County, Georgia and his home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.  So now you know the War of 1812 was won by two Irish-Americans – Alex Macomb and Thomas Macdonagh and Andy Jackson just put the Irish-American seal of approval on it.