The focus here is on Commodore Thomas Macdonough, who was lauded nationally as a hero for his actions on Lake Champlain. On Plattsburgh’s museum campus (located on the former air base property), you’ll find the Battle of Plattsburgh Association’s War of 1812 Museum, and check out the schedule of events for the 2017 Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration running from September 7–10. There’s something for everyone, with plenty of great family venues.
- How old was Macdonough when he first joined the United States Navy.
He was just sixteen years old. The family name was McDonough, but just before joining the navy, he changed his name to Macdonough, adding an “a” and using a lower-case “d.” No one knows why.
- During the Barbary Coast War in North Africa in the early 1800s, Macdonough and a small crew made a daring raid into an enemy harbor and destroyed a very famous ship. What ship did they destroy? The Philadelphia, ironically the very same ship he had served on. It had fallen into enemy hands, and orders by US military leaders were to recover it or destroy it.
- When the Philadelphia was commissioned in 1800, who was its first captain? Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Sr.
- Who was Macdonough partnered with when they destroyed the Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor? Lieutenant Stephen Decatur Jr.
- The dangerous night raid to destroy the Philadelphia was called “the most bold and daring act of the age.” What world-famous naval hero said it? Horatio Nelson, considered one of the greatest naval commanders in history.
- Prior to the action at Plattsburgh, Macdonough fought in some fierce battles, and even saw hand-to-hand combat. He also readied gunboats for an invasion of Tripoli, an attack that was led by a marine landing force. That action is celebrated in song. Do you know the name of the song? The Marine’s Hymn, which starts out with “From the Halls of Montezuma, To the Shores of Tripoli.”
- When Macdonough was first placed in charge of the entire navy on Lake Champlain, how many ships did he have? Technically, just two — a pair of gunboats built at Whitehall, New York, at the lake’s southern tip. The government also bought six commercial vessels for Macdonough to convert for use in battle.
- At which two shipyards on the lake did Macdonough have those six ships modified for war? Whitehall, New York, and Burlington, Vermont.
- Macdonough’s flagship, 143 feet long and armed with 26 guns, was built in just 40 days in Vergennes, Vermont. What name did he choose for it? Trick question, sort of. The name he chose was Jones, but it had been taken four months earlier by a brig on Lake Ontario, so he went with his second choice, Saratoga.
- Macdonough had one other very large ship among his vessels, a steamer that he converted to a schooner. Do you know its name? The Ticonderoga. Its long skeleton can be seen today at the Skenesborough Museum in Whitehall.
- What large British ship was under construction north of the border at Isle-aux-Noix? Its huge anchor was recovered from the bottom of Lake Champlain and is now on display at city hall in Plattsburgh. The Confiance, which was the British flagship of the Lake Champlain fleet.
- How did the rooster on the Saratoga become a part of the lore of the Battle of Plattsburgh? On the ship as a good-luck charm, the rooster survived one of the battle’s first cannon shots, which destroyed its cage. As the rooster flapped its wings and crowed loudly, the sailors cheered.
- The Confiance was the largest ship of war ever to sail on Lake Champlain. How did it fare head-to-head against Macdonough’s Saratoga? From the Confiance, Captain George Downie commanded the British fleet. He fired a blast into the Saratoga that put forty men down. A shot from the Saratoga jarred loose a 24-pound cannon, driving it backward into Downie, killing him on the spot. Still, the Confiance was having the better of the battle.
- Macdonough was injured twice. First, he was knocked unconscious by a falling mast. Later he was knocked down by a flying object. Care to guess what it was? The severed head of his gun captain. Just another unpleasant reality of war.
- How did the Saratoga turn it around to defeat both the Confiance and the British fleet? By literally turning it around. The Saratoga was badly damaged on one side, but still had good guns on the opposite side. Executing a maneuver Macdonough had rehearsed with his men, the ship brought fresh guns to bear on the enemy. Sailing Master Philip Brum played a key role in turning the Saratoga.
- What happened to the injured soldiers from both sides of the battle? They were treated at a makeshift hospital on nearby Crab Island, and at Burlington. Dead sailors from both sides were buried in a mass grave on Crab Island.
- What was done with the body of Captain Downie and the other officers who were killed? They were buried in Riverside Cemetery in Plattsburgh.
- What became of the American ships? They were sent to Whitehall for refurbishing and to spend the winter, but most were left languishing there for many years.
- How old was Macdonough when he first joined the United States Navy.
- According to the Saratoga’s purser, George Beale Jr., what were the final battle numbers? As per Beale’s records, the Americans had 86 guns and 820 men, while the British had 95 guns and 1050 men. The Americans suffered 52 killed and 58 wounded, while the British had 84 killed and 110 wounded.
- Did Macdonough get to enjoy some of the post-victory celebrations? He certainly did, and was lauded as a national hero. There were celebration dinners in Burlington and Plattsburgh, gifts of land, a gold medal awarded by Congress, and he was promoted to captain.
- Did Macdonough get to command any other famous ships after the Saratoga? Despite his dislike of steamers, his next command was Fulton the First, 156 feet long, the first ever steam-powered warship. In 1824 and 1825, he commanded one of our most famous ships, Old Ironsides.
- What did Secretary of the Navy William Jones think of Macdonough’s effort on Lake Champlain? He loved it, and said so in glowing terms: “To view it in the abstract, it is not surpassed by any Naval victory on record. To appreciate its results, it is perhaps one of the most important events in the history of our country.”
- What famous American novelist lavished praise on Macdonough? James Fenimore Cooper, who also wrote about US naval history, and praised Macdonough effusively in a lecture before the New York Historical Society.
- Which US president (and author) had high praise for Macdonough? Theodore Roosevelt. As a senior at Harvard in 1882, he published The Naval War of 1812. In it, he says of Macdonough, “Down to the time of the Civil War, he is the greatest figure in our naval history.”
- Can you name the famous international leader of the 20th century who praised Macdonough? Sir Winston Churchill, who said “The Battle of Plattsburgh crippled the British and was the most important engagement of the war.”
- How many US Navy ships have been named after men who fought at the Battle of Plattsburgh? Eighteen, including four of the USS Macdonough and one USS Commodore McDonough (using the original spelling of his name).
- Did Thomas Macdonough attain the rank of admiral? Macdonough’s Lake Champlain fleet spawned four admirals: Samuel L. Breese, Hiram Paulding, Joseph Smith, and Elie A. F. La Vallette. But Macdonough didn’t live long enough to achieve the rank of admiral, dying in 1825 at the age of 41.
- In command of ships, Officers Macdonough, Cassin, Gamble, and Henley were key participants in the Battle of Plattsburgh. Incredibly, their names were linked in a major naval event that took place in the 20th century. Can you guess what it was? All four were the names of US destroyers present at the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Test your knowledge of the land battle here.
Illustrations: Battle of Plattsburgh engraving by B. Tanner, 1816; the Ticonderoga on display at Whitehall (Jill Jones photo); and Thomas Macdonough.