Twelve Naval Captains - Molly E. Seawell

Thomas MacDonough

Thomas MacDonough


Thomas macdonough may be called the Young Commodore; for he was an acting commodore at the age of thirty-one, when the modern naval officer is still in subordinate grades of rank. It is truly astonishing what wonders were accomplished by men in their first manhood in the early days of the American navy, and Macdonough had seen as much service as most veterans before his twenty-first birthday. He was a son of a Revolutionary officer, and was born in Delaware in 1783. His diffident and retiring disposition was early marked. Fennimore Cooper speaks of him in his midshipman days as "the modest but lion-hearted Macdonough." The words describe him admirably; for this quiet, silent midshipman was always to be found leading the forlorn hope,—"the lost children," as the French expressively call it.

Indeed, Macdonough's character as an officer and a man is as nearly perfect as can be imagined; and when his great talents are considered, he may well be held as a type of what the American naval officer should be. He entered the navy in 1800, when he was seventeen, which was rather old for a midshipman in those days. He had enjoyed a good education for his years, and remained a close student all his life. He was deeply but not obtrusively religious, and no human being ever heard a low or profane word from his lips.

Such a young man as Thomas Macdonough must make his mark early, and from the first his commanding officers reposed the greatest confidence in him. He was ordered to the Philadelphia, under Captain Bainbridge, when Commodore Preble went out in 1803 to reduce the African pirates. He happened to have been detached from the Philadelphia  and in command of a prize at Gibraltar when the unfortunate ship went upon the rocks near Tripoli, October 31, 1803, and he thus escaped the long captivity of his shipmates. He reported promptly to Commodore Preble, and was assigned to the Enterprise, schooner, under Decatur, then a young lieutenant commandant of less than twenty-five years. It may be imagined that no officer in the Mediterranean squadron felt a more ardent desire than Macdonough to rescue Bainbridge and his men and to destroy the Philadelphia.

At last Decatur organized his celebrated expedition in the ketch Intrepid, and among the eleven officers he selected for that glorious enterprise was Macdonough. At that time Macdonough was still a midshipman. He was tall and very slender, never having been physically strong; but he was, even then, a man for the post of danger.

The ketch set off on the 3rd of February from Syracuse and returned on the 19th, having in that time entered the well-guarded harbor of Tripoli by night, burned the Philadelphia  at her moorings, and escaped without losing a man. Macdonough was the third man on the Philadelphia's  deck, and was especially active in his work of distributing the powder for the ship's destruction in her storerooms aft. No officer in that glorious expedition conducted himself better than Macdonough; and when it is remembered that Decatur commanded it, that James Lawrence was one of his lieutenants, and Charles Morris, who was afterward Captain Hull's first lieutenant in the escape of the Constitution  and the capture of the Guerriere, was one of the midshipmen, it will be seen that Macdonough was measured by no common standard.

Macdonough shared in all the glory of those splendid campaigns, and received the thanks and commendations of his superiors, besides promotion. In 1806 he was made first lieutenant of the Siren, one of the smart brigs that had done good service during the Tripolitan war. She was at Gibraltar, where the British navy is always very much in evidence; and Macdonough, the mild and forbearing, soon had a chance of showing the stuff that was in him. One day, while his commanding officer, Captain Smith, was on shore, Macdonough noticed a boat going from a heavy British frigate that lay close to an American merchant vessel. When the boat repassed the Siren, on her way back to the frigate, she carried one more man than she had on leaving the frigate. In those days, if a British captain suspected an American merchant vessel of having a British subject among the crew, it was common enough to seize the man, and when once on board a British ship, it mattered little whether he were American or British, there he had to stay. Macdonough suspected this to be the case, and sent a boat to the brig to ask if a man had been taken and if he were an American. Such was actually reported. Macdonough at once ordered the first cutter lowered, and although she pulled only four oars and the British boat pulled eight, he set off in pursuit. He did not catch up with the British boat until she was directly under the frigate's quarter, and the man in the bow had raised his boat-hook. Suddenly Macdonough reached forward, and, catching hold of the prisoner, who sat in the stern sheets, lifted him bodily into the American boat, and before the British could believe their eyes, was well started on his way back to the Siren.

The captain of the frigate had seen the whole affair, and in a rage he jumped into a boat and headed for the Siren. When he reached her the men of the cutter had gone aboard, and the young lieutenant was calmly walking the quarter-deck. The captain angrily demanded the man, and asked if Macdonough knew the responsibility he was taking upon himself in Captain Smith's absence.

"I will not give up the man, and I am accountable only to the captain of this ship," replied Macdonough.

"I could blow you out of the water at this moment," said the captain.

"No doubt you are perfectly able to do it," answered Macdonough; "but I will never give up that man as long as this ship will float"

"You are a very indiscreet and a very young man," continued the captain. "Suppose I had been in the boat just now?"

"I would have taken the man or lost my life."

"What, sir!" cried the captain; "would you dare to stop me now if I were to get hold of the man?"

"I would, and you have only to try it," was Macdonough's undaunted reply.

The captain, seeing nothing was to be got out of the resolute young lieutenant, left the ship, but was pulled toward the merchant ship. Macdonough had a boat lowered which followed the British boot, watching her until she returned to the frigate. This action not only won the good opinion of the captain and other officers and men of the Siren, but of many of the British officers as well, who knew how to respect a man of such resolute courage.

Macdonough was ever afterward treated with the utmost consideration and politeness by all the British officers at Gibraltar, including the officers of the overbearing captain.

At the outbreak of the war with Great Britain Macdonough was what was then termed a master commandant. His was not the fortune of Decatur, Stewart, and others of his brave shipmates to seek for glory on the wide ocean, but he was sent into the wilderness, as it were, to create a navy, and to fight the British on the great lakes. He established himself with his seamen and work-men on the shores of Lake Champlain, and began immediately the construction of a fleet. Officers and men worked with the greatest ardor, and the commodore, as Macdonough was now called by courtesy, might often have been seen handling the saw and plane. A corvette, called the Saratoga, and meant for the commodore's flagship, was begun, with several smaller vessels; and so rapidly did they advance that only a few weeks from the time the trees were cut down in the forest the vessels were launched and being made ready for their guns. These had to be dragged many hundreds of miles through a pathless wilderness, such as the northern and western part of New York was then. It was difficult, but still it could be done. When it came to transporting the cables, though, a point was reached, about forty miles from the lake shore where the vessels were building, when it seemed impossible to move a step farther. There were no roads, and the cables had been brought in ox-wagons, which now came to a complete standstill. No one knew what to do until an old sailor proposed that they should stretch each cable its whole length, and men, stationed ten yards apart, should shoulder it and carry it the forty miles remaining; and this was actually done.

Meanwhile the British had not been idle, and they too, on the other side of the lake, had built a frigate, called the Confiance, that was heavier than the Saratoga, and they had other smaller vessels. Their commanding officer, Captain Downie, was a, worthy antagonist of Commodore Macdonough, and about the same age, while the British vessels were manned by seasoned sailors, many of whom had served under Nelson and Collingwood.

Early in September, 1814, both squadrons being ready to fight, Commodore Macdonough chose his position with a seaman's eye, in Plattsburg bay. He knew that his enemy would hunt for him wherever he might be, and he chose to fight at anchor, rightly supposing that the British, through their greater experience, could conduct the evolutions of a squadron better than the Americans; for, while none could be more daring in action than Macdonough, none was more prudent beforehand. The exact knowledge he had of the elements for and against him explains much of his success.

On the night of the 9th of September, in the midst of storm and tempest, the American squadron made its way up the lake to Plattsburg harbor. The next morning saw it anchored in the admirable order devised by Commodore Macdonough's genius. The flagship, Saratoga, the heaviest ship in the squadron, was in the middle of the line. Ahead of her was ranged the gun-brig Eagle, commanded by Captain Cassia, who had been one of Commodore Preble's midshipmen with Macdonough, eleven years before. The Eagle  had shoal water off her beam, so that the head of the line could not be turned. On the other side of the Saratoga  was the Ticonderoga, a small sloop-of-war, while beyond her was the little Preble, named for the great commodore, who was no more. There were, besides, ten small gunboats, of which the Eagle  was supported by two, the Saratoga  by three, the Ticonderoga by two, while the remaining two were to assist the Preble in defending the end of the line. All of the vessels were riding easily at anchor, and all of them were provided with springs to their anchors and kedges, to enable them to change their position at will. The wisdom of this precaution was shown on the great day for which they were prepared.

On the 11th of September, 1814, a brilliant Sunday morning, just at sunrise, the dazzling white topsails of the British fleet were seen passing along the neck of land called Cumberland Head, which juts into the bay. The American guard-boat pulled in, all hands were called to quarters in the American squadron, and an American ensign was set at every masthead. Then on board the flagship was made the signal for divine service, and Commodore Macdonough, kneeling upon his quarterdeck, surrounded by his officers and in hearing of his men, with every head bared, read the prayers appointed to be read before a fight at sea. After this brief but solemn act all awaited the onset with steadiness and cheerfulness.

It had been suggested to him that he should issue an extra allowance of grog to the men, but he replied,—

"No. My men shall go cool into action; they need no stimulant beyond their native valor."

The American vessels were so skilfully moored that no matter from what quarter the wind was, the British were obliged to approach them "bows on," a very dangerous way to attack a bold and skilful enemy.

The British rounded the headland in noble style. The Confiance  was leading, her brave commander, Captain Downie, fatally conspicuous on her deck, his breast covered with medals gloriously earned. Following her, came three smaller vessels, the Finch, the Chubb, and the Linnet, and twelve gunboats, carrying both soldiers and sailors, and each armed with a single long eighteen-pound carronade.

As the four British ships, each on the same tack, neared the American line, the Eagle  suddenly roared out a broadside. The shot fell short, and the British squadron came on, with majestic steadiness, without replying, until the Linnet  was abreast of the Ticonderoga. Then the Linnet  let fly a broadside, of which every shot dropped into the water except one. This one shot, though, struck a chicken-coop on the Ticonderoga's deck and smashed it, letting out a young game-cock, a pet with the Ticonderoga's men. The game-cock, delighted to get his liberty, jumped upon a gun-slide and uttered a long, loud, and defiant crow at the British vessel, which he seemed to think had directed her whole broadside at him. The Americans burst into three ringing cheers, that shook the deck, delighted with the game-cock's courage, which he proved further by flying up into the rigging and crowing vociferously all the time the British were advancing.

The Confiance  came on steadily until just abreast of the Saratoga, when Commodore Macdonough himself, sighting a twenty-four pounder, fired the first effective gun of the battle. It struck the Confiance  near the hawse-hole, and ranged the whole length of her deck, doing fearful damage and splintering her wheel. A terrible broad-side followed; but the Confiance  as if disdaining to answer, moved proudly on to engage at close quarters, and not until the wind became light and baffling did she port her helm about two cables length from the Saratoga. Then she opened upon the corvette. Her guns were double-shotted, and their effect at close range, in a perfectly smooth sea, was frightful. Meanwhile the Linnet  and the Chubb  had taken position abeam of the Eagle, and attacked her with great fury. The gunboats had fallen upon the little Preble, and soon drove her out of line, when with the Finch they concentrated their fire upon the Ticonderoga. The gallant little brig gave them plenty to do, and stubbornly defended the end of the line. At one moment the gunboats would advance upon her, the men standing up ready to board her, and would be beaten off in the act of entering her ports or springing upon her decks. Then they would haul off and pour round after round of grapeshot into her. Still the little vessel held out. Captain Cassin was seen coolly walking the taffrail, a target for every shot, but he escaped without a wound, as if by a miracle. At one time all the matches gave out in the division of guns commanded by midshipman Paulding. This young officer, who was an acting lieutenant, although only sixteen years old, had the wit and readiness to fire his guns by snapping his pistol at the touch-hole.

Nothing could exceed the determined valor with which the Saratoga  and the Confiance  kept up the fight. The Linnet  presently turned her attention to the Saratoga, and poured one raking broadside into her after another, besides what she had to take from the Confiance. The brave Captain Downie had been mortally wounded early in the engagement, but the ship was still admirably fought. On the Saratoga  three times the cry went up that Commodore Macdonough was killed, for three times was he knocked senseless to the deck; but each time he rose, none the worse except for a few cuts and bruises.

The guns on the engaged side of the Saratoga became disabled one by one, by the long twenty-fours in the main-deck battery of the Confiance, which, though suffering from the musketry fire of the Americans, was yet doing magnificent work. At last but a single gun of the starboard batteries of the Saratoga  remained serviceable, and in firing it the bolt broke, the gun flew off the carriage, and actually tumbled down the hatchway.

The ship was afire in several places, due to the hot shot poured into her by the Confiance, one-fourth of her men were killed, and she had not a gun available on her engaged side; while both the Confiance  and the Linnet  were giving her one raking broadside after another. In this awful extremity Commodore Macdonough determined to wind his ship, which means to turn the ship completely around so that she could use her uninjured batteries. This difficult but brilliant maneuver was executed with the utmost coolness, and soon she sprung a new broadside on the Confiance. The Confiance  attempted the same maneuver, but she only got partly round, when she hung with her head to the wind, in a terrible position, where the fresh batteries of the Saratoga  raked her fore and aft. No ship could stand this long and live; and after two hours of as desperate fighting as was ever seen, the Confiance  was forced to haul down her colors.

By that time the Finch had been driven out of the fight, and the Chubb  had been shot wholly to pieces. The little Linnet, though, alone and single-handed, undauntedly sustained the fight, hoping that some of the gunboats might be able to tow her off. But when the Saratoga  had finished with the Confiance, without a moment's loss of time, she turned her broadside on the Linnet, and soon forced her to strike, with her hull riddled like a sieve, her masts gone, and the water a foot deep in her hold. By midday all was over, and of the sixteen British ensigns that had fluttered proudly in the morning air, not one remained. It was one of the most destructive naval engagements ever fought. In Commodore Macdonough's official report, he says there was not a mast left in either squadron on which sail could be made. Some of the British sailors had been at Trafalgar, and they all agreed that the fighting of that 11th of September had been more severe than at Trafalgar.

The American sailors fought with extraordinary coolness, and many amusing as well as terrible and inspiring things occurred. One old sailor on the Saratoga, who had worked and fought all during the battle and had been slightly wounded several times, was seen mopping his face delightedly while calling out to one of his messmates, "Ay, Jack, this is the best fun I've had this war."

Another, getting a shot through his glazed hat, took it off, and, turning to an officer, said in a tone of bitter complaint, "Look a—here, sir; them Johnny Bulls has spiled my hat. Now, what am I going to do for a hat?"

As soon as the Linnet  struck, the British officers, led by Captain Pring, who succeeded Captain Downie in command, came aboard the Saratoga  to deliver their swords. All the American officers were assembled on her quarterdeck, and as the British officers approached Commodore Macdonough with their swords extended, he said, with deep feeling,—

"Gentlemen, your gallant conduct makes you the more worthy to wear your swords. Return them to their scabbards."

At once every attention was given the wounded, the officers working side by side with the men. Captain Pring, in his report, says:—

"I have much satisfaction in making you acquainted with the humane treatment the wounded have received from Commodore Macdonough. They were immediately removed to his own hospital at Crab Island, and furnished with every requisite. His generous and polite attention to myself, the officers, and men, will ever be gratefully remembered." All this was quite characteristic of Macdonough, who united the tenderness of a woman with a lion-like courage.

The night of the battle the commodore visited every ship in the squadron, and personally expressed to the officers and men his appreciation of their gallant services that day.

The news of the victory was received all over the country with manifestations of joy. Congress passed the usual resolution of thanks to Macdonough, his officers and men, gave him and his two commanding officers gold medals, silver medals to the lieutenants, and a handsome sword to each of the midshipmen, with a liberal award of prize money to the men. Macdonough was made a post-captain, his commission dating from the day of the battle.

The State of Vermont gave him an estate over-looking the scene of his victory, and many States and towns made him presents. Macdonough bore all these honors with characteristic modesty and simplicity, and, instead of being elated by them, tears came into his eyes in speaking of what his country had bestowed upon him.

Soon after this peace was declared, and Macdonough returned again to service on the ocean. His health had always been delicate, and as years passed on, it grew more so. But he continued to go to sea, and did his full duty as always. In 1825 he was in command of the glorious old Constitution, as his flagship on the Mediterranean station. She had been splendidly refitted, sailed admirably, both on and off the wind, and, as the sailors said, "looked like a new fiddle." He made his last cruise in this noble ship. His health rapidly declined, and on his way home from the Mediterranean he died and was buried at sea on the 10th of November, 1825.

Few men have enjoyed more national esteem and affection than Macdonough. His career shows that a man may have the softest manners and mildest disposition along with an invincible courage and a high spirit. Macdonough may be taken as the type of a great seaman and a pure and perfect man.