Thomas Macdonough: Master of Command in the Early U.S. Navy

Thomas Macdonough: Master of Command in the Early U.S. Navy

by David Curtis Skaggs

This is the first examination of the naval career of the American commander at the Battle of Plattsburgh during the war of 1812 since the hagiographic volume penned by Macdonough's grandson. The author concentrates on Macdonough's skill as a naval commander in the era of the sail. Annotation (c)2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR  See more details below


This is the first examination of the naval career of the American commander at the Battle of Plattsburgh during the war of 1812 since the hagiographic volume penned by Macdonough's grandson. The author concentrates on Macdonough's skill as a naval commander in the era of the sail. Annotation (c)2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Product Details

Naval Institute Press
Publication date:
Library of Naval Biography
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Thomas Macdonough

By David Curtis Skaggs

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2003
David Curtis Skaggs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1557508399

Chapter One

Naval Heritage

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean-roll! Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain; Man marks the earth with rain-his control Stops with the shore;-upon the watery plain The wrecks are all they deed, nor doth remain A shadow of man's ravage, save his own, When for a moment, like a drop of rain, He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan, Without a grave, unknell'd, uncoffin'd, and unknown.

Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Thomas Macdonough's triumph on Lake Champlain was the product of a tradition in the American navy that dated back to the War for Independence. Despite the victories of such luminaries as John Barry, John Paul Jones, and Lambert Wickes during that war, the Continental Navy made little contribution to the conflict's final outcome. One authority has called it "a rather drab and unimportant sideshow of the Revolution." Some argue that it was American privateers and state navies, like those of Pennsylvania and South Carolina, that constituted the more important naval contributions of the rebelling colonies. Others contend that it was the French and Spanish navies that kept the Royal Navy at bay and incapable of effectively blockading the North American coasts. Certainly it was the French navy that won the decisive naval engagement for United States independence: the battle off the Chesapeake capes, 5-9 September 1781.

Yet men like Barry, Jones, and Wickes left a tradition of daring and a willingness to engage the enemy that was not forgotten. Even after Congress abolished the Continental Navy in the 1780s, the legacy of combat symbolized by these men's gallantry inspired those who followed them. And the loss of protection to American maritime commerce once provided by the Royal Navy meant the young Republic's merchantmen were vulnerable to attack from the Barbary coast nations along the Mediterranean's south shore. Such attacks began as early as 1784 and continued for a decade before the nation decided it had had enough. On 27 March 1794 Congress reconstituted the navy to combat "the depredations committed by the Algerine corsairs on the commerce of the United States." From this temporary mission the United States Navy was reborn. Congress directed the constructions of six frigates to conduct operations against the Barbary States.

Building Stoddert's Navy

In the following decade the young navy reconstituted itself and waged two conflicts that trained, tested, and culled the young officers who would lead the country in its second war with Great Britain. While several men were responsible for the rebirth of the American navy, perhaps one dominated: Benjamin Stoddert. The 1794 law creating the navy placed it within the War Department, making it, in effect, a Department of Defense. However administratively logical this might appear, the early overseers of national security were little acquainted with or interested in naval affairs. Henry Knox served only briefly in this dual capacity as secretary of war in 1794, when Timothy Pickering succeeded him as the cabinet officer in charge of the army and navy. Pickering served from 1795 to 1796, when James McHenry assumed the post. Construction of the navy's first three frigates proceeded at a crawl, and McHenry halted work on the other three. At the same time relations with France and Great Britain deteriorated and the Barbary corsairs seized American merchantmen in the Mediterranean. By 1798 McHenry was a political liability to the John Adams administration. Yet he had a powerful ally-Alexander Hamilton, an important figure in the Federalist Party. Other Federalists sought McHenry's replacement, but President Adams hesitated. Instead, he followed the suggestion of Capt. John Barry, USN, and established a separate naval department. Congress followed suit on 30 April 1798, creating the Department of the Navy. McHenry would remain as secretary of war until May 1800.

When Adams's first choice as the naval secretary declined the appointment, the president proposed Benjamin Stoddert (1751-1813) of Georgetown, Maryland (now the District of Columbia). Stoddert's apprenticeship as a merchant ended when the War for American Independence broke out and he accepted an appointment as a captain in a Continental Army regiment being raised in Maryland by James Wilkinson. Wounded at the battle of Brandywine, Stoddert used his Wilkinson connection (by now Wilkinson was a brigadier general) to become acquainted with the Board of War's leading general officers. Disappointed in a quest for a staff officer assignment and discouraged when regimental consolidation ruined his chances for promotion in the infantry, Stoddert resigned his commission in 1779. This did not terminate his services to the Continental Army, however. He served briefly as a deputy forage master general under the supervision of Wilkinson's father-in-law, a civilian position that entitled him to be called "major," an appellation by which he was often called thereafter. All his efforts brought him in close connection with senior military officers and with the critical problem of all military operations, logistics.

Stoddert may have had a reason other than a desire for public service for accepting the president's offer. The declining trade from Georgetown's port adversely affected his economic welfare, and his dabbling in District of Columbia land schemes brought more debt than profits. The government's annual salary of three thousand dollars was not substantial, but it might tide him over what he hoped were temporarily straitened circumstances. Although reluctant to accept the position, he was energetic in his performance of his duties, strict in his management of the department's finances, and imaginative in his conception of the American strategic situation. Stoddert proved a wise choice for the new cabinet post.

After relocating his large family to Philadelphia, the nation's temporary capital, Stoddert immersed himself in the administrative detail of the department and confronted deteriorating foreign relations with France following the XYZ scandal. When three American envoys went to Paris in 1796 to settle issues revolving around the seizure of our neutral vessels and their crews, they found themselves facing three French agents (designated Mr. X, Mr. Y, and Mr. Z in the published version of the meetings) who demanded a large bribe before negotiations began. Publication of the official report on the affair aroused public indignation and forced the Adams administration to take strong measures against the French. This led to what is known as the Quasi-War, the first undeclared military conflict in American history. To protect commercial shipping and patrol American shores, McHenry hastily acquired a West Indian merchant vessel, Ganges, armed it, and sent it out with the mission of protecting the coast from New York to Norfolk. Because the biggest threat came from the French West Indies, Capt. Thomas Truxtun sailed the first of the new frigates, the Constellation, to cruise from the Chesapeake to the border of Spanish Florida.

Stoddert found that the Constellation was the only completed vessel of the six ordered in 1794 and that only two of the remaining five were even under construction. This caused him to rely on more converted merchantmen like the Ganges. Soon two more frigates joined the fleet, the United States and Constitution. Naval historian Michael Palmer notes that "while the frigates proved the backbone of the navy, the converted ships furnished the muscle." The privateers added more sinews to the American effort. Using a combination of frigates, converted merchantmen, and privateers, Stoddert sought to demonstrate national will and naval power by inserting U.S. vessels in the Caribbean where the French were most vulnerable. On 11 July 1798 he ordered Capt. John Barry of the newly commissioned United States to lead a squadron of three other vessels on a two-month cruise off the Lesser Antilles, the object of which was "to do as much injury to the armed vessels ... of France, 66 to make as many captures as possible, consistently with a due Regard ... to the security of our own" vessels. Stoddert also wanted to establish an American naval character that imbued "a Love of Country and Jealousy of it's honor" in all his sailors. Thus began the conflict with France.

Eventually Stoddert evolved a three-pronged American naval strategy. A small force operated off Cuba to protect merchantmen engaged in trade with that Spanish colony. Another squadron operated in the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, scene of the most American losses in 1797. Finally, Stoddert concentrated most of his strength against the Lesser Antilles, especially off Guadeloupe, from which most of the French privateers operated. The Caribbean theater would be the initial training ground for Thomas Macdonough and a generation of young naval personnel who would come to leadership positions a decade and a half later.

The conflict with France allowed Stoddert to build the navy during the remainder of the Adams administration. Though in 1797 McHenry reported that only the Constellation was "in great forwardness," by 1798 Stoddert noted that the federal government had built the frigates United States, Constitution, and Constellation, and by 1801 he had nine large, fast frigates. Three of them were of 1,576 tons, forty-four guns each (the Constitution, United States, and President), and five were of 1,265 tons, thirty-six guns (the Chesapeake, Congress, Constellation, New York, and Philadelphia). These vessels constituted the pride of the navy. In addition, the government built the thirty-two-gun frigate Essex and the twenty-eight-gun frigates Adams, Boston, General Greene, and John Adams. To meet the emergency of the Quasi-War, the navy purchased the ships George Washington, Ganges, Delaware, Montezuma, Baltimore, and Herald, which were between 279 and 624 tons and carried between eighteen and twenty-four guns. By gift the government received the ship Merrimack and the brig Richmond, and there were several more being built in 1797. In 1801, however, Stoddert knew that the incoming Jefferson administration was unlikely to continue such a large fleet, and he recommended that the navy's size be diminished. After noting the end of the Quasi-War, he suggested the reduction of the navy to thirteen vessels: the United States, President, Constitution, Chesapeake, Philadelphia, New York, Constellation, Congress, Essex, Boston, John Adams, Adams, and General Greene. "The rest," he concluded, "were either built of materials which do not promise long duration, or are too small to form a part of the national defence." With amazing exactitude, he claimed all this could be done for a cost of $1,225,048.73-a major reduction from the previous year's cost of $2,434,261.10. Still, the budgetary axe of the Jeffersonians was likely to be far more severe than this. But before the axe fell, Macdonough began his career in the United States Navy.

Life at Sea

Learning the routine of naval life was at the core of the first cruises of Midshipman Macdonough. No matter how many the instructions, how much the advice of his older brother, nothing could have prepared him fully for the reality of shipboard life in the wooden world he now confronted. Foremost, it was a world of seemingly chaotic running and noise that underlay the ordered routine of the ship's daily life. One soon became used to the constant movement of the deck under one's feet. Hazardous skills involved becoming a topman, climbing the ratlines, holding on to the shrouds, and waiting for the roll of the ship as one ascended to the foretop. Landsmen mounted the top through the lubber's hole, a square cut in the platform that allowed one to mount safely and easily. But experienced sailors demonstrated their courage and dexterity by going the awkward and risky way via the futtock shrouds, which required one to hang backward while mounting the swaying platform from the outside.

Then there was the monotony of the menu, in which the same food appeared the same day of the week, month after month. It provided sufficient calories for the physical labor involved in handling a sailing vessel, but it was plain and very restricted in range. Prominently featured were salted beef, pork, and fish, along with a hard biscuit that often contained weevils or maggots. There were few vegetables and fruits aboard ships. The absence of the latter contributed significantly to the common presence of scurvy among seamen. While the daily ration of grog-three parts water to one of whiskey or rum-kept a sailor warm when climbing the rigging in cold weather, it also contributed to drunkenness, common among many sailors.

The provisions allocated for the USS United States in 1798 illustrate naval diet:

55248 Pounds of Bread 28392 - ditto Beef 23392-ditto Pork 14196 Pints of Peas or Beans 9464 - ditto of Rice 7089 pounds of Cheese 18928 - ditto of Potatoes or Turnips 9465 - ditto of Salt Fish 4732 - ditto - Flour 3549 - ditto - Molasses 33124 pints Rum 1183 pounds Butter.

As bad and monotonous as this diet may seem, it was considerably better than that enjoyed by many urban poor of the day and constituted a reason for enlistments from this segment of the population.

Early on, the novice midshipmen and the landsmen had to master the strange language of the sea and the complicated nomenclature of the ship. One learned that "tackle" is pronounced "tay-kel," "trenail" is "trunnel," "forecastle" is "folks'l," and "boatswain" is "bo'sun," for instance. Terms like "catted" involved weighing the anchor, "hogging" concerned the tendency of a ship to arch in the middle when overloaded, a "tompion" was a wooden plug used to keep moisture out of the muzzle of a gun, and a "yard" was the horizontal spar to which a sail was attached. A ship's rigging contained miles of cordage and dozens of blocks that supported the masts and controlled the sails, each having names the seaman needed to know. Among the sails there were flying jibs, jibs, staysails, mainsails, topsails, topgallants, and spankers, each of which could be designated for the bowsprint, foremast, main mast, and mizzenmast from which they were hung. Soon one could identify a variety of ship designs denoted by their size and rigging that included first- through sixth-rate men-of-war, brigs, ketches, snows, schooners, and sloops.

Most of the ship's company served on one of two divisions or watches, starboard or larboard (port). The twenty-four hours of the day were divided into seven watches:

Noon to 4:00 P.M., afternoon watch 4:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M., first dogwatch 6:00 P.M. to 8:00 P.M.,


Excerpted from Thomas Macdonough by David Curtis Skaggs
Copyright © 2003 by David Curtis Skaggs
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >