Celebration of the bicentennial of the Battle of Plattsburgh, a key event in the War of 1812, begins on Aug. 29. Festivities, including concerts, re-enactments, fireworks displays, and an original musical, will continue for two weeks.
Commodore Thomas Macdonough, commander of American ships on Lake Champlain, was well rewarded at the time with proclamations, ceremonial swords, and extensive land grants. In 1914, as part of the centennial observance of the battle, he was further memorialized by the commissioning of a monument. Designed by John Russell Pope, and completed in 1926, that 135-foot obelisk is the most recognizable sight in downtown Plattsburgh.
General Alexander Macomb has been less well remembered. Yet it was he who devised tactics to deceive the attacking (and numerically far superior) British army and lead it astray long enough for Macdonough to emerge triumphant on the water. Having failed to clear the way for control of Lake Champlain, the British retreated to Canada. The defeat dramatically impacted the peace treaty negotiations already underway at Ghent, Belgium.
Bloated Toe Publishing has reissued Memoir of Alexander Macomb, a short biography written by George Richards in 1830. Richards served with Macomb at Plattsburgh and apparently knew him well.
Admittedly, it took me a while to wade through the series of classical references with which Richards began his work. The reader also faces the excess of florid patriotic prose typical of biography at the time.
However, once accustomed to Richards' style, I learned a fair amount about Macomb. His father flourished in trade in Michigan, then helped engineer the Macomb Purchase, one of the largest land deals ever in New York state. Business didn't interest the son. At a fairly young age, Macomb set upon his dream of a career in the military.
Good fortune favored him early. He came to the attention of several influential superiors, including George Washington's top military aide, Alexander Hamilton. A slow but steady rise through the army's hierarchy saw him gain not only promotion but a fair amount of expertise in military engineering. Eventually, he became a member of the first class to graduate from the newly established academy at West Point.
During the War of 1812, Macomb found himself stationed at Sackets Harbor, where Richards asserted "that an entire harmony of feeling and cooperation prevailed throughout his campaign." He next went to Burlington before being appointed commander of troops at Plattsburgh.
Richards becomes a bit excessive in his praise. Though I don't doubt that Macomb manifested the "highest sublimity of moral courage," virtually every successful aspect of the defense of the village gets attributed to Macomb. In fact, Macdonough doesn't receive a single mention on the pages dedicated to the critical battle. Instead, victory was ascribed to "the ascendant genius, the exhaustless resources, sleepless vigilance, invincible fortitude, the practiced skill, and the matured science of the American commander."
After his success at Plattsburgh, Macomb continued his career with postings at New York City, in Detroit, and then at Washington, D.C. In 1828, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the entire American army.
Macomb's contributions went beyond usual military concerns. He gained recognition for his adept handling of court martial proceedings, and wrote a book on the subject. He also developed concepts for preparing militia, advocated for a military pension system, and urged death benefits for spouses.
One can't assume he deserves all the effusive praise heaped on him by Richards, but he clearly merits recognition as an important contributor to military success here in northern New York. Perhaps his role is put into better balance by the words of a later biographer, Allan Everest. He wrote, "Yet the evidence is clear that these two young men deserve more nearly equal honor. They complemented each other, and in the Battle of Plattsburgh each might have met a different fate without the other."
Macomb will never have a monument to rival that of his compatriot Thomas Macdonough, but serious historians will recognize his contributions.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.