Born at British-held Detroit in 1782, Macomb was the son of Alexander Macomb, a merchant and fur trader from upstate New York, and Mary Catherine Navarre, she of ethnic French descent.
He moved with his parents to New York City, where his father gained wealth as a land speculator, particularly in the millions of acres of New York land released by the federal government for sale after the Iroquois nations had been largely forced from the state into exile in Ontario following British defeat in the American Revolutionary War. The son received a classical education at Newark Academy in New Jersey.
In 1798, at the age of 16, Macomb joined a New York militia company. In January 1799, with the recommendation of Alexander Hamilton, he was commissioned a Cornet in the Regular Army during the French emergency. In March he was promoted to second lieutenant, and he was honorably discharged in June 1800.
In February 1801, he was commissioned a second lieutenant, 2d Infantry, serving as secretary to a commission that treated with the Indians of the Southeast.
For five years, Macomb directed construction of coastal fortifications in the Carolinas and Georgia. He also established fortifications at Fort Gratiot, Michigan, Chicago, Mackinaw, Prairie du Chien, St. Peter's, and St. Mary's in what was considered the Northwest area - Michigan and Illinois.
He won acclaim during the War of 1812 as brigadier general in command of the Right Division of the Northern Army, responsible for defending the frontier of northern New York. At the Battle of Plattsburgh on September 11, 1814, with only 1,500 regular troops and some detachments of militia, he was opposed by a British force of 10,531 men under Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost. Macomb's heavily outnumbered troops fell back before the British columns in a series of encounters as Prevost advanced towards the American defensive works.
In the weeks leading up to the battle, Macomb, knowing full well he would be greatly outnumbered, worked with his men to move trees and create fake roads; in order to obscure the genuine roads and lead the British into dead-end traps far from the three nearby American forts (a maneuver Macomb called abattis). The British attack was diffused by these efforts. The long narrow lines of marching soldiers were unable to easily stop and about-face. They became entangled in the narrow false road maze, where they became targets for American ambush.
The British were about to launch an assault on the American defenses when the news came through of the defeat of the British naval squadron on Lake Champlain. Prevost needed the British Lake Champlain squadron to supply his planned advance into Vermont. Without it, he had no choice but to abandon theexpedition. The British invaders returned to Canada.
When Major General Jacob Brown, the Army's commanding general, died in February 1828, Macomb was the senior brigadier general on the Army register, although, as the Army's chief of engineers, he was paid only at the rank of a colonel. President John Quincy Adams promoted him to commanding general of the Army with the rank of major general. The Army's two serving brigadier generals — Winfield Scott and Edmund P. Gaines — had been vying for the position. Their quarrels over seniority had scandalized the Army and Adams bypassed them to offer the post to Macomb.
Macomb's tenure as Commanding General was marked by "continuing uncertainty about the responsibilities and authority of his position. To secure his seniority over Scott and Gaines, both two-star brevet major generals, Macomb added a provision in the 1834 regulations that 'the insignia of the major general commanding in chief should be three stars.' In the same document he sought to define his relationship to the Secretary of War and establish his primacy over the bureau chiefs, including his successor as Chief of Engineers. This was easier said than done. Most issues were not fully resolved until early the next century."
He advocated doubling Army strength, increasing enlisted pay, providing relief for some widows and orphans, and regularizing the officer retirement and replacement system. In 1840 the Army Corps of Engineers adopted the castle uniform insignia and first described the Corps of Engineers' distinctive Essayons button (Motto in French, meaning: "Let us try").
Macomb was succeeded by Major General Winfield Scott, who had worked "hard at mending fences in the intervening 13 years..." within the Army.
Writings and other works
In 1809, Macomb was the author of a seminal book (republished in 2006) on martial law and the conduct of courts-martial. It was the first book written on American procedures. During this period he was serving as a judge-advocate general (JAG) in the Army. He published a revised, updated book solely on courts martial in 1809.
He also wrote a play on the siege of Detroit by Ottawa chief Pontiac. It features Macomb's maternal grandfather, Robert Navarre, who helped defend the settlement. See Published Works and Further Reading, infra.
In addition, Macomb is recognized as an artist. His painting Detroit as Seen from the Canadian Shore in 1821, a watercolor and pencil work, is held by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Following the Battle of Plattsburgh and the end of the War of 1812, a Congressional Gold Medal honoring Alexander Macomb and his men was struck by Act of Congress (3 Stat. 247), to wit:
Macomb's Congressional Medal Marshall Davies Lloyd Collection.
Resolved, That the thanks of Congress be, and they are hereby presented to Major General Macomb, and, through him, to the officers and men of the regular army under his command, and to the militia and volunteers of New York and Vermont, for their gallantry and good conduct, in defeating the enemy at Plattsburg (sic) on the eleventh of September; repelling, with one thousand five hundred men, aided by a body of militia and volunteers from New York and Vermont, a British veteran army, greatly superior in number, and that the President of the United States be requested to cause a gold medal to be struck, emblematic of this triumph, and presented to Major General Macomb. – Resolution of Congress November 3. 1814.
Obverse: MAJOR GENERAL ALEXANDER MACOMB. Bust of Gen. Macomb, in uniform, facing the right FÜRST. F(ecit). indicates the engraver Moritz Fuerst (1782–1840), who designed several medals of 1812 heroes for the Philadelphia mint. The bust of Macomb found on the Congressional Medal, however, is reminiscent of the 1809 portrait of Macomb by Saint-Mémin (1770–1852), in which Macomb is wearing the undressed coat of blue with black velvet collar and cuffs typical of an Engineering officer.
Reverse: RESOLUTION OF CONGRESS NOVEMBER 3. 1814. The American army repulsing the British troops, who are striving to cross the Saranac river. To the left, Plattsburgh in flames; to the right, naval battle on Lake Champlain; in the distance, Cumberland Head. Exergue: BATTLE OF PLATTSBURGH September 11. 1814. FÜRST. F(ecit).
This was one of 27 Gold Medals authorized by Congress arising from the War of 1812.
Alexander Macomb is recognized by a Michigan Historical Marker installed at the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Macomb Street in Mount Clemens, Michigan, the county seat of Macomb County, named for him. It is Registered Site S0418, erected in 1974. It states:
In 1818 Territorial Governor Lewis Cass proclaimed the third Michigan county to be called Macomb. At that time the young General was Commander of the Fifth Military Department in Detroit. Born in that city in 1782, son of prominent local entrepreneurs, Macomb had entered the U.S. Army in 1799. He had gained national renown and honor during the War of 1812 for his victory at Plattsburgh in September 1814 over a far superior force of British invaders. Later as Chief Army Engineer he promoted the building of military roads in the Great Lakes area. From May 1828 to his death in June 1841, Macomb served as Commander in Chief of the Army. He is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. His birthday, April 3, is honored as Macomb County Heritage Day.
He is memorialized by several statues. One was sculpted by Adolph Alexander Weinman and erected in 1906 in downtown Detroit, Michigan. This statue was made from melted down cannons, and was a notable and monumental task. Another is in downtown Mount Clemens, Michigan, in front of the Circuit Court building at 40 N. Gratiot Avenue. Several others exist.
His remains, and those of his wife, Catherine, were disinterred again in June 2008 so that the brick-lined burial vault beneath their 6-ton, 13-foot-tall marble monument could be repaired to prevent its impending collapse. During the month it took to make the necessary repairs, the couple's remains were held at the Smithsonian; they were viewed by several of the general's descendants, including his great-great-great granddaughter. After the $24,000 repairs were completed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, their remains were re-interred on July 17, 2008. The monument to Alexander Macomb is "one of the most unusual in the nation."
^The reason for the spelling, "McComb" instead of "Macomb", is that the village was named by a Scotsman who fought under Macomb at the Battle of Plattsburg, and he used the Scottish manner of pronunciation and spelling.
^Gibson, Arthur Hopkins. Artists of Early Michigan: A Biographical Dictionary of Artists Native to or Active in Michigan, 1701–1900. (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1975), pp. 168–169.