Macomb's Irish Legacy
Exploring the story behind a familiar statue, and why the man had a Michigan county named after him
A young Alexander Macomb lived with his aunt in this New Jersey home while he attended Newark Academy.
Photographs Courtesy of the Library of Congress
On the corner of Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in downtown Detroit, the majestic monument of a commanding hero presides over the bustling traffic.
Gen. Alexander Macomb’s statue, crafted from British cannons seized during the War of 1812, depicts him in a dramatically windswept cloak, gazing south, with a broad forehead, pugnacious jaw, and slightly quizzical expression.
It’s a familiar sight to downtown drivers, but most don’t know the story behind the Macomb family and their deep ties to Detroit.
With more than half a million metro Detroiters claiming Irish ancestry, there are plenty of stories to tell. Corktown rightfully claims a spot as the center of Irish activity, but as Detroit evolved, the epicenters of Irish activity moved. Along the way, they left monuments, churches, cemeteries, and a slew of building and street names, as well as a lasting political and industrial legacy.
One of the most famous Irish descendants was Alexander Macomb II. His family’s Detroit story begins with two brothers from County Antrim in Ireland. Around 1770, Alexander and William Macomb (originally McComb), moved to Detroit from Albany, N.Y., setting up shop as real estate speculators and merchants in the British garrison at Fort Detroit.
By 1795, the family owned a fair chunk of the city, including the Cass Corridor, as well as most of the islands in the Detroit River. They scooped up Belle Isle in 1794 and sold it in 1817 to Barnabas Campau for the princely sum of $5,000. Grosse Ile, for years the family’s home, was acquired in 1776 by treaty with the Potawatomi Indians.
But it’s their most celebrated son, Alexander Macomb II, whose name rings on in its namesake county. When Alexander the elder took his wife and children to New York City following the Revolutionary War, William stayed behind to continue trading. The two branches of the family remained in close contact through the years, frequently intermarrying.
The younger Alexander Macomb was born in his father’s Detroit mansion which, fittingly enough, “bore many scars inflicted by tomahawk and gunshot,” according to a 1931 Burton Historical Collection pamphlet. The move to New York exposed Alexander to a martial lifestyle: He attended military school and became, at the tender age of 16, a cavalry officer in the exclusive New York Rangers militia.
From there he moved quickly up the ranks, serving in the Cherokee territories and numbering among the first graduates of the elite West Point Academy. The new nation was still sorting out its military procedures, and an 1805 incident illustrates Macomb’s abilities: When Col. Thomas Butler, a Revolutionary War veteran, was ordered to cut off his old-fashioned hair queue to meet the new uniform standards, he refused and was court-martialed. The eloquent Macomb, just 20 years old, served as judge advocate, and won with flair and aplomb. Butler’s locks were trimmed, and Macomb was asked by his impressed commanders to compose a treatise on the conduct of courts-martial for the new army.
The War of 1812 brought dramatic changes to Detroit, and Alexander and his cousin William saw the conflict from very different sides of the arena. By now promoted to adjutant general of the army, Alexander was itching for action. He requested a transfer to the artillery — in effect a demotion — in order to be on the battle line.
Meanwhile, William and the Detroit cousins labored in the increasingly tense siege situation of Detroit. Gen. William Hull’s shameful surrender of the city to paltry British forces on Aug. 16, 1812, proved disastrous for the citizens. William and 29 other city leaders were shipped to Montreal to await ransom. In this absence, British-allied Indian tribes ran amok.
William’s young wife, who had just given birth, was forced out of her Grosse Ile home. The mansion burned, and she fled through the woods into the city; she and the infant shortly died of exposure.
While Detroit remained essentially leaderless, Alexander was working with raw recruits in the backwoods of New York State. The better-trained British forces were walloping the American forces. It was Macomb’s job to hold off the British long enough for his naval peers to rally on Lake Champlain.
Here’s where Detroit ingenuity comes in: Outnumbered by a British force of 11,500, Macomb took his 3,500 men, ragged and undisciplined, and in perhaps the most creative use of landscape design to that date, he planted evergreens, moved trees, and built a false road to lure the British forces away from the actual site of battle. The British got lost. The American forces triumphed. Macomb was lauded by an ecstatic nation as “the hero of Plattsburgh.”
Afterward, he spent five years of service in Detroit and would go on to become the commander-in-chief of the army, dying peacefully in Washington, D.C., in 1841.
Multitudes of Macomb cousins continued the tradition of military service, and when Lewis Cass carved out counties in the new territory, he named one of the largest after the hero of Plattsburgh, thus ensuring that, even if we’re not sure exactly why, metro Detroit residents would remember the Macomb name for generations.