May 9, 2012 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Detroit history in Washington, D.C.: Alexander Macomb
Sometimes when we travel I like to play “find the Detroit.” (Categories include: “Guess who’s buried here?” “Whose house is that?” “Look who’s in that painting!”)
We did it in Florida. And in New Orleans.
And we were sitting in the garden of a café in Washington, having lunch with a local friend, when I asked if anyone would mind spending an hour in a cemetery. I wasn’t feeling particular. The nearest cemetery would do.
Congressional Cemetery, it turned out, was just a couple of Metro stops away. Notable interments: J. Edgar Hoover, John Phillip Sousa (for whom visiting student marching bands play!), Vice President Elbridge Gerry.
And guess who’s buried there?
The Honorable General Alexander Macomb!
Born in Detroit on April 3, 1782, Alexander Macomb was the son of a fur-trading, land-speculating, get-rich-quick-scheming merchant of the same name. On Grosse Ile, a tablet marks the spot where 18 Potawatomi chiefs sold the Detroit River island to Alexander Macomb Sr., and his brother and business partner William, in 1776.
The Macomb family moved to New York City when the future General Alexander Macomb was just a baby. There they built a house that George Washington would lease for a presidential mansion — and invested in 3.6 million acres of land in northern New York. It became known (and is still known!) as “Macomb’s Purchase,” and it permanently ruined the elder Alexander Macomb, who went to debtor’s prison when his grand speculation (coupled with some shady stock deals) went south.
But that is not the story we are here to tell. We are concerned with the more fortunate Alexander Macomb, who enrolled in a New York militia company when he was 16 and, at the recommendation of (my hero) Alexander Hamilton, was commissioned into the Regular Army the following year.
Macomb came to the nation’s attention in September 1814, after the Battle of Plattsburgh, during which the Americans, under the young Brigadier General Macomb (and the valorous Naval Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough) defended Lake Champlain against invading British troops and effectively closed the northwestern theater of the War of 1812.
(The victory was impressively rag-tag; against 11,000 British troops, Macomb had about 3,400 men, a huge number of which were not fit for battle. He wrote: “Except the four companies of the 6th Regiment, I had not an organized battalion among those remaining; the garrison was composed of convalescents and the recruits of the new regiments — all in the greatest confusion … and the works in no state of defense.”)
Here’s our man on the field of battle.
The victory earned him a Congressional medal — and the adoration of the city where he was born. As he carved up counties in 1818, Lewis Cass named one of them after the young hero.
General Macomb returned to command Fort Detroit. In 1821, when he left for Washington to become Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, the citizens of Detroit presented him with a silver tankard of gratitude bearing the inscription:
MAJOR-GENERAL ALEXANDER MACOMB
THE CITIZENS OF HIS NATIVE PLACE, DETROIT,
AS A TESTIMONIAL
OF ATTACHMENT AND RESPECT
FOR HIS PERSON AND CHARACTER
June 4, A.D., 1821
Alexander Macomb went on to become, like Alexander Hamilton (and Mad Anthony Wayne!) before him, Commanding General of the U.S. Army.
He also painted this —
(Detroit as Seen from Canadian Shore, 1821. Alexander Macomb. Source.)
— and wrote a play about Chief Pontiac. Renaissance man!
In 1841, Macomb — still Commanding General of the Army — died in Washington, and was buried in Congressional Cemetery with somber military honors.
Over 170 years later, we found ourselves strolling among the low green-and-granite hills and brick avenues of Congressional Cemetery, hoping to visit General Alexander Macomb.
I was worried we’d have a hard time finding him.
But it turns out that Macomb’s monument is the most elaborate and unusual in the whole place: a lion-footed column of white marble, topped with a Corinthian helmet, its faces embellished with laurel wreaths, butterflies, and tributes of respect.
By chance, we met the cemetery director, looking for something to do in between burials. He found us, promptly removed from his pocket a comically large skeleton key, unlocked the iron gates of the Public Vault and (like it was NO BIG THING!) invited us to stand in the damp cellar where the remains of Presidents, statesman and dignitaries once lay in wait for their big funerals or before permanent burial elsewhere. Presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and John Quincy Adam had bidden time in the Public Vault, as did Dolley Madison, for three years, because her family was too broke to give her a real grave.
You know who else did?
The cemetery director, upon learning why we had ventured to Congressional Cemetery in the first place, told us the incredible story of Macomb’s exhumation in 2008 to repair his sinking tomb.
Graveyard kismet? I think so.
(By the way: the statue of Macomb on Washington Boulevard might be my favorite statue in the whole city. I love the romantic sweep of his coat, his stately composure and the way he’s sort of approachable and human-scale. I’ve kept a small vintage postcard of the Macomb statue on my writing desk for years, courtesy Dan Austin’s astounding collection. Check out the beautiful historic views of the Macomb Monument at HistoricDetroit.org.)