Chronicles of the Frigate Macedonian 1809-1922
James Tertius de Kay
Norton, 1995

Review by Marv Tomber

This is the history of a ship - or some would say two ships. It seems strange to refer to a 38 gun ship with the name Macedonian and bearing a figure head in the likeness of Alexander the Great as she, but we will follow tradition and do so. Her keel, consisting of six large elm baulks, was laid down in March 1809. By that time Great Britain was well on its way to exhausting its supply of native oak, thus much of the wood used in the Macedonian was oak from the Baltic. Not being as closed grained, it would not last as long.

De Kay has chosen an engrossing way to tell his story. He has traced the history of the Macedonian through the actions of her captains. Her first captain was Lord William FitzRoy, third son of a duke. FitzRoy and his first lieutenant were responsible for fitting out the Macedonian. This combination was a poor choice. FitzRoy's first act was to announce that he was to be referred to as Lord. His second was to have a member of the crew given forty-eight lashes, four times the legal number. He and his sailing master shortly took against each other and brought formal charges. At a court-martial, FitzRoy was convicted of signing false Expense of Stores and dismissed from His Majesty's Service. (He was later reinstated with no loss of seniority.)

After a short term interim captain, John Carden was appointed captain. His relationship with his crew was mixed. He let FitzRoy's and his first lieutenant be nearly as brutal as he wished and yet hired a band to improve moral! One of Carden's first assignments was to go to the United States on what might be regarded as a money laundering scheme. Unfortunately for the British, Carden talked too much and the scheme became known to the Americans who were not at all pleased. The Macedonian left Hampton Roads in disgrace. While at Hampton Roads the Macedonian was anchored near the 44 gun United States, Captain Stephen Decatur commanding. Carden never really took the opportunity to study the United States.

Through a bit of patronage, Cardan was given the opportunity of an independent cruise. It was thus that on October 25, 1812 the Macedonian met the United States in combat. Not only was the Macedonian out gunned, but the United States had 24 pounders versus her 18 pounders. Decatur's tactic was to stand off and batter the Macedonian into submission, which he did successfully. De Kay describes the battle in great detail. That we know so much of the early history of the Macedonian while it was in the Royal Navy is due to the memoirs of one its midshipman who joined the ship while it was fitting out.

The Americans kept the name, Macedonian, and whenever possible used the fact that she was now an American ship to emphasize the power of the United States. It was the symbolism of power that sent her to Tunis to deal with the Bey. In 1818 under Captain John Downes she was sent on a planned three year cruise to the Pacific to open up trade for the United States and to show the flag with this symbol of power. On September 26 still in the Atlantic she was hit by a hurricane. The author gives a very vivid picture of the struggle that she went through. By the time the storm was over she was dismasted and barely limped back to Norfolk under a jury rig. After refitting Downes took her around the Horn and into the Pacific. This was the time of Chile's war of independence and Cochrane's time in the Chilean navy. Downes saw a way of making some money for himself. With all the uncertainty merchants didn't know where to put their money. Downes offered himself and the Macedonian as banker. At one point the Macedonian came close to fighting Cochrane's flagship. There is no known record of how much Downes made from his dealings, though it is known that he deposited over two millions in specie in banks for his clients.

By 1828 the Macedonian was sorely tired. Her hard life and the Baltic oak were taking their toll. Now the US Navy budget was such that money was available for refits, but not for new construction. The latter would require an act of congress. For over three years discussionis and maneuvering took place. President Jackson finally said that as the Macedonian needed a rebuild, it would have to go to congress. Eventually money was appropriated and the ship was “rebuilt”. About all that was reused was the figure head and the anchors and some other metal parts.

As an interesting footnote to history the author quotes the following:

February 18, 1846

It having been repeatedly represented to the Department that confusion arises from the use of the words “Larboard”and “Starboard” in consequence of their similarity of sound, the word “Port” is hereafter to be substituted for “Larboard”.

G. Bamcroft
Secretary of the Navy

In 1847 a retired sea captain, George Coleman De Kay, great-grandfather of the author, noting that the Macedonian was not involved in the war with Mexico hit upon another use for her. She could be used to transport badly needed food to Ireland. The first step was easy. President Polk obtained permission from congress to “place the Macedonian at the disposal of De Kay”. Things did not go well but ultimately a ship load of food was delivered to Ireland and Scotland. De Kay lost most of his money outfitting the ship and fighting various lawsuits. (Other towns followed his lead and without his problems delivered much food to the stricken people.)

The story goes on. The Macedonian was razeed to a 20 gun ship. She went to Japan with Perry. For a time her captain was the much court-martialed Uriah Phillips Levy. As her final role in the navy she was a practice ship at the Naval Academy. She was finally sold out of the navy in 1875. Ultimately most of her timbers were used to build the Macedonian Hotel on City Island. Her history ends with a fire which destroyed the hotel.

Another ship history that I have read is Nelson's Favorite HMS Agamemnon at War 1781-1809. I found the tale of the Agamemnon heavy going and not nearly as informative as the story of the Macedonian.

Copyright © 1998 by Marv Tomber
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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