Statue of General Alexander Macomb

In the median of Washington Boulevard at the intersection of
Michigan Avenue near the Book Cadillac Hotel

After the French were defeated in Quebec in 1759, they lost their North American colonies.  The British peacefully took control of Detroit from the French in 1760 and built a new military outpost, Fort Lernoult.  Few British troops or settlers came to this remote area.  Some English and American entrepreneurs joined the French settlers of Detroit as merchants, traders or farmers. The most successful traded arms and supplies to the Indians for furs that were then sold to dealers in Montreal who transported them to Europe.  The Macombs were one of the more successful trading families in the Detroit area. At one point in the late 18th century, they apparently held title to almost all of Macomb County, Belle Isle and Grosse Isle. Alexander Macomb was born into this family in British Detroit in 1772, but his parents moved to the New York City area.  He received a classical education at a school in Newark, New Jersey but joined the military at age 16.  He served in the Army for the rest of his life.  By 1801, Alexander Macomb was a second lieutenant.  Today we do not think of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida as Indian areas, but they were in the early Nineteenth Century and Macomb's first service was to control the Indians of the Southeast.  Later, he served in the isolated forts that the United States established in what is now Illinois and Wisconsin.  When the War of 1812 began, he was an experienced officer.

Alexander Macomb's statue stands on Washington Boulevard because of his widely accepted claim that he was the hero of the Battle of Plattsburgh, New York; a battle he defined as defending this nation from a British invasion.  The War of 1812 was fought for several reasons.  The United States did not tolerate British interference with this nation's international trade, they did not tolerate the British practice of having their navy board United States vessels, and they felt that the British were claiming to control much of the Northwest Territory that belonged to the United States.  The military strategy at the beginning of the War of 1812 called for the United States military to capture Canada, forcing the British into a truce.  Two years of fighting accomplished little.  The United States would carry out attacks in Canada and American forces briefly occupied York (now Toronto) twice.  The British captured Detroit but surrendered it a year later after Commodore Perry soundly defeated British naval forces on Lake Erie.  The military efforts of both sides were ineffective, so during the summer of 1814, negotiations began in London to end the War.

In hopes of occupying northern New York and Vermont, British Lieutenant General Sire George Provost led a large force of experienced troops across the Canadian border in the late summer of 1814.   He presumed that such an occupation would give the British a strong hand at the peace talks  At Plattsburgh, his forces met the troops led by Alexander Macomb.   What happens next is subject to you own interpretation of what has been written.  While Provost was preparing to march across northern New York, Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough led an American squadron on ships in Lake Champaign.  They wiped out the British naval forces just as Commander Perry had done at Put-In-Bay on Lake Erie.  This cut off Provost's supply lines, so he and his superiors decided that the British should give up their invasion and return to Canada.  As they were retreating, there were a number of skirmishes against American forces, including the one known as the Battle of Plattsburgh on September 11, 1814.  As General Macomb told the story, he led 1,500 US military men and militia and defeated Provost's army, that according to muster roles, included 10,531 troops.  He became a hero and Congress awarded Macomb the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Many military historians think he was hardly a hero.  They point out that at the Battle of Plattsburgh, British troops were retreating to Canada and that the effective size of the enemy was 8,072 not 10,531.  Critics of Macomb cynically pointed out that he defined himself as a military hero and won a Congressional Medal of Honor, but never came under enemy fire. 

At this time and for some decades thereafter, the United States defined the War of 1812 as the Second Revolutionary War.  The British, after all, briefly occupied Washington and burned the White House.  There was a need for national heroes.  Alexander Macomb and Commander Oliver Perry filled that need.  By December, 1814, both the British and the Americans recognized the futility of the war and so there was a truce.  Throughout the War of 1812, the  British were much more focused upon military and diplomatic events in the European theater than in North America.

Alexander Macomb continued his military service and rose in the ranks.  In May, 1828, he was appointed commanding general of the US Army, a post that he filled until his death at age 69 in 1841.  Macomb was commander of the Army during the Second Seminole War.  I presume that he did not actually serve in Florida.

The first Seminole War lasted from 1814 to 1818 and was an attempt to drive those Indians from southern Georgia.  In 1819, the United States purchased swampy Florida from Spain but did not occupy that territory until 1821.  Two years later, the United States and the Seminoles signed the Treaty of Moultrie Creek in which the Indians were to be confined to a large reservation in the center of Florida.

In the view of the Americans, the Seminoles did not honor this treaty.  Indeed, settlers in northern Florida thought that the Indians were stealing their cattle and harassing them.  A major federal governmental effort in the 1830s was to remove Indians from the eastern United States and settle them in the presumably useless Great Plains.  In 1835, the federal government signed the Treaty of Payne's Landing with the Seminoles.  The Indians agreed to exit Florida and settle west of the Mississippi.

Again, the Americans presumed that the Indians failed to honor their treaty since they continued to threaten settlers and steal from them.  The Army was sent to Florida, but in December, 1835, the Seminoles attacked US troops and may have killed as many as 100.  This was the start of the Second Seminole War, one that lasted for seven years.  This was a large-scale military effort taking place while Alexander Macomb commanded the Army.  More than 40,000 Americans served in this conflict with the loss of about 1,500 lives.  Frankly, the military was not very successful in defeating the Seminoles or driving them out of Florida.  The Indians could skirmish against US troops and then retreat into the swampy marshes that they knew much better than the  Army.  By 1841, the federal government decided to use bribes to end the futile fighting.  Seminole chiefs received substantial payments for terminating the fighting, while rank and file Seminoles were promised guns, cash and land if they would leave Florida settle west of the Mississippi, primarily in what is now Oklahoma.  Many did so, but some resisted and were rounded up by the Army and marched west.  Other Seminoles escaped into the Everglades.  As American settlers and their slaves reached that area about two decades later, the Seminoles again resisted, so there was a Third Seminole War from 1855 to 1859.

Census 2000 enumerated 13,250 Seminoles in the country.  About 2,000 of them were counted in Florida and are, to some degree, the descendents of the Seminoles that the US military could not remove from that state.  About 6,500 Seminoles were counted in Oklahoma, presumably descendents of those sent to that area by President Jackson's Indian Removal program.

If you asked which Detroit native is a national military hero, you would likely select Alexander Macomb.  The sculptor, Adolph Alexander Weinman, used granite and bronze to portray Macomb as a decisive, competent and dominating officer. Note the stern face and firm jaw that we expect in a military leader who is about to take his troops into battle. Weinman also executed the William Maybury memorial in Grand Circus Park.

Weinman, born in Germany in 1872, came to the United States in 1882.  He studied sculpture in both France and the United States.  He designed many public sculptures commemorating important figures, often in the classical style.  Although he is recognized as an important American sculptor, he is best known as a medalist whose designs appeared on the half-dollar and the dime.  He also designed numerous medals for the military especially for the accomplishments of United States forces in World War II.  He lived into his eighties so there is an extensive array of his works on public display.

Sculptor: Adolph Alexander Weinman
Date of Construction: 1906 to 1908
Use in 2009: Public Sculpture Commemorating a distinguished Detroit military personage
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description Revised: January 4, 2009

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