Living in Macomb County, you may have wondered where the name came from. The story begins back around 1770, when two brothers originally from County Antrim, Ireland, decided to leave New York and come to what was then Fort Detroit to go into business as real estate speculators and merchants—at a time when all of Belle Isle could be purchased for eight barrels of rum, three rolls of tobacco, six pounds of vermillion paint, and a wampum belt.
There, one of the brothers, Alexander, married a woman named Mary Catharine Navarre, whose family originally came from France, and together they had a son, also named Alexander, in 1782. Growing up at the fort, Alexander was steeped in military life. According to George H. Richards, author of Memoir of Alexander Macomb, “The chubby boy became a favorite with the soldiers of the garrison. He was dandled on the soldier’s knee, fed at the soldier’s mess—his eye was dazzled with the gorgeous pageantry of military parade, and his ear delighted with the rousing strains of martial music.”
At the age of 14, says Richards, Alexander expressed a wish to join the military. His father, concerned that he should complete his studies before launching such a career path, insisted that Alexander improve his mind through additional study in mathematics, drawing, fencing, and riding. In his father’s opinion, “When he had completed his studies and evinced a competent ability, he might think of [the military] as a profession; but if he were to launch into the world with a mind uninformed and undisciplined, his course of instruction unfinished, it would be idle to expect the attainment of eminence in any pursuit.”
However, like children have done for time immemorial, Alexander didn’t take his father’s advice entirely to heart. Without his family’s knowledge, he joined the Army as Cornet of the Light Dragoons on January 10, 1799. This choice turned out to be the beginning of a notable military career.
In 1803, Alexander married his cousin, Catherine, “a beautiful and highly accomplished young lady of sixteen,” and carried on with his work in the Army. He was one of the first officers trained at West Point and helped to build the fortifications at Fort Gratiot. A few years later, in 1806, while serving as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the Army, Alexander wrote the first book on American procedures for martial law and courts-martial.
Despite these accomplishments, Alexander’s greatest contributions were still ahead. In 1812, what some at the time called the “Second War of Independence” began, when the United States and the United Kingdom went to war. As Brigadier General in command of the Right Division of the Northern Army, Alexander was in command of defending the frontier of northern New York. With a battle looming at Plattsburgh, near Lake Champlain, and knowing that his forces were seriously outnumbered, Alexander spent the weeks before the battle moving trees and creating fake roads in an attempt to lead British forces away from the three American forts in the area. Trapped by the maze he created, the British became easy targets for an American ambush.
Alexander’s success in the battle was rewarded with the thanks of Congress and a Congressional Gold Medal for his “gallantry and good conduct,” and he was promoted to Major General. Later, in 1828, Alexander was made Commanding General of the United States Army.
After the war, Alexander continued to contribute. He worked to increase pay for enlisted men to limit desertion, developed relief for widows and orphans of officers who died of wounds or disease, and spearheaded a system for officer retirement and replacement.
Not forgetting his training in drawing as a child. Alexander also maintained an interest in art. His watercolor and pencil painting, called Detroit as Seen from the Canadian Shore, resides at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
With his illustrious career in mind, it is no surprise that Louis Cass, Governor of Michigan Territory, named Macomb County for Alexander Macomb when it was formed on January 15, 1818—the third county to be created in the territory and encompassing what is now also Oakland, Lapeer, Genesee, and St. Clair counties as well. Says Richards, “It expressed their sentiments of friendship, gratitude for his military administration, and prayers for his future.”