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Portrait of Woolsey

Commodore Melancthon Taylor Woolsey (1782 – 18 May 1838) was an officer in the United States Navy during the War of 1812 and battles on the Great Lakes. He supervised warship construction at Navy Point in Sackets Harbor, New York, and later had a full career in the Navy.



Woolsey was born near Plattsburgh, New York. He was a descendant of George (Joris) Woolsey, one of the earliest settlers of New Amsterdam, and Thomas Cornell (settler)[1], as well as the Livingston, Schuyler, and Van Rensselaer old New York families.

After studying law for a time, Woolsey entered the Navy as a midshipman on April 9, 1800. His first assignment was the frigate Adams, on which he made a cruise to the West Indies in 1800 and 1801. He served briefly in the First Barbary War just before its end in 1805. In 1807, the newly promoted Lt. Woolsey received orders to Washington, D.C., where he developed a code of signals for the Navy.

From there, he was ordered to the shores of Lake Ontario in 1808 to supervise the construction of Oneida. Given the buildup of tensions with Great Britain, the US Navy established a shipyard for warships and rapidly built eleven ships at the facility, employing 3,000 men at the yard, many recruited from New York City. At the same time, Woolsey received a concurrent assignment as the commanding officer of the shore facilities located there. When the United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812, he was still in command of Oneida and the shore station at Sackett's Harbor. On July 19, 1812, a British squadron of five ships appeared. Woolsey attempted to escape to open water with Oneida, but the enemy squadron sealed off that avenue. Instead, he returned to Sackett's Harbor, landed half his battery, and repelled the British convincingly after a sharp two-hour exchange.

Early in October, Commodore Isaac Chauncey arrived on the scene and assumed overall command of American naval activities on the Great Lakes. Woolsey stayed on as second in command and remained commanding officer of Oneida. During the fall of 1812, Woolsey concentrated upon the construction, purchase, and outfitting of additional war vessels. Throughout the entire war, a construction race caused naval dominance on Lake Ontario to alternate between the British and Americans. Woolsey enabled America to grab the lead in the fall of 1812 by acquiring eight schooners to augment Oneida and the three-gun Julia. On November 8, he commanded Oneida when the 19-gun warship and four of the newly acquired schooners encountered HMS Royal George—a large, 24-gun, ship-rigged sloop-of-war off Kingston and chased her into that port. Later, they followed her in and subjected her to bombardment. In May 1813, Woolsey commanded Oneida as her guns supported the capture of York (Toronto) and the assault on Fort George[2]

Woolsey was promoted to master commandant in July 1813 and, by August, was in the new schooner Sylph. Late in September 1813, he commanded his ship in a running fight between the American lake flotilla and Commodore James Lucas Yeo's British force. That series of skirmishes resulted in another period of American dominance of Lake Ontario. On 5 October, his ship participated in the capture of the enemy cutter Drummond and the sloops-of-war Elizabeth, Mary Ann, and Lady Gore off False Duck Island.

In May 1814, after a winter of feverish preparation for the third summer of campaigning, Woolsey went to the supply depot at Oswego to pick up guns, cables, and other supplies needed at Sackett's Harbor. While he was there, the British squadron appeared off Oswego. By spreading false intelligence about his destination, Woolsey was able to take advantage of a dark night and make good his escape. The British learned of their mistake and sought to overtake him, which they did at Sandy Creek. Woolsey had prepared an ambush in concert with Maj. Daniel Appling and his 150-man contingent of the United States Rifle Regiment. The British landing force was soundly trounced by Appling's riflemen and 200 Indian allies. Woolsey, in turn, brought his guns to bear on the squadron itself. The Americans defeated the enemy convincingly, killing 10, wounding 52, and capturing the rest. Woolsey proceeded to Sackett's Harbor with his ordnance and supplies. Soon thereafter, he assumed command of the new brig, Jones, and retained that command until the end of the war in 1815.

Marriage and familyEdit

After the war, Master Commandant Woolsey remained in command of the naval station at Sacketts Harbor. In 1816, he was promoted to captain and likely married Susan C. Treadwell of Long Island, New York that year.[3] Their first son Melancthon Brooks Woolsey was born August 11, 1817 in Sacketts Harbor.[4] The second son James Treadwell Woolsey was born in 1820.[5] His daughter Alida Livingston Woolsey married Rev. Isaac Stryker, whose son, M. Woolsey Stryker, became a Presbyterian minister and President of Hamilton College.

Command at seaEdit

Woolsey left Sacketts Harbor in 1824 to assume command of the frigate, Constellation. He took it on a West Indies cruise until June 1827.

Late in 1827, he took command of the navy yard at Pensacola, Florida and moved his family there. He held the position until 1831. Between 1832 and 1834, Woolsey served as Commodore in command of the Brazilian Station.

His last active duty took him to the Chesapeake Bay, where he supervised surveys from 1836 until his health began to decline in 1837. Commodore Woolsey died May 18, 1838 at Utica, New York.[3]


Commodore Woolsey was of middle height, sailor-built, and of a compact, athletic frame. His countenance was prepossessing, and had singularly the look of a gentleman. In his deportment, he was a pleasing mixture of gentleman-like refinement and seaman-like frankness. His long intimacy with frontier habits could not, and did not, destroy his early training, though it possibly impeded some of that advancement in his professional and general knowledge, which he had so successfully commenced in early life. He was an excellent seaman, and few officers had more correct notions of the rules of discipline. His familiar association with all the classes that mingle so freely together in border life, had produced a tendency, on his excellent disposition, to relax to much in his ordinary intercourse, perhaps, but his good sense prevented this weakness from proceeding very far. Woolsey rather wanted the grimace than the substance of authority. A better-hearted man never lived. All who sailed with him loved him, and he had sufficient native mind, and sufficient acquired instruction, to command the respect of many of the strongest intellects of the service.

— James Fennimore Cooper, Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers[6]


The United States Navy named two destroyers in his honor: the USS Woolsey (Destroyer No. 77), and the USS Woolsey (DD-437) commemorating both him and his son, Commodore Melancthon Brooks Woolsey.[4]


  1. ^ Cornell, Thomas Clapp. Adam and Anne Mott: their ancestors and their descendants. A.V. Haight, 1890 Retrieved November 10, 2013
  2. ^ Maclay, Edward Stanton and Roy Campbell Smith. A History of the United States Navy, from 1775 to 1893, p472. D.Appleton and Co, 1893 (Digitized by University of Michigan, March 13, 2006).
  3. ^ a b The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Being the History of the United States Vol. VIII, p. 99. James T White & Co, 1898 (digitized by Google 22 Jun 2007, from original held by New York Public Library)
  4. ^ a b US Dept of the Navy, Naval Historical Center. Accessed January 27, 2008
  5. ^ "Died: Woolsey, James Treadwell", New York Times, 5 May 1894, accessed 24 Aug 2010
  6. ^ Cooper, James Fennimore. Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, Vol 2. 1846 (Reprinted by Kessinger Publishing, 2007). ISBN 0-548-13561-4. Accessed January 27, 2008

This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

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