Major-General Robert Ross (1766 - 1814):
Robert Ross had a distinguished and certainly busy career as an officer in the British army who saw action in Europe, North Africa and North America, at a time of almost global conflagration. While he won many plaudits for his performances in a number of military actions, he is probably best remembered for his attack on Washington DC during the War of 1812, when that city's leading public buildings including the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court, were burned down. However, he did make an indirect, if inadvertent contribution to a leading American national symbol.
Ross was of a family from Rostrevor, County Down. It has been suggested that there is a link between family- and place-name, perhaps because it was also occasionally spelt Rosstrevor; in fact there is no such connection, as the name is apparently anglicised from the Irish, Ros Treabhair, or "Trevor's Wood", Edward Trevor having been a garrison commander in the English army during the Nine Years' War (1594-1603) who bought land nearby. Ross had a military background, his father, Major David Ross, having served in the Seven Years' War of 1756-1763. His mother was Elizabeth Adderley, from Inishannon, County Cork, and was a half -sister of James Caulfeild, Earl of Charlemont. His uncle was another Robert Ross, a soldier and later a politician and public administrator. The younger Robert attended the University of Dublin, Trinity College from 1784; he was treasurer of the College Historical Society (the famous "Hist") and graduated BA in 1789. He joined the 25th Foot on 1 August 1789 as an ensign, moving with the rank of Lieutenant to the 7th Royal Fusiliers on 13 July 1791, was promoted Captain on 19 April 1795 and on 23 December 1795 was appointed Major in the 2nd battalion, 90th Regiment. There then came a lull as that Regiment was disbanded, but on 6 August 1799 joined the 20th Foot as a Major and was soon in action in the Netherlands as part of the Duke of York's expeditionary force which, along with Russian troops, attacked the Batavian Republic, a client state of France. Though ultimately this campaign was a failure, at the battle of Krabbendam on 10 September, an Anglo-Russian success, Ross was nevertheless wounded seriously and removed from the fighting.
In 1800 he was back in action, or looking for it, as part of a British plan to attack the island of Belle Ile, off the French coast, but this was aborted as the island was considered too well defended, and the force proceeded to Minorca in the Mediterranean. Here, Ross, promoted brevet Lieutenant-Colonel (a kind of courtesy rank) in January 1801, sought to persuade those troops who were engaged for European service only, to join the forces of Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby which were preparing to attack French outposts in Egypt. Ross was fully involved in the successful assault on Alexandria. In September he was given command of the 20th Foot; he gained a reputation for thoroughly drilling and training his soldiers. In 1806 he led the regiment at the battle of Maida, where he led a surprise attack on the French flank. His leadership and decisive intervention were highly commended and he was awarded a gold medal.
In January 1808 he was made a full Lieutenant-Colonel and the 20th were despatched to take part in what is known as the Peninsular War, and Ross's troops were among the British rearguard who fought well during the defeat (as it was seen; nevertheless it was successful as an evacuation) at La Corunna in January 1809. They then proceeded to Walcheren, in the British attempt to open a new front in the Netherlands, but this campaign was a disaster, not just militarily but medically, with ten percent of total forces (4,000 out of 40,000) lost due to "Walcheren Fever" (only 100 troops were actually killed in battle). Ross and his men were sent to Ireland to recuperate. On 25 July 1810 he was made brevet colonel; in the same year he became aide-de-camp to the King.
Ross and the 20th landed again in the Iberian Peninsula again on 28 October 1812, and in early 1813, Ross applied for the command of a brigade. The Duke of Wellington gave him the fusilier brigade, of which his own regiment formed part, and on 4 June Ross was made promoted Major-General. At Vitoria the 4th division of which Ross was part played a relatively minor part, but it was heavily engaged in the later actions which prevented the French Marshal Soult's attempt to relieve Pamplona. Soult's assault began on 25 July with a direct attack on Major-General John Byng's brigade. Ross's brigade hurried up in support of Byng, and on reaching the main ridge of the Pyrenees, encountered Reille's column. To secure the advantage of ground Ross ordered the leading troops to charge at once. Ross was mentioned by Wellington in his dispatch of 1 August, "the gallant fourth division...surpassed their former good conduct...[t]heir officers set them the example, and Major-General Ross had two horses shot under him." Further, Ross saw action at the battles of the Nivelle and Orthez, at which he received a wound which was able to refer to lightheartedly as a "hit in the chops", though it disabled him, however, for the rest of the campaign. He was one of the officers who received the thanks of Parliament for his actions at Orthez and a gold medal for that battle, with a clasp for the battles of Vitoria and Corunna.
On 1 June 1814, Ross found himself in a totally different theatre of war. In 1812, conflict between the United States and Britain had broken out for a number of reasons, and initially British strategy was defensive, the greater part of their forces being tied up in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. This conflict having ended in 1814, Britain was able to deploy forces against the United States and Ross was given command of an expeditionary force against their east coast. It (officially) was intended to intervene in retaliation for attacks on Canada. A combined naval and military force entered Chesapeake Bay on 19 August, and moved inland, defeating United States forces at Bladensburg, the last strong American position on the way to Washington; Ross had two horses shot under him. Bladensburg was unquestionably a considerable military triumph for Ross. His American opposition was disorganised, confused and inexperienced, and following the battle, Ross and other senior British officers opined that very few prisoners were taken as after the first exchanges, the American troops simply ran from the battlefield. Ross rested his men for two hours and then marched into Washington DC, arriving at around eight o'clock in the evening of 24 August. Almost at once, and throughout the night and the following day, Ross and his commanders proceeded to torch government as opposed to private buildings in the city, though some buildings, Ross later claimed, had been fired by the Americans themselves.
The Capitol, the White House, the Treasury building, the War Office and the Supreme Court were among those buildings fired, and while this was claimed in retaliation to the American destruction in Toronto (then York) in Canada in 1813, when government buildings were particularly targeted, the actions of Ross divided opinion in Britain though more widely attracted criticism, especially in countries which had been on the receiving end of what was then possibly the world's foremost military power. There were also claims that the British on their entry into Washington were shot at by locals, whether soldiers or franc-tireurs, including from the Capitol building itself. The actions of the British in Washington remain controversial to this day. One of the most recent histories of the War of 1812, an American imprint from 2010, is quite explicit that the attacks were in direct retaliation for American attacks on targets in Canada, specified as York (Toronto), Dover and St Davids; the author writes that "the British swept into [Washington] to burn the government buildings, including the White House and the Capitol". For good or bad measure, they also destroyed some newspaper presses, just as the Americans had destroyed those of the York Gazette in Toronto the previous year. Two less extreme views might be noted here though: the historian Bradford Perkins wrote (in 1964): "In the longer run Ross's marauding had less...helpful effects...[n]ational unity benefited from the capture of Washington." And a contemporary resident of Washington, Margaret Bayard Smith, after her return to the city after the British departure, noted that despite the firing of buildings, the British had all behaved most politely, and that they had paid for all provisions.
It was observed by many that, even at the height (or depths) of the Napoleonic Wars, cities and especially capital cities, had been overrun and occupied, without being deliberately torched as had been Washington. This criticism was not however universal: one MP in London wrote that "it was happy for humanity and the credit of the empire that the extraordinary order upon that occasion had been entrusted to an officer [Ross] of so much moderation and justice"; a view echoed by other Members. Other British opinion was rather more sanguine. George Canning referred to the "splendid events" which represented "exemplary justice"; more strident still was the Manchester Mercury, which blasted this coruscating opinion: "Save London alone...there is not now the capital of a great power in the civilized world (if we may reckon America under that description) which has not been visited by a hostile and victorious enemy." Per contra, historian George Dangerfield described the British actions as "an act of vandalism for which nobody has been able to find an excuse."
Ross, together with the naval commander, Cochrane, then proceeded to attack Baltimore on 12 September 1814. This time, they encountered stiffer American resistance, the military commanders in charge of this, the third-largest city in the United States, having prepared assiduously as compared with their Washington counterparts, and not only did the attack ultimately fail, but Ross, who was very much a leader from the front, was hit apparently by a sniper's bullet which passed through his right arm and entered his chest; he died within hours. Historians of the battle, and local lore, cannot agree who fired the fatal shot or even what it was (various accounts suggest a rifle ball, others a musket ball; they were different). The usual story, that one of two teenaged apprentices from Baltimore, Daniel Wells and Henry G. McComas, is partly backed up by the fact that in 1873, a monument was built over their grave; however, the inscription does not aver or state that it was one of them who actually shot Ross. The action became known as the Battle of North Point, and was fought at what is today the town of Dundalk, named by an Irish immigrant from the County Louth town of that name; Dundalk is not far across Carlingford Lough from Ross's home town of Rostrevor.
The attack continued with a large naval bombardment of Fort McHenry, a strong American position. This was witnessed from aboard a British ship by three Americans who had been negotiating prisoner releases with the British commanders including Ross, who was well disposed to them due to their humane treatment of British prisoners at Bladensburg. Ross and the naval commanders retained the Americans on board as they were presumed to have been able to inform the American forces of details of British deployments. One of them was Francis Scott Key, who, observing an American flag still flying from the fort, was inspired to write "The Star-Spangled Banner", later adopted (under President Wilson in 1916) as the United States national anthem. (Fort McHenry itself was named after James McHenry, a surgeon and later Secretary of War under President Washington; McHenry was originally from Ballymena, County Antrim. However, there seems to be no evidence that an affectionate name at the time for the American flag, the "Betsy Ross", was in fact designed by the woman of that name; there is no connection to Ross himself.)
Rear-Admiral George Cockburn, wrote: "Our country has lost in him one of its best and bravest soldiers, and those who knew him, as I did, a friend most honoured and beloved." He was interred in St. Paul's Graveyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 29 September, 1814 and a public monument to him was placed above the entrance to the crypt in St Paul's Cathedral, London. At Rostrevor, his home town, the 20th erected a memorial to him in Kilbroney Parish Church and in 1826 a granite obelisk was erected by the officers of Ross's American campaign troop and the gentry of County Down on the spot where Ross had intended building himself a home after the early nineteenth century wars. Restoration work was begun on it in 2008. In addition, a royal warrant, dated 25 August 1815, granting new armorial bearings, ordained that his widow and descendants might be styled "Ross of Bladensburg", "as a memorial of his loyalty, ability, and valour" and invoking the name of his most significant and unblemished military triumph.
Frank Collins, Mellon Centre for Migration Studies, Omagh, County Tyrone; Wesley McCann
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Dictionary of Irish Biography; http://www.placenamesni.org/; Alan Taylor: The Civil War of 1812 (New York 2010); Reginald Horsman: The War of 1812 (London 1969); George Dangerfield: The Era of Good Feelings (New York 1989); Bradford Perkins: Castlereagh and Adams (Univ. of Los Angeles,1964); Patrick McKay: A Dictionary of Ulster Placenames (Belfast, 2007); Gregory Turner & Micheál Ó Mainnin: Place-Names of Northern Ireland (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1992)
© 2018 Ulster History Circle