An Irish officer in the British Army, Major General Robert Ross (1766–1814) was a charismatic leader widely admired for his bravery in battle. Despite a military career that included distinguished service in Europe and North Africa, Ross is better known for his actions than his name: his 1814 campaign in the Chesapeake Bay resulted in the burning of the White House and Capitol and the unsuccessful assault on Baltimore, immortalized in “The Star Spangled Banner.” The Man Who Captured Washington is the first in-depth biography of this important but largely forgotten historical figure.
Drawing from a broad range of sources, both British and American, military historians John McCavitt and Christopher T. George provide new insight into Ross’s career prior to his famous exploits at Washington, D.C. Educated in Dublin, Ross joined the British Army in 1789, earning steady promotion as he gained combat experience. The authors portray him as an ambitious but humane commanding officer who fought bravely against Napoleon’s forces on battlefields in Holland, southern Italy, Egypt, and the Iberian Peninsula. Following the end of the war in Europe, while still recovering from a near-fatal wound, Ross was designated to lead an “enterprise” to America, and in August 1814 he led a small army to victory in the Battle of Bladensburg. From there his forces moved to the city of Washington, where they burned public buildings. In detailing this campaign, McCavitt and George clear up a number of misconceptions, including the claim that the British burned the entire city of Washington. Finally, the authors shed new light on the long-debated circumstances surrounding Ross’s death on the eve of the Battle of North Point at Baltimore.
Ross’s campaign on the shores of the Chesapeake lasted less than a month, but its military and political impact was enormous. Considered an officer and a gentleman by many on both sides of the Atlantic, the general who captured Washington would in time fade in public memory. Yet, as McCavitt and George show, Ross’s strategies and achievements during the final days of his career would shape American defense policy for decades to come.
About the Author
Christopher T. George, an independent historian, is Vice President of the 1812 Consortium and founding editor of the Journal of the War of 1812. He is the author of Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay.
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The Man Who Captured Washington
Major General Robert Ross and the War of 1812
By John McCavitt, Christopher T. George
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
"YOUNG BOB" ROSS
Robert Ross, the man who captured Washington, D.C., on August 24, 1814, was a younger son of a minor gentry family with estates in County Down in present-day Northern Ireland. The Ross family lands largely encompassed the village of Rostrevor and its environs, or Rosstrevor as it was once known due to its ties to the Ross family. Overlooking Carlingford Lough from the foot of the Mourne Mountains, this area inspired what C. S. Lewis later called his "idea of Narnia." Paradoxically, Ross and many of his fellow Irishmen would forsake their lovely island to spend much of their lives on foreign shores. The Emerald Isle is widely known as the "Land of Saints and Scholars," but in Ross's time it could have justly been called the "Land of Soldiers."
Ross's paternal ancestors lived in Ayrshire, Scotland, before emigrating to Ireland, taking part in the Protestant settlement of large parts of Ulster in the early seventeenth century. They were tenants on Hamilton lands in Portavo on the Ards Peninsula in County Down. Robert's great-great-grandfather George Ross married the daughter of Captain Hans Hamilton. The Rostrevor estate was bought as a wedding gift for his great-grandfather Robert, member of Parliament for Killyleagh, "originally" a Presbyterian. His grandfather was lord mayor of Dublin in 1748–49. By the time Robert Ross was born in 1766, his family on his father's side had converted to the Church of Ireland. His religion had an important bearing on his life's journey. It explains in no small measure why he ended up serving in the British army, whereas many of the Scots Presbyterians in the north of Ireland who suffered from religious discrimination had either emigrated to the United States or fought for the United Irishmen against the British Crown in 1798.
In terms of Robert's maternal bloodline, his mother, Elizabeth Adderly, was originally from Inishannon, County Cork, but latterly from the Circus, Bath. She was the half-sister to the first Earl of Charlemont, the leader of the Irish Volunteers and a passionate believer in the legislative independence of Ireland. She inherited £36,000, which her husband used in 1786 to buy various properties in County Down from his brother, including the family's principal ancestral seat of Rostrevor. According to the Gentleman's Magazine, published in London in 1815, among other "near relatives" of Robert Ross were the "ennobled families" of Ludlow, Riversdale, Bandon, and Doneraile. Of a Scots-Irish bloodline on his father's side and Anglo-Irish on his mother's, the educational, social, and political circles the future general moved in qualify him to a degree to be considered Anglo-Irish. A product of a multilayered society in terms of identity, it may be more accurate to describe him as "Anglo-Scots-Irish."
In terms of Robert's more immediate family background, his forebears were steeped in a military tradition. His uncle, also called Robert, rose to the rank of colonel and fought in the French and Indian War (1754–63). He was wounded at the Battle of Monongahela in 1755, serving in the Crown forces with none other than George Washington. Ross's father, who became a major in the army, fought in the same war, a conflict most famously remembered from a British point of view for the "heroic death" of Major General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham as the British seized control of Quebec in 1759. Major Ross also distinguished himself that year at the Battle of Minden (in modern-day Germany).
Trinity College Dublin records suggest that Robert Ross, the future general, was born in Dublin, where his father was stationed in 1766 and where the family had political connections. Other accounts indicate that Rostrevor was his birthplace. Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt that he retained a profound affection for his home village. Owing to ill health in his family circle, he spent time in southern France as a child, picking up there fluency in French and "a little Spanish."
As the second son of a gentry family, military service beckoned for Robert. Like his contemporary Arthur Wesley (later Wellesley), the future Duke of Wellington, and so many of their fellow countrymen, they were to be "food for powder," as Wesley's mother once said of her own son. No doubt many in the officer corps were inspired by tales of chivalry and motivated by the quest for military glory. The youthful Wesley and Ross had other things in common. Both enjoyed playing the violin. They moved in the same social circles. Of the few snippets known about them when they were young, the Iron Duke's nephew later recounted an amusing incident at a dinner party in Dublin that Ross, then a "college boy," attended. "In the middle of dinner, a little aide de camp, a playfellow of Ross's came in. They amused each other at dinner with running pins into each other, and made such a noise" that Ross's uncle could stand no more. "G–d d — n it, boys, if you cannot be quiet, go out into the yard and play ball, but don't disturb the dinner." Robert's companion was Arthur Wesley. Unlike Ross, Wesley never went to university, although he went to Eton and later attended the famous military riding school at Angers in France, where he was registered as a "gentilhomme Irlandaise." Ross managed to complete his degree at Trinity College Dublin, but only just, it appears.
At age seventeen, Robert matriculated at Trinity College Dublin on October 11, 1784, the same day as his older brother, Thomas. Before entering university, they both had the same "private tutor," a Mr. Young. They were known in college records as "Mr Ross Junior" and "Mr Ross Senior." An anecdote circulating in Britain in 1820 recounted that Robert got into trouble with the provost of the college, John Hely-Hutchinson, and a tutor named Adair who "shared the unpopularity of his employer." After a quarrel with Adair, "the future general revenged himself on his antagonist, by caricaturing him (for which art he had a peculiar talent) in the act of bestowing a salutation on a very unseemly part of the prevost's [sic] person. ... He posted it on the College gate, and it nearly procured him the honours of an expulsion." Extant college records at Trinity do not shed any light on this affair. There is one intriguing reference in the board register from July 1788 that indicates that Ross may have had disciplinary issues. Along with his brother and a number of other students, he is recorded as signing a declaration that stated, "we the under named do hereby promise that we will attend at some future commencement to take the oath required by Law to be admitted to the Degree for which the Grace of the House has been granted to us."
Ross had a keen, sometimes wicked, sense of humor, although in the reported prank targeting the college hierarchy he appears to have gone over the top. Whether the incident was connected to his membership in the Old Historical Society at Trinity, which the college authorities endeavored to suppress, is not clear. Reportedly, to belong to the society, "one needed wit, conviviality and above all the approval of one's peers to enter." Ross fitted this bill perfectly. He is listed among those members of the society delivering addresses at the opening or closing of sessions or obtaining medals. With time, he not only chaired meetings but also was elected treasurer. Among his contemporaries in the society was Wolfe Tone, who later became famous as the leader of the United Irishmen, revolutionaries who wanted to establish an Irish republic independent from the British Crown.
After he received his degree at Trinity in early 1789, Ross began his military career as an ensign in the 25th Regiment of Foot. He joined his unit in November at Gibraltar, where it was doing garrison duty. That he did not enlist until he was nearly twenty-three years old suggests that Ross had been considering other career options. Morale in the British army was low when he enlisted, not least due to the aftermath of losing the American colonies. According to Henry Bunbury at the time, when war broke out on the Continent in 1793, the British army was "lax in discipline, entirely without system, and very weak in numbers." There was a public outrage against the Duke of York for the failures of an expedition to Flanders in 1794, leading to the ill-deserved nursery rhyme that will be forever associated with his name, "The Grand Old Duke of York." The duke had his limitations as a field commander, but he had a knack for organization and was known at the time as the "soldier's friend."
The system whereby commissions and promotions up to the rank of lieutenant colonel could be purchased often meant that wealth trumped talent and that some officers achieved relatively high rank at a young age. That is not to deny that those advanced included a clutch of highly talented officers. Lowry Cole (lieutenant colonel by the time he was twenty-one), Edward Pakenham (major by the time he was seventeen), Arthur Wellesley (lieutenant colonel at twenty-four), and to a lesser extent Robert Ross were the beneficiaries of this system. Ross, though, apparently was unable to afford to purchase the rank of lieutenant colonel, the key to unlocking the door to further promotion to the rank of general. While promotions were still affected by purchase, a new breed of officers was to transform the British army into a seemingly invincible fighting machine.
Apart from playing the purchase system, Ross's professional prospects benefited from the relationship that he struck up with a member of the British royal family, Prince Edward Augustus (Prince Edward), the fourth son of George III and Queen Charlotte and father of the future Queen Victoria. Having begun his military service with the 25th Regiment at the start of August 1789, Ross's connection with Prince Edward, colonel of the 7th Regiment, the Royal Fusiliers, developed while they were both stationed in Gibraltar during 1790–91. With the British colony reportedly "drowning in alcohol," Edward's attempts to restore discipline included "closing many of the pubs and wine houses." Hardly surprisingly, he was soon despised by many of his men.
According to a popular school of thought, Prince Edward only survived a short time in Gibraltar before he was exiled to Canada owing to the "poor treatment" of his troops. Nathan Tidridge, his biographer, maintains that the issue was more health related as the prince suffered from the Mediterranean heat. While many others evidently considered him a good riddance from Gibraltar, Ross, by contrast, obtained six months' leave of absence from his regiment at the end of May 1791 and accompanied Prince Edward on board HMS Resistance when the Royal Fusiliers sailed to British North America. Describing Ensign Ross as "a young man of very excellent conduct and very promising parts," the prince requested that he should be given the next vacancy arising for a lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers without purchase. This duly occurred in July of that year. Ross's maturity and intelligence were perhaps key factors that caught the eye of Prince Edward.
Ross arrived in Quebec in August 1791. During his time in Canada, a mutiny occurred in the Royal Fusiliers resulting from Prince Edward's overbearing, sometimes tyrannical, personality. As a result, the unpopular royal was targeted in an assassination plot. It has been memorably remarked of this blue blood that "mutiny seemed to follow" him "as night does the day." By contrast to his patron, Ross was to forge a reputation as a strict disciplinarian who still managed to enjoy the great affection of his men.
The young officer was based at Quebec until September 1794, when he moved to Halifax. In April 1795 Prince Edward granted Ross five months' leave, more than likely connected with the death of his father. With Britain on a war footing with revolutionary France, his patron selected him for promotion without purchase to captain in a newly created second battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. Ross was pleased to "reflect, that his conduct was such as he thinks merited his Royal Highness's approbation." While steadily progressing through the ranks in his military career, on a domestic level trouble brewed. His mother successfully challenged the decision of his deceased father to leave all his wealth to his eldest son, Thomas. In 1796 Robert Ross thus inherited a share of his father's estate, which remained "undivided." Having become a captain in the Royal Fusiliers, he transferred to the 90th Regiment at the end of 1795 after securing a promotion to major by purchase, paying "no more than" £2,600 as the rules stated at the time. His investment did not turn out to be as lucrative as he intended, for his battalion was disbanded soon after and he was eventually put on half pay. His military career was revived in May 1798, when the London Gazette recorded his appointment as "Major of Brigade to the Forces in South Britain," including in the London area.
While Ross was serving in Canada and later in England, the United Irishmen were planning a rebellion at home. Rostrevor was to be bitterly divided between support for the Crown or the rebel cause. Visiting the village twice in 1792, Wolfe Tone, the leader of the United Irishmen, struggled to stir sedition. Tone recalled of his first visit, when he rode along the shoreline there: "Beautiful! Mourne, the sea etc. Sit up very late and talk treason." On a return journey later that year, he had dinner with thirty people, including Catholics and Protestants. When the United Irishmen were mentioned once more, there was "universal approbation. ... [W]onderful to see how rapidly the Catholic mind is rising, even in this tory town ..., one of the worst spots in Ireland." By 1797 the village was swarming with rebels. The upsurge in membership in the area resulted not just from Tone's persuasiveness but also from alienation caused by the excesses of British forces in the South Down area, where a "notorious" fencibles regiment, the Ancient Britons, was stationed. Tom Dunn, the Catholic village "hedge school" master in Rostrevor and a United Irishman, would become a victim of brutally repressive measures. He was flogged to death in August 1798.
Having been appointed major of brigade in South Britain in May 1798, Robert Ross was not in Rostrevor at the time school-master Dunn was killed. Indeed, there is no evidence that he was involved in military operations of any kind in Ireland during the 1798 rebellion. Be that as it may, opinion was to be deeply divided in Ross's home village about his service in the British army, and it is distinctly possible that there was much lingering bitterness over the events of that year. During his lifetime, Ross was revered and reviled in his locality. And this occurred despite the fact that his family had a liberal view in religious matters. Not only did they grant land for a new Anglican church during Robert's time on the church vestry, but permission was also granted for a Catholic church and a Presbyterian meeting house to be erected in the village where the family were landlords. The Catholic inhabitants of the parish of Kilbroney passed formal votes of thanks to Ross's brother, Thomas, the local vicar, for making the land available in 1809 for the Catholic church and for contributing, along with other local Protestants, handsomely to it.
The year 1799 proved to be pivotal in the life of Robert Ross. At the time he was lodging in Maddox Street, Mayfair, London. With the death of his Uncle Robert, known to some as "Bob Ross," a client of Lord Downshire and the long-serving and influential MP for Newry in the Irish parliament, the prospect of a political career opened up. Writing from London, Robert Johnson suggested that Lord Downshire should consider setting up "young Bob Ross" as a candidate to replace his uncle, believing that he would get elected easily owing to the high esteem his uncle had enjoyed locally. Instead, "young Bob" opted to continue with his army life.
Excerpted from The Man Who Captured Washington by John McCavitt, Christopher T. George. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
1. "Young Bob" Ross,
2. "The Most Comfortable Warrior a Man Could Wish to Serve With",
3. "Secret" Orders,
4. "Too Late" for the Chesapeake,
5. "Up Hill, Down Dale",
6. "They Are Not in a Condition to Strike at Washington",
7. High Noon at Bladensburg,
8. "Hero of Bladensburg",
9. To Burn or Not to Burn,
10. Courteous Conflagrator,
11. "Feelings of Most Acute Misery",
12. "We Have Lost Our Good General",