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–by Patrick McGuire, USCHS intern, with an introduction by Joanna Hallac

To kick off our August Brown Bag series yesterday, which we told you about on Monday, Dr. John McCavitt introduced the audience to Major General Robert Ross and his time in the British Army during the War of 1812, most notably his role in the burning of the federal buildings of Washington, DC in August 1814. It was a very interesting lecture about a man not terribly well known in this country, despite the prominence he held in setting our capital city afire. As such, one of our interns, Patrick McGuire, decided to delve into the topic a bit more for our readers. Enjoy!

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Major General Robert Ross was an Irish Major General in the British Army who fought in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. Born in 1766 and graduating from Trinity College in Dublin, Ross joined the British Army and rose steadily through the ranks, seeing action in Italy, Spain, Egypt, and the Netherlands. His early campaigns would show him to be an effective leader and earn him commendations for gallantry and the thanks of the British Parliament. Ross served under the Duke of Wellington and was promoted to the rank of Major General in 1812.

A portrait of Major General Robert Ross (Military Society of the War of 1812)

Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s first exile to the island of Elbe, Ross was sent to North America in February 1814 with an army of 4500 men. He was dispatched with the intention of uniting the British commands there under Rear Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced CO-burn) and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane. Ross assumed command of all British forces on the eastern coast of the U.S. and coordinated with Admiral Cockburn to attack the American capital city of Washington D. C. Ross landed his troops south of DC in Benedict, MD and marched through Upper Marlboro, MD engaging U.S. forces at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814. As usual, during the battle Ross led from the front and had his horse shot from under him, though he would suffer no injuries. Following the defeat of the American forces under Commodore Joshua Barney, Ross’s men advanced toward Washington.

Ross had no intention of destroying DC; however, his troops wanted revenge for the burning of the capital of Upper Canada, York, the previous year. A letter received by Admiral Cockburn–whose flotilla was working its way up the Potomac River–from the Governor General of Upper Canada, Sir George Prevost, detailed recent American actions including the burning of several settlements along the frontier, prompting Ross and Cockburn to take action against American government property in retaliation for the burning of their own capital.

Ross was still unwilling to allow the total destruction of the city or the harming of civilians and sent Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Pringle forward with 100 men to ensure that no unauthorized British forces were in the city and to ensure the safety and well being of the civilians. On their advance to the city on August 26, 1814, the British encountered little resistance, although, Ross would have another horse shot from under him. He issued orders to only burn public buildings such as the White House and the Capitol and to leave private property alone, resulting in little of the city being burned. It is important to note that had a surprise rainstorm not rolled through the District to extinguish the fires prematurely, the Capitol and all the buildings set ablaze that day would have been more severely damaged.

The British, led by Major General Robert Ross, shown after setting fire to the Capitol in 1814 during the War of 1812. Allyn Cox, U.S. Capitol (Architect of the Capitol)

The destruction of Washington led to outrage among Americans and praise among the British; Ross was subsequently persuaded to advance north to attack the heavily fortified city of Baltimore. Major General Ross’s men boarded their transports on the night of August 26th and landed at North Point beach on September 12th. The next day, Ross was riding among his forward troops who had stopped to eat breakfast when they came under attack by 230 American regulars. Ross received two wounds in his left arm and the left side of his chest. He was shot by Private Daniel Wells and Private Henry McComas who also died in the engagement. Ross died almost instantly and, despite his reputation as the man who burned Washington, he was regarded with respect by the Americans who fought him.

Sources consulted:

“British Regiments and the Men Who Led Them 1793-1815: 4th Regiment of Foot.”

Anthony Pitch. “The Burning of Washington.”

John McCavitt. “Ross and the White House.”

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