Ross, Maj. Gen. Robert
Maj. Gen. Robert Ross
b. 1766 - d. September 12th, 1814
Ross was born
in Dublin in 1766, the son of Major David Ross, a veteran of the Seven
Years War. He joined the British Army as an ensign in the 25th Foot in
1789, became a lieutenant in the Seventh Fusiliers in 1791 and a captain
four years later. In 1799, he joined the 20th (East Devonshire Foot)
as a major. It was in the 20th Foot that he would make his reputation.
He took part in the expedition to Holland under the Duke of York in
1799 and was severely wounded at the First Battle of Bergen that
September. Breveted a lieutenant colonel, he was sent to Egypt in 1801
and participated in the capture of Alexandria. Always intent on
disciplining his men, this work paid off in 1806 when Colonel Ross led
the 20th Foot into battle at Maida in Calabria, southern Italy, turning
the battle in favor of the British under the leadership of Sir John
Stuart. This action led to Ross earning his first gold medal.
Elevated to the full rank of lieutenant colonel, Ross and his
regiment were sent to the Iberian peninsula. The commander and his men
distinguished themselves during the retreat from Coruna under Sir John
Moore in 1808 earning Ross a second gold medal. He was breveted a full
colonel in 1810 and spent time reorganizing and drilling his troops in
Ireland. Ross and the regiment were then sent back to Spain to take
part in the final offensive organized by the Duke of Wellington.
Elevated to the rank of brigadier general in Spring 1813, Ross
solidified his reputation as a brigade commander. The 20th Foot
distinguished themselves at Pamploma and Sorauren, where Ross had two
mounts shot out from under him. On February 27, 1814, Ross was severely
wounded in the jaw during the Battle of Orthez, He had barely recoved
from this wound when he was given the duty of leading the expedition to
the Chesapeake in May 1814, a duty for which he was personally chosen by
fellow Irishman the Duke of Wellington.
Ross arrived in the Chesapeake in mid-August with the 4th, 21st,
44th, and 85th Regiments of Foot. Once these troops were added to the
Royal Marines provided by commander-in-chief Vice Admiral Sir Alexander
Cochrane, Ross could call on around 4,000 troops for operations against
Following a plan suggested by Rear Admiral George Cockburn, Ross
and his troops landed at Benedict on the Patuxent on August 19-20, while
Cockburn took a flotilla of small boats up the river to search out and
destroy a U.S. flotilla commanded by Commodore Joshua Barney. On August
24, Ross successfully routed the Americans at Bladensburg. Although the
U.S. commander Brigadier General William H. Winder, U.S. Army,
commanded a numerically superior force of around 6,000 troops, they were
mainly militia, with around 200 U.S. Army regulars and 400 sailors and
U.S. Marines under Commodore Joshua Barney. The troops, moreover, were
poorly deployed by Winder. The first American line, made up of
Baltimore militia, was deployed just west of the bridge over the Eastern
Branch of the Potomac. Ross sent the 85th Regiment under Colonel
William Thornton to storm the bridge and after one unsuccessful attempt,
the Redcoats succeeded in reaching the other bank of the river. They
then began to push back the militia. Winder made the fatal mistake of
telling the militia to fall back along the Georgetown Road instead of along the Washington Road
where they could link up with Barney's sailors and marines and the
District of Columbia militia. When Thornton was seriously wounded
attacking Barney's battery, Ross took personal control of the British
advance, and successfully outflanked the commodore's position. Barney
was wounded and captured but given parole.
Ross led his troops into the capital, Washington, D.C., and he
lost the second of his mounts for the day when shots rang out near the
Capitol building. This led to a two-day occupation of the city, during
which the U.S. Capitol and the Presidential mansion and other buildings
were burned allegedly in retaliation for the American burning of the
government buildings of York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada,
at the end of April 1813.
Ross and his troops vacated the city during the night of August 25 and
the Redcoats marched back to Benedict. When he reached the shipping,
Ross was annoyed to hear that Dr. William Beanes, an Upper Marlboro
physician who had entertained Ross and his officers in his home and
allowed the British commander to use his house as headquarters, had
arrested some British stragglers. He ordered Beanes's arrest which led
to the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key who
later came out to the British fleet to negotiate the doctor's release
and ended up witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry.
Ross was persuaded by Admiral Cockburn and his quartermaster
general, Lieutenant George de Lacy Evans, to attempt an attack on
Baltimore, known by the British since the days of the Revolution as "a
nest of pirates" for its strong privateering industry. The British
fleet thus ascended the Bay and reached the mouth of the Patapsco on
Sunday, September 11.
The troops began landing from the troopships in Old Roads Bay on
the morning of September 12. While Colonel Arthur Brooke superintended
the landing of the remaining troops, Ross and Cockburn rode ahead around
7:00 a.m. and breakfasted at the Gorsuch farm. and an unfinished
trench the Americans had begun across the peninsula. Here, Ross
questioned three American militia dragoons that the British had taken
prisoner. Mr. Gorsuch reportedly asked the general if he would be
returning for supper. Ross is said to have replied, "I will sup in
Baltimore tonight, or in hell!" The American prisoners told the general
that there were twenty thousand militiamen in the entrenchments of
Baltimore. Ross allegedly replied, "I don't care if it rains militia."
Ross's remark about the supposedly inept American militia would cost
him dearly. Just after noon, he would be struck down by a bullet in a
skirmish near the present-day Aquila Randall monument on Old North Point
Road. The British had not counted on the fact that, unlike at
Washington, the militia would come out to seek them out. The U.S.
commander in Baltimore, Major General Samuel Smith had ordered Brigadier
General John Stricker to march down to North Point with 3,200
militiamen the previous day. Ross was struck down in a skirmish between
his advance troops and men of the Fifth Regiment of Maryland Militia.
On hearing of the general's incapacity, Brooke took over command of the
troops. In the Battle of North Point, the two forces exchanged volleys
for around an hour when Stricker was forced to retreat, but at a cost to
Ross, reportedly shot through the lungs, died while being
transported on a wagon back to the ships. His body was taken to Halifax
for burial. After his death, the British government gave his
descendents the title "Ross of Bladensburg" in recognition of his
achievements at Bladensburg and Washington. A monument to him may be
seen above the crypt in St. Paul's Cathedral, London. In his native
village of Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, a one-hundred foot granite
obelisk stands on the shoreline. There are plans to restore the
monument and feature it on an Irish American culture trail. Another
memorial to the general is in the parish church of Kilbroney, Rostrevor.
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