The War of 1812 and the capture of Washington, through British eyes


This oil portrait of General Robert Ross hangs in the home of Ross descendant Stephen Campbell in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland. (Courtesy of Stephen Campbell)
October 24, 2013

Francis de Courcy Hamilton looked askance at the informational sign near the base of the Robert Ross monument, a 100-foot granite obelisk on a hill overlooking the majestic waters of Carlingford Lough.

“ ‘General Ross is reputed to have burned down the White House,’ ” Hamilton read. “Excuse me — there’s nothing ‘reputed’ about it.”

Hamilton should know, being among several Ross descendants participating in a unique conference in the home town of the British general who captured Washington in August 1814.

Americans may have forgotten the War of 1812, one joke goes, but the British never knew it was fought in the first place.

Within the United Kingdom, the village of Rostrevor has become a rare exception to the rule.

The Ross conference last weekend, where I was among a group of speakers from the United States, Canada and Europe, drew hundreds of visitors who wandered through exhibits, toured the monument and admired artwork by local schoolchildren depicting the White House in flames.

The capture of Washington is “one of the most extraordinary stories in British or American history,” veteran British journalist Peter Snow, author of a new history of the episode, told conference attendees. But he noted that when he speaks to British audiences, generally only one in 20 is aware their nation burned the White House.

Organizers in Rostrevor had to overcome far more than the war’s obscurity to stage the conference and resurrect Ross’s memory.

Bitter religious divides and decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles had left Ross a forgotten figure in his own home town and the monument to his memory overgrown by brush and marred by graffiti.

Nestled amidst the Mountains of Mourne — the setting that inspired Narnia for writer C.S. Lewis, a frequent visitor — the picturesque waterside village of Rostrevor in County Down along Northern Ireland’s southeastern border presents a tranquil image.

Just up the road, though, is the site of one of the deadliest incidents during the Troubles: the Warrenpoint ambush, where 18 British paratroopers were killed in a 1979 Irish Republican Army bombing.

“Growing up in the Troubles, anything that celebrated the British Army wouldn’t have been too acceptable,” said Aisling Brown, a Rostrevor resident who attended the conference with her children. “Now that we have peace, it’s possible to give the history here a wee bit more attention.”

The resurrection of Ross — a Protestant of Anglo-Irish background and hero of an army not long ago hated by many residents of this predominantly Catholic area — has become a striking example of the ongoing peace and reconciliation efforts stemming from the 1998 Good Friday accord.

“Generations of children grew up knowing nothing about General Ross,” said John McCavitt, a local historian writing a biography of Ross who has spearheaded efforts to bring attention to the story.

For a brief shining moment in 1814, Ross was the toast of the British Empire. The general, who had served with distinction under the Duke of Wellington in the war with Napoleon, had been sent to North America with 4,000 troops to help force an end to the festering war with America, then in its third year.

After landing with his invasion force in Southern Maryland, Ross moved toward the capital, paralyzing American commanders with a series of brilliant feints. Outside Washington, Ross led his troops to a smashing victory over a larger American force at Bladensburg on Aug. 24, 1814.

The British entered the capital that night. Over the next 24 hours, every vestige of American power, including the White House and the Capitol, was burned, although most private property was spared at Ross’s orders. The general, eager to rejoin his young family and return to Rostrevor, wrote his wife, Elizabeth, that the capture of Washington was a “disgrace” that would force the United States to quickly make peace.

News of Washington’s capture reached London on Sept. 27, 1814, and sparked celebration across the city. Overnight, Ross was a national hero. In Rostrevor, joyous citizens threw a banquet and illuminated the streets with bonfires.

But by then, Ross was dead. He was felled by American militia fire during the failed British attack on Baltimore three weeks after his 24-hour occupation of Washington. The stunning American victory would inspire the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and help the United States escape the war a few months later with decent peace terms.

A gloom settled on the empire after Ross’s death. The prince regent bestowed upon the family the title Ross of Bladensburg. The local nobility and gentry joined with Ross’s former officers in 1826 to raise the granite memorial on a hill within view of his heartbroken widow’s home.

Over the years, Rostrevor and the surrounding area became predominantly Catholic.

By the mid-20th century, the memorial had fallen into neglect, and its condition worsened during the Troubles. Ivy grew up the side of the obelisk and the hillside became covered with firs and briars. The letters “IRA” were spray-painted in green letters on the side of the monument.

Its very obscurity may have saved it from the fate met by the Nelson Pillar, a memorial in Dublin to British naval hero Horatio Nelson that was blown up by the IRA in 1966.

“The site was decrepit,” said Hilary Halliday, a local council official attending the conference. “You had to fight your way through brambles to get the gate open.”

In the new climate following the Good Friday accord, the local Newry and Mourne District Council, although dominated by Irish nationalists, agreed to refurbish the monument, and it reopened in 2008.

The resurrection of Ross remains a sensitive topic. “There is an ingrained antipathy among many Irish Catholics toward Redcoats,” said McCavitt.

Newry and Mourne District Council Mayor Michael Ruane, a member of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party who supported and attended the conference, said the event was intended to acknowledge the area’s history, not to celebrate Ross.

With an eye to American tourism, plans are underway to mark the 200th anniversary of the capture of Washington and battle for Baltimore with a “Star-Spangled Banner celebration” next summer.

On Saturday evening, conference attendees gathered at the Rostrevor home of Ross descendant Stephen Campbell for a reception beneath a striking portrait showing the red-coated general.

Francis Hamilton came to the conference from his home in Scotland bearing a sword inherited from his mother, whose grandfather married Ross’s granddaughter.

Family tradition holds that the sword was surrendered to Ross at Bladensburg by Commodore Joshua Barney, the U.S. Navy hero who led a last-ditch effort to save Washington.

Navy historians who have examined the data consider the story plausible.

Hamilton wants to return the sword to an American museum in time for the bicentennial of Washington’s capture next year — one more gesture of reconciliation between former enemies.

Steve Vogel is author of “Through the Perilous Fight.”

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