Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ross, Robert (1766-1814)

ROSS, ROBERT (1766–1814), major-general, who won Bladensburg, and took Washington, born late in 1766, was the son of Major David Ross of Rosstrevor, an officer who served with distinction in the seven years' war. His mother was Elizabeth, daughter of T. Adderley of Innishannon, and half-sister of James Caulfeild, first Earl of Charlemont [q. v.]

He matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, on 11 Oct. 1784, at the age of seventeen, and was commissioned as ensign in the 25th foot on 1 Aug. 1789. He became lieutenant in the 7th fusiliers on 13 July 1791, and captain on 21 April 1795. On 23 Dec. of that year he obtained a majority in the second battalion of the 19th regiment, but the battalion was soon afterwards reduced. After being for some years on half pay, he became major in the 20th foot on 6 Aug. 1799. The regiment was sent to Holland immediately afterwards to form part of the Anglo-Russian army under the Duke of York. Three-fourths of the men were volunteers from the militia; but it was ‘a regiment that never would be beaten,’ and at Krabbendam on 10 Sept. it repulsed a vigorous attack by the central column of Brune's army. This was Ross's first engagement. He was severely wounded, and had no further share in the operations.

In the following year he went with the regiment to Minorca, and helped to persuade the men, who were engaged for service in Europe only, to volunteer for Egypt. The regiment landed in Egypt in July 1801, when Ménou was still holding out in Alexandria; and it distinguished itself on 25 Aug. by storming an outpost with the bayonet only, and repelling the enemy's attempt to recover it. A few days afterwards Ménou capitulated; and at the end of the year the 20th went to Malta.

Ross had been made brevet lieutenant-colonel on 1 Jan. 1801 for his service in Holland; but he was still regimental major when he succeeded, in September 1803, to the actual command of the 20th, which was now reduced to one battalion. He exercised the regiment indefatigably: ‘we were repeatedly out for eight hours during the hot weather; frequently crossing the country, scouring the fields over the stone walls, the whole of the regiment acting as light infantry; and the best of the joke was that no other corps in the island was similarly indulged’ (Steevens, Reminiscences, p. 39).

In November 1805 the regiment went to Naples as part of the expedition under Sir James Henry Craig [q. v.], but there was no fighting. Two months afterwards, upon the news of Austerlitz and the approach of the French in force, the expedition withdrew to Sicily. In July 1806 the British troops, now under Sir John Stuart (1761–1815) [q. v.], landed in Calabria, and met the French at Maida. The 20th had been sent up the coast to make a diversion, and disembarked in the bay of St. Euphemia only on the morning of the battle. The French cavalry and skirmishers were turning the British left, when Ross, who had hastened up with his regiment, issued upon them from a wood. He ‘drove the swarm of sharpshooters before him; gave the French cavalry such a volley as sent them off in confusion to the rear; and, passing beyond the left of Cole's brigade, wheeled the 20th to their right, and opened a shattering fire on the enemy's battalions. The effect was decisive. Reynier was completely taken by surprise at the apparition of this fresh assailant; he made but a short and feeble effort to maintain his ground’ (Bunbury, Narrative, p. 247). Stuart, in his general orders, spoke of Ross's action as ‘a prompt display of gallantry and judgment to which the army was most critically indebted.’ Ross received a gold medal for this battle. The 20th took part in the storming of Scylla Castle, and then returned to Sicily. In the following year it was included in the force under Sir John Moore, which was meant to anticipate the French at Lisbon, but which, finding itself too late, went on to England.

On 21 Jan. 1808 Ross became lieutenant-colonel of the 20th, and six months afterwards embarked with it for Portugal. Vimiera had been fought before he landed, though part of the regiment was engaged there; but he was with Moore during his advance into Spain and subsequent retreat to Coruña. The 20th formed part of the reserve, and was for some time the rearguard of the army. It was repeatedly engaged, but owing to its excellent discipline it lost fewer men than any other regiment. Ross's knowledge of French and Spanish proved very useful in this campaign. As part of Paget's division (the reserve), the 20th had a share in the turning movement which decided the battle of Coruña. Ross received a gold medal for Coruña. In August 1809, having been brought up to its strength by large drafts from other regiments, the 20th was sent to Walcheren. It was not engaged; within a month two-thirds of the men were in hospital, and on its return to England the regiment had to be once more reformed. To restore its condition it was sent to Ireland. There the men were again drilled by their colonel as in Malta, ‘every conceivable contingency of actual warfare being carefully and frequently rehearsed.’ About 1809 a sword was presented to Ross by the officers of his regiment in honour of Maida. On 25 July 1810 he was made brevet colonel, and in the same year aide-de-camp to the king.

At the end of 1812 the 20th was again sent to the Peninsula, and was brigaded with the 7th and 23rd fusiliers in the fourth (Cole's) division. In the spring of 1813, shortly before the campaign opened, Ross applied for the command of a brigade. Wellington gave him the fusilier brigade, of which his own regiment formed part, and on 4 June he was made major-general. At Vittoria, Cole's division was in support, and played only a secondary part; but it was foremost in the series of actions by which Soult's attempt to relieve Pampeluna was frustrated. This attempt began on 25 July with a direct attack on Byng's brigade, while Reille, with sixteen thousand men, moved round its left flank. Ross's brigade, twelve miles in rear, hurried up in support of Byng, and on reaching the main ridge of the Pyrenees, above Roncesvalles, encountered the head of Reille's column. To secure the advantage of ground, Ross ordered the leading troops to charge at once; and Captain Tovey, with a company of the 20th, dashed at the 6me léger with the bayonet. Other companies followed; and though they were soon forced back by overwhelming numbers, time enough was gained for the rest of the brigade to form up and secure the pass. In the night the British troops fell back, and the army was gradually concentrated in front of Pampeluna. In the battle of Sauroren on the 28th (as Wellington wrote in his despatch of 1 Aug.), ‘the gallant fourth division, which had so frequently been distinguished in this army, surpassed their former good conduct. Every regiment charged with the bayonet, and the 40th, 7th, 20th, and 23rd four different times. Their officers set them the example, and Major-general Ross had two horses shot under him.’

Ross was at the battle of the Nivelle (10 Nov.), and his services were mentioned by Cole in his report. At the battle of Orthes, 27 Feb. 1814, he carried the village of St. Boës on the French right, and five times attempted to deploy beyond it to attack the heights, in face of an overwhelming fire of artillery and musketry. He received a wound which nearly cost him his life, but of which he wrote cheerfully a fortnight afterwards: ‘You will be happy to hear that the hit I got in the chops is likely to prove of mere temporary inconvenience.’ It disabled him, however, for the rest of the campaign. He was among the officers who received the thanks of parliament for Orthes. He was given a gold medal for Vittoria, and the Peninsula gold cross.

The war was hardly at an end when the British government made arrangements to send four brigades of infantry from Wellington's army to America; three of them to Canada, and one as an expeditionary force against the coasts of the United States. Ross was selected for the command of the latter, and embarked with it on 1 June 1814. It consisted of three battalions, to which a fourth was added at Bermuda, bringing up the strength to 3,400 men. Its mission, according to the chancellor of the exchequer (in a speech in the House of Commons on 14 Nov.), was ‘to retaliate upon the Americans for the outrages which they had committed upon the frontiers.’ The combined naval and military force entered the Chesapeake, sailed up the Patuxent, and on 19 Aug. the troops were landed at Benedict. Including a strong battalion of marines, their total number was about 4,500 men; they had three light guns and some rockets. An American flotilla had taken refuge in the upper water of the Patuxent, and an attack upon this flotilla served to cover an approach to the capital. While the boats of the fleet moved up the river, the troops marched up the right bank to Upper Marlborough. The American commodore, having no means of escape, blew up his vessels. Ross then struck inland, and marched on Washington by way of Bladensburg, a distance of about twenty-eight miles. At Bladensburg he found the United States troops drawn up on high ground behind a branch of the Potomac—6,500 men, mostly militia, with twenty-six guns, worked by the sailors of the flotilla. There were about five hundred dragoons; while Ross had no horsemen except some fifty artillery drivers who had been mounted on such horses as could be found. His troops had to defile over a bridge swept by the fire of the enemy's guns. But he attacked without hesitation. After three hours' fighting the Americans, pressed on both flanks as well as in front, broke and fled, taking shelter in the woods, and leaving ten of their guns behind. The British loss was 250 men, and Ross himself had a horse shot under him.

The same evening (24 Aug.) he pushed on to Washington. On his approach to reconnoitre a few shots were fired, and he again narrowly escaped, his horse being killed. Otherwise no resistance was made. ‘So unexpected was our entry and capture of Washington,’ he wrote, ‘and so confident was Madison of the defeat of our troops, that he had prepared a supper for the expected conquerors; and when our advanced party entered the President's house, they found a table laid with forty covers.’ In the course of that night and the next day all the public buildings—the halls of congress, the supreme court, the public offices, including the national archives and library—were burnt. The arsenal and dockyard, with the vessels under construction in it, had already been set on fire by the Americans themselves. Their destruction was completed; and the great bridge over the Potomac was also burnt. Private property was scrupulously respected, with the exception of the house from which the shots had been fired. The following night the troops began their march back to their ships. It was not interfered with, and they re-embarked on the 30th.

Of this expedition Jomini wrote: ‘To the great astonishment of the world, a handful of seven or eight thousand English were seen to land in the middle of a state of ten million inhabitants, and penetrate far enough to get possession of the capital, and destroy all the public buildings; results for a parallel to which we should search history in vain. One would be tempted to set it down to the republican and unmilitary spirit of those states, if we had not seen the militia of Greece, Rome, and Switzerland make a better defence of their homes against far more powerful attacks, and if in this same year another and more numerous English expedition had not been totally defeated by the militia of Louisiana under the orders of General Jackson’ (Des Expéditions d'Outremer). The United States government had ample warning that an attempt on Washington was contemplated. General Armstrong, the secretary of war, who had made light of it, was forced by the public outcry to resign.

It was decided by the general and the admiral that the next stroke should be at Baltimore. The troops, now reduced to less than four thousand, were landed at North Point on 12 Sept., and had to march through about twelve miles of thickly wooded country to reach the city. About six thousand militia were drawn up to protect it, and skirmishing soon began in the woods. Ross, riding to the front as usual, was mortally wounded, a bullet passing through his right arm into his breast. He died as he was being carried back to the boats. The advance was continued, and the militia were routed; but the attack on Baltimore was eventually abandoned, as (apart from the irretrievable loss of their commander) the navy found it impossible to co-operate, and the troops re-embarked on 15 Sept.

The British reprisals excited great indignation in America. Monroe, the secretary of state (afterwards president), wrote to the British admiral: ‘In the course of ten years past the capitals of the principal powers of Europe have been conquered and occupied alternately by the victorious armies of each other; and no instance of such wanton and unjustifiable destruction has been seen.’ The same feeling found voice in the House of Commons, but Mr. Whitbread, while giving expression to it in the strongest terms, acquitted Ross of all blame, and said 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 of so much moderation and justice’ (Hansard, xxix. 181).

The ministers showed their satisfaction with his work both in public and private. The chancellor of the exchequer said in the House of Commons (14 Nov.): ‘While he inflicted chastisement in a manner to convey, in the fullest sense, the terror of the British arms, the Americans themselves could not withhold from him the meed of praise for the temper and moderation with which he executed the task assigned to him.’ Lord Bathurst wrote to Wellington (27 Sept.): ‘The conduct of Major-general Ross does credit to your grace's school.’ Goulburn, one of the commissioners who were treating for peace at Ghent, wrote (21 Oct.): ‘We owed the acceptance of our article respecting the Indians to the capture of Washington; and if we had either burnt Baltimore or held Plattsburg, I believe we should have had peace on the terms you have sent to us in a month at latest.’ Lord Liverpool (on the same date) wrote to Castlereagh regretting that more troops had not been placed under Ross, instead of being sent to Canada, adding: ‘The capture and destruction of Washington has not united the Americans; quite the contrary. We have gained more credit with them by saving private property than we have lost by the destruction of their public works and buildings.’ The actual damage done, as assessed by a committee of congress, was less than a million dollars.

Combined operations have too often failed from friction between the naval and military commanders; but in Ross, the admiral (Sir A. Cochrane) said, ‘are blended those qualities so essential to promote success where co-operation between the two services becomes necessary.’ Rear-admiral (afterwards Sir George) Cockburn, who was with him when he fell, 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.’

His services and death were referred to in the speech from the throne at the opening of parliament (8 Nov.), and a public monument in St. Paul's was voted for him. It is placed above the entrance to the crypt. A monument was also raised to him at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his body was buried on 29 Sept. At Rosstrevor, his home, his old regiment, the 20th, put up a memorial to him in the parish church, and in 1826 a granite obelisk, one hundred feet high, was erected by the officers of the Chesapeake force and the gentry of county Down, ‘as a tribute to his private worth and a record of his military exploits.’

A portrait of Ross presented to the 20th regiment by his aide-de-camp, afterwards General Falls, has been reproduced as a frontispiece to Smyth's history of the regiment.

A royal warrant, dated 25 Aug. 1815, after setting forth his services at Maida, in Spain, and in America, granting fresh armorial bearings, ordained that his widow and descendants might henceforward be called Ross of Bladensburg ‘as a memorial of his loyalty, ability, and valour.’

Ross married, in London, on 2 Dec. 1802, Elizabeth, daughter of W. Glascock, and had several children, of whom two sons and one daughter survived infancy. His wife nursed him at St. Jean de Luz after his wound at Orthes, making her way over snowy mountains from Bilbao. When he went to America three months afterwards he promised her that it should be his last campaign. She died 12 May 1845.

[Gent. Mag. 1814, ii. 483; United Service Journal, 1829, p. 414; Cole's Peninsular Generals; Smyth's History of the Twentieth Regiment; Steevens's Reminiscences of my Military Life; Bunbury's Narratives of some Passages in the Great War, pp. 8, 152, 247, 435; Gleig's Washington and New Orleans; James's Military Occurrences of the late War between Great Britain and the United States; Ingraham's Sketch of the Events which preceded the capture of Washington; Wellington Despatches, x. 338, 582; Wellington Supplementary Series, viii. 370, 693, ix. 85, 137, 292, 366; Castlereagh Correspondence, x. 138, &c.; Burke's Landed Gentry; and information furnished by Major Ross of Bladensburg, C.B.]

E. M. L.