Northern Irish town celebrates native son ... the man who burned Washington


Painting of the White House in flames, August 1814.
From TheGuardian.com.

There is a conference over the weekend of October 18-20 based around the life of 19th Century British General Robert Ross, who was from County Down. Ross is a central character in one of the most famous incidents in American history yet very few Americans know about him.

It was Ross who led the British Army into Washington DC in 1814 and, as I learned in school, "burned the White House." It wasn't just the White House, though. Ross's troops set fire to the buildings that housed the Congress, to the Treasury building and essentially all public buildings, except for the Patent Office. Private property was generally not touched.

The burning of the capital city is a pretty shameful affair and it's no wonder that it is generally glossed over, save for a few lines about Dolley Madison's heroic efforts to save the portrait of George Washington. So it's understandable if Robert Ross's name is an unknown to most Americans. If his name were known it would probably be reviled.

Still Ross is probably the greatest enemy of the United States to ever come out of Ireland. He set out to humiliate the Americans and he succeeded. His motivation for wanting to humiliate the United States was probably part British chauvinism and part revenge for the Americans' burning of York (now Toronto), which was the capital of Upper Canada at the time.

Ross of Bladensburg¹ arms granted to family
of Gen.Ross. Note Army Gold Cross medal
& US flag on broken staff.
{Crest & Caption thanks to John McCavitt}
The capture and burning of Washington may have been the high water mark of Ross's career. Three weeks later he was dead, killed by a sniper during the (ultimately unsuccessful) attack on Baltimore (see Key, Francis Scott).

While at first it seemed something of an odd idea to me as an American to use "the most humiliating episode in American history" in a bid to woo tourists to County Down, specifically Rostrevor, the more I thought about it the more I found myself saying, "Sure, why not?" An awful lot of water has passed under the bridge in the 199 years since Washington was burned. Besides, it's just history. {I know what you're thinking - nothing is "just history" in Ireland - but we'll leave that alone for now.}

Thus the conference later this month to promote the life of Robert Ross. It's not just about Robert Ross either. Local man and Ross expert John McCavitt* (@) is on a one-man mission to spread the word about Ross, but also to discover and pass on the stories of all the Irish and those of Irish descent who played a role in the War of 1812 on both sides.

Look, I know the war of 1812 is not one that fires the imagination, at least not in America (see Canada. Maybe?). In Ireland or Britain it's hardly known (and the name "War of 1812" for a war that lasted 3 years? Source of mirth.) If you have an interest in history, especially the history of the Irish in America then head to Rostrevor for the conference. The line-up of speakers looks pretty good and if the weather's half-way decent that area is one of the prettiest in Ireland.

* McCavitt is also Convenor of this month's conference.

¹  Bladensburg refers to Bladensburg, MD where the Ross's British troops routed the Americans leaving the road to Washington wide open.


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