GEORGE William Frederick of Saxe-Gotha, writhing against...

Salmagundi

November 08, 1993

GEORGE William Frederick of Saxe-Gotha, writhing against his fetters as he sat there on the stage of the Mechanic Theater, left some Baltimore playgoers in an emotional quandary. Were our ancestors perhaps a teeny bit hard on dotty old George III? Wasn't he deserving, in his biochemical affliction, of a modicum of sympathy?

But, for the moment, let's bypass George the colonies-taxer and Napoleon-basher. The story of another Britisher from that era is up for review and, to a Baltimorean, his case history has considerably more immediacy. The thing about Robert Ross was, we killed him.

He was riding along, in the conspicuous uniform of a major general, on Patapsco Neck, close to his advance guard, that day in September 1814, when snipers drew a bead on him and fired. A musket ball pierced his right arm and chest. Ross, felled and in agony, murmured, "My dear wife," and soon died.

A firefight followed, the Battle of North Point, won by the British. Next day, the main opposing forces converged on what is now Patterson Park, where Baltimore's defenders were dug in. Ross's replacement, Arthur Brooke, learning that the British naval elements had failed meanwhile to reduce Fort McHenry, broke off and withdrew to the bay for re-embarkment. The full sequence is vividly related in Walter Lord's 1972 book, "The Dawn's Early Light."

What is new, in Christopher T. George's absorbing account in the current issue of Maryland Historical Magazine, is Ross's letters to his wife, and Brooke's diary, now in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Previous historians had overlooked them.

First, in the August heat, Ross and his 4,000 to 5,000 men marched from the Patuxent to Bladensburg, where they routed the militia, and to Washington, where they responded to the earlier U.S. sack and pillage of York (now Toronto) by putting the Capitol and other public buildings to the torch. En route, he faced the same sniper tactic -- Ross's horse was killed under him. (The ship-borne British had no cavalry, a factor in the unfought Battle of Baltimore.) Then the invaders withdrew, unmolested, to sail on up the bay and to find Baltimore's land and sea defenses impregnable.

Ross, from an Anglo-Irish family, was 48, a cut above the usual professional soldier He was a linguist and a violinist. His men liked him. Years of service against the French brought him promotions and medals; but on the American expedition, he still had an unhealed neck wound. To an American, that last day, he supposedly said, "I'll eat in Baltimore tonight -- or in hell."

To his wife Eliza, back in England, he had written: "I trust all our differences with the Yankees will shortly be settled . . . This War cannot last long. We then meet, my Ly, never to separate again."

The fallen general's family, Mr. George notes, was given the title, Ross of Bladensburg, but by now the direct line has died out.

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