Major General Robert Ross was born in 1766, in Ross-Trevor (now Rostrevor), County Down, Northern Ireland. He graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland and, at the age of 19, joined the British Army's 25th Foot, an Infantry Regiment. He rose steadily through the ranks, being promoted to Captain in the 7th Regiment. Later, as a Major in 1799, he joined the 20th Regiment and assumed command of it in 1803. As a brevet Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 20th, Ross saw significant action in Spain, Egypt, Italy, and the Netherlands. He was wounded 3 times, two of which were severe. For his conspicuous gallantry, leadership, and heroism, he was awarded three Gold Medals, the Peninsula Gold Medal, a Sword of Honor, and he received the thanks of Parliament.
Robert Ross was a seasoned veteran of the Duke of Wellington's campaigns and a strict disciplinarian who drilled his men relentlessly. Nevertheless, he was very popular with his men. He was always ready to share in his soldiers' hardships and fight alongside them in the thick of battle - as attested to by his three wounds. In 1812, Ross was promoted to Major General.
When the Napoleonic War ended, Wellington sent Ross to North America to unite with Royal Navy units under the command of Rear Admiral George Cockburn and Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane. He commanded a 4500-man army, comprised of the 4th (King's Own) Light, 21st Royal North British Fusiliers, 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot, and 85th Regiment of Foot. The mission of their combined forces was to divert the attention of United States forces from other theaters of the war by raiding the coast of North America.
The military action Major General Ross is most widely know for is the capture and burning of the nation's capitol, on 24 August. That act followed the Battle of Bladensburg, where American militia forces broke and ran before the attacking Regular British Infantry, sadly remembered in history with the shameful title of the, "Bladensburg Races". The only real defense offered by American forces were 500 flotillamen and 120 Marines, manning 3 heavy Navy cannons and 3 lighter field artillery pieces, commanded by Commodore Joshua Barney. Ross, again leading from the front, had his horse shot out from under him while directing his regiments in the eventual capture of the cannons and a badly wounded Barney. Later the same day, Ross had a second horse shot from under him when he entered the town of Washington. On 26 August 1814, Ross and his men embarked their ships and sailed North in the Chesapeake for Baltimore.
On a moonless night from 3 to 7 o'clock in the morning of 12 September, Ross and his men began landing on the North Point Beachhead. Still in high spirits and morale from their capture of Washington less than three weeks earlier, they formed into march columns for the assault on Baltimore. The column stretched from the beachhead to Todd's Inheritance. Patrols were dispatched throughout the lower North Point Peninsula to reconnoiter for the defending Americans. Several British soldiers happily ate, drank, or carried-off everything they could find in Doctor Trotten's House on Sparrows Point.
While Major General Ross and his staff occupied the Shaw House to coordinate their attack, Eleanor Shaw, daughter of the house's owner, was forced to climb out of a second story window, screaming, to avoid the unwanted advances of a British lieutenant. Ever the disciplinarian, Ross ordered the officer back to the ships for later punishment. As history does not record the name of this officer, it seems clear that his career was ended that day.
The 4th Regiment was placed at the head of the British column to lead the main body and serve as a skirmishing line. It was a hot morning and the British soldiers were severely fatigued by the march. While Ross halted his men beyond the Gorsuch Farm* (somewhere near the present intersection of Wise Avenue & North Point Road), he, Rear Admiral Cockburn, and their staff imposed themselves upon Mr. Robert Gorsuch to cook them breakfast. While having their meal, British flank security elements captured and brought in three, American Light Cavalrymen. When questioned by Ross about the American defenses, the three prisoners told him Baltimore was defended by 20,000 soldiers and 200 cannons. Ross reportedly laughed and said, "But they are mainly militia, I presume". Having almost effortlessly scattered what he believed to be similar militia at Bladensburg, Ross said he'd take Baltimore, "if it rains militia!". Afterward, when Ross, Cockburn, and their staffs prepared to leave, Mr. Gorsuch asked sarcastically if they would be returning for supper. Reportedly, Ross replied, "I'll sup tonight in Baltimore - or Hell". What the captured cavalrymen cleverly failed to mention was that more Americans waited near by.
The American field commander, Brigadier General John Stricker, had camped the previous night less than 4 miles from where Ross had breakfast. Stricker and his brigade of just over 3,100 men had been ordered down the North Point Peninsula by Major General Samuel Smith, the commander in chief during the Battle of Baltimore. Smith was convinced that the British would attack Baltimore via the North Point Peninsula and had prepared his defense accordingly. When he learned conclusively that the British fleet had assembled in the Patapsco River at the mouth of Old Roads Bay, Stricker's brigade was ordered to meet them and fight a delaying action.
Stricker, upon learning the British had halted to eat breakfast, was insulted at their arrogance. Several American officers volunteered to move forward and dislodge the British from the Gorsuch Farm. Major Richard Heath, with two companies of the 5th Maryland Regiment, and Captain Edward Aisquith's rifle company, with one cannon, about 230 men in all, moved forward.
Soon after midday, as Major General Ross and his staff were riding through an area locally know as Godly Wood, the British 4th Light Infantry Regiment made contact with the men commanded by Major Heath. Riding to the sound of musketry to be at the front with his men, Ross had mingled with the skirmishers and was shot through his right arm and breast. He fell into the arms of his aide-de-camp, Captain Duncan McDougall, and was moved to the rear and laid beneath a tree on Robert Gorsuch's farm. He lived long enough to name his wife and commend the protection of his family to his country. He was 48 years old.
Credit for the killing of Ross is given to Privates Daniel Wells, 19, and Henry G. McComas, 18. Both were members of Aisquith's Rifle Company and died at the same time that Ross was shot.
Robert Ross' body was taken to Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane's 80-gun flagship, H.M.S. Tonnant, and placed in a barrel of rum to preserve it for the return to his home in Ireland. However, due to impending operations at New Orleans, his body was transferred to the H.M.S. Royal Oak and he was buried on 29 September 1814, with full military honors at St. Paul's Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1816, on the shoreline of Carlingford Bay, Rostrevor, a 100-foot granite obelisk was funded and erected in honor of Ross by the officers and men that served with him.