It has been over 200 years since the Burning of Washington, when the White House and other public buildings in the capital were burned to the ground under the command of Major General Robert Ross, an Irish man in the British Army. I had the privilege of speaking about these medals at a numismatic training day we held recently at the Ulster Museum.
Ross was born and lived in Rostrevor, Do. Down. He commissioned in the 25th Regiment of Foot in 1789 when he was 19 years old. As a second son, he had to make his way in the world. Ross commanded its one battalion and is credited with ensuring his troops were one of the fittest in the army by keeping them busy with exercises and manoeuvres during inactive periods. He afterwards joined the 20th Regiment and in 1806, they invaded Calabria and fought the French at Maida. Ross was awarded a gold army medal for this victory. This medal was authorized in 1806 and only 13 were issued to senior officers involved in the Battle of Maida when a small British force of troops defeated the larger French Army.
The first of these medals to be issued were the small gold medals inscribed ‘Maida’ is 39mm in diameter with a crimson ribbon edged in navy. Obverse bearing the profile of George III and reverse a winged figure of Victory over the Britannia. The name and date of the battle are inscribed. This medal established the format of the other gold medals to follow.
Ross received another gold army medal for his services in Corunna in 1809. After a period of time back home in Ireland with his family, he was sent again to the Peninsula and served in Wellington’s army and impressed Wellington with his courage and exemplar behaviour towards his men. In June 1813 he was promoted to Major General and further distinguished himself by being awarded a third gold army medal for his time at Vittoria.
Burning of Washington
Although conflict was ending with the French by 1814, the 1812 American War was still continuing. Ross and Admiral Cockburn, after marching to the village of Bladensburg and a short but successful battle, had captured the village and destroyed its bridges. Bladensburg was the last defensible position on the road to Washington.
Despite offering a truce to spare the civilian’s private property if they remained quietly in their homes, a sniper shot at Ross, killing his horse. Ross proceeded onwards and destroyed all public buildings. The Capital was one of the first buildings to be torched followed by the White House. President Madison had escaped unharmed and his wife fled. A few of the servants were credited with saving the portrait of George Washington.
So unexpected was the march on Washington and the confidence of President Madison of the British defeat, that the dining room was laid out for a celebration dinner. The British troops however didn’t waste the opportunity to feast and toast the health of the Prince Regent before as Colonel Brooke describes in his diary the sky illuminated from all the blazes.
Evidence still exists today of Ross’s actions in the soot stains purposely left on some areas of the White House as a reminder of that fateful night. Ross became famous as the man who captured and sacked Washington and was declared a British hero in the London newspapers.
However in September of that year, marching to Baltimore, a sniper shot and killed Major General Robert Ross. The final medal to be awarded to Ross was the Gold Cross bearing the inscriptions of the battles he had fought at.
Clasps for second and third battles and campaigns could be added but when an officer became eligible for a fourth clasp, like Ross was, they were instead awarded the Gold Cross with the names of the four battles engraved on its arms. Clasps could be added to the ribbon of the Gold Cross for subsequent battles.
Over 160 Gold Crosses, 85 large Gold Army medals and over 500 of small medals were awarded in total.
This medal was given to his widow and a Grant of Arms awarding the family a second crest and the family name to be hereafter Ross of Bladensburg.