Gen. Robert Ross died in Battle of North Point.
Gen. Robert Ross died in Battle of North Point. (Courtesy Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore Sun)

Public Broadcasting Service's recent documentary on the War of 1812 failed to include the historic and decisive Battle of North Point, where British forces were repulsed by American regulars, militiamen and Baltimoreans under the command of Gen. Sam Smith.

The Battle of North Point was, as local railroad historian Martin K. Van Horn noted in a letter last week in The Baltimore Sun, "one of the few land battles the Americans won against the British," who were forced to withdraw, thus saving Baltimore from being invaded and occupied.


It was late August 1814, when British Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, who had just routed the American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg and then burned Washington, turned his attention toward Baltimore.

In taking Washington, Ross encountered little or no opposition.

Flush with success, he marched on Baltimore, expecting the same lack of opposition he had encountered in Washington. What he had not reckoned on was the fierce determination and pluck of the citizen soldiers and local residents in defending their city.

British forces estimated to be between 7,000 and 8,000, landed early in the morning of Sept. 12 at North Point. It was to be a two-pronged attack, with ground forces under the command of Ross, while warships would pound Fort McHenry.

George R. Gleig, a British officer who wrote an eyewitness account of the invasion, recalled taking three American prisoners to Ross, who, with Rear Admiral George Cockburn, had paused to eat breakfast at Robert Gorsuch's farmhouse on Long Log Lane, now Old North Point Road.

When Ross interrogated the prisoners on the strength of the American forces defending Baltimore, they exaggerated and told him that there were at least 20,000.

Anxious to resume the march to Baltimore, Ross stood up and prepared to leave. His reluctant host asked if he should he prepare dinner for their return.

"No," said Ross. "I'll eat in Baltimore tonight — or in hell."

American sharpshooters had been told to look for Ross.

"Remember, boys, General Ross rides a white horse today," they were repeatedly advised by officers.

Hearing gunfire, Ross galloped ahead to see if his advance party had run into trouble.

"He had scarcely entered the wood, when an American rifleman singled him out; he fired, and the ball, true to its mark, pierced his side," wrote Gleig.

The attack toppled Ross from his horse. He lay on the side of the dusty road fully conscious, ordering, "Send immediately for Colonel Brooke."

Gleig observed that the stunned British forces marched silently by their wounded commander, trying not to notice him, as a doctor struggled to save his life.


"Ross sensed the effect on his men, and asked to be covered with a blanket. He was gently dissuaded — by now it was far too late to hide the truth," wrote Walter Lord in his history, "The Dawn's Early Light."

The dying general was placed in a wagon that had been procured from the farm of George Stansbury. Finally, Ross's aide noticed that he had slipped into a coma and stopped under some trees. Ross, momentarily revived, said, "My dear wife."

By the time they reached the beach, Ross had died and his body was wrapped in the Union Jack.

There is some dispute over who killed Ross. For years, it was assumed that two 21-year-old American privates, Henry Gough McComas and Daniel Wells, two Baltimoreans, had fired the fatal shots.

They had not long to savor their deed, as they were killed in a firefight shortly afterward.

"The facts here are blurred. No one was really there," said Towson author Blaine Taylor, who is completing his book "1814: In Full Glory Reflected: The Star Spangled Banner War of 1812." Even Walter Lord wrote in his book that Ross' horse was "not white but black."

It's unlikely the mystery of who killed Ross will ever be resolved; for the moment, the credit still keeps the names of Wells and McComas alive.

The bodies of the two men were from a Green Mount Cemetery vault in 1858 and buried at Ashland Square at Monument and Gay streets, over which a marble obelisk was erected in 1873.

However, there is no mention on the stone, writes Baltimore writer, Christopher T. George, "that the boys shot Ross."

Baltimore historian J. Thomas Scharf wrote, "Thus it will be seen that the comrades of Wells and McComas, who erected the monument to their memory, did not claim they killed General Ross."

The general's body was stored in a barrel of 129 gallons of Jamaican rum but never made it back to England.

He was buried on Sept. 29, 1814, in the Old St. Paul Burying Ground in Nova Scotia.