The Man Who Burned the White House Down

Robert Ross was from Rostrevor, he was born there in County Down
His family was given land there by the British Crown
He was a man born of the gentry, born with wealth and fame
But he joined the British Army to serve his Queen and make his name

In the Napoleonic Wars he fought in many lands
In Holland and in Spain and on the far-off Egyptian sands
He was wounded there in battle, came back to fight another day
And he was sent off to attack the USA

York had been sacked and burned by invading Yankee men
But the Canadians regrouped, chased the Yankees home and then
The British Navy made its way to the shores of DC town
Where General Ross burned the White House down

The year was 1814, the US was in retreat
It was a Canadian victory, an American defeat
Without the French to help them, they got their ass whipped by the Crown
When General Ross burned the White House down

The place had just been constructed only twelve years before
But it had to be rebuilt, soon after this disastrous war
The President turned tail and ran like a raggedy clown
When General Ross burned the White House down

He was killed a few months later, Irish rebels stopped him in his tracks
He was buried in Nova Scotia, in the town of Halifax
He might have been forgotten, but he’ll forever be renowned
He’s the man who burned the White House down

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“The Man Who Burned the White House Down” appears on the Bandcamp album, Into A Prism (2013) and on the CD, If I Had A Hammer (2013).

Other people have written songs about the torching of the White House in 1814, and I had thought about doing one for years.  Then, when visiting Canada, people would often mention General Robert Ross, this Canadian war hero buried in Halifax who burned down the White House during the misnamed War of 1812 — known in Canada as the failed US attempt to invade Canada.  And then I was visiting Tommy Sands in his home town of Rostrevor, County Down, in the north of Ireland.  In Rostrevor, there’s a large phallic monument in memory of General Ross, and a nice little picture of the White House on fire nearby.

Turns out General Ross wasn’t Canadian.  And, although he grew up in Ireland, he wasn’t Irish, either.  He and most of his fellow Irish-born Protestants are British, according to their own perspectives.  In Robert Ross’s case, his family was given the town in Ireland that they renamed after themselves (Ross=Rostrevor).  Henceforth, the Catholics who lived there were now mostly landless tenant farmers (peasants).

Robert Ross, true to his family, his nation and his class, enthusiastically served the interests of British imperialism in the Napoleonic Wars and other military campaigns.  When the UK came to the defense of Canada after the US invaded Canada in 1812, General Ross was part of that effort.  The US military had burned the Canadian city of York (later Toronto) to the ground — civilian homes as well as government buildings.  In retaliation for this, the British Navy was considering doing the same to Washington, DC.  But they decided to be nicer, and just burn down the government buildings.

Before they torched the White House, they finished eating the president’s breakfast, as it was still hot (James and Dolley Madison had barely escaped the potential encounter with the British forces), then they burned down the White House, the Supreme Court and the Congress.  Soon thereafter in a skirmish in Maryland, General Ross was killed by Irish volunteers — who, coincidentally or not, were of poor, Catholic stock.  If they had known that the British military general they were shooting was a wealthy, Protestant, land-stealing settler from Rostrevor, they might have aimed their rifles with even more enthusiasm.

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