The Capitol Dome

Fall 2014

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I remember my first visit to the United States Capitol on October 16, 1995 for two reasons. Besides being the day of the Million Man March, it was the first time that I had seen the fresco on the ceiling of the Hall of Capitols depicting the British burning the Capitol in August 1814 (see cover). And, as our tour guide revealed to his eager gathering of tourists, they were commanded by Major General Robert Ross (fig. 1) from Rostrevor in Ireland. As a resident of General Ross's home town, I felt that discretion was the better part of valor by not interjecting to acknowledge that fact. Back in 1995, like most residents of Rostrevor (or Rosstrevor, as it was once known owing to Ross's family being landlords of the village and its immediate hinterland), I knew only basic details about Ross's actions in Washington, D.C. And this despite the fact that a 100-foot obelisk erected in his memory is a dominant feature of the village skyline (fig. 2). Until recently the Ross monument and its grounds had become neglected, overgrown and daubed with graffiti (fig. 3). As a redcoat com - mander, he is not a popular figure today. Indeed, there appears to be much more sympathy in the area with his American adversaries. is is reflected in the fact that when the monu- ment was renovated by the local council in 2008, a villager climbed the scaffolding to raise a Betsy Ross flag (fig. 4). As a professional historian I have harbored a lingering curiosity to find out more, without fear nor favor, about this local man who captured Washington. I began this research in earnest after I finished my second book on Irish history about "e Flight of the Earls," a momentous event in 1607 which signalled the end of Gaelic Ireland, clearing the way for Brit - ish colonization of Ulster. 1 By an extraordinary coincidence, it would seem, my new subject of research related to "e Flight of the Madisons"—a term coined to describe President Madison and his wife fleeing Washington before Ross's forces arrived. 2 With the bicentennial of events involving Ross in Wash- ington rapidly approaching, a reappraisal is timely, not least because new research affords new insights and can dispel popular misconceptions. Despite being pilloried at the time in America for winning the "Bladensburg races" as U.S. forces fled from the British at the Battle of Bladensburg for example, evidence shows that President Madison ran very considerable risks as commander-in-chief on that fateful day when he came perilously close to being captured by Ross. What is more, while Ross was responsible for torching the Capitol and other public THE CAPITOL DOME Capital CONFLAGRATOR? Major General Robert Ross By John McCavitt 2

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