Monumentally Speaking . . .
Christopher T. George

Who Killed Robert Ross

T wo Baltimore monuments are connected to a long-standing legend from the War of 1812 that two city teenagers killed the British commander, Dublin-born Maj. Gen. Robert Ross.

One of these monuments, the city's Battle Monument at Fayette and Calvert Streets, will be rededicated on Friday, September 12. At noon on that day, a procession of War of 1812 re-enactors and dignitaries will march from City Hall to Monument Square for the rededication. This historic monument, with a foundation stone laid in 1815, is being renovated at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars for the City's Bicentennial. The hour-long rededication ceremony, to which the public is invited, will feature remarks by Mayor Kurt L. .Schmoke and historians, including yours truly Chris George and Scott Sheads, a ranger-historian at Fort McHenry and the author of a recent book on the subject.

The 52-foot high Battle Monument is the symbol of the City of Baltimore and is believed to be this nation's first true war memorial. The upper portion of the monument comprises a fasces or bundle of sticks similar to that seen on the reverse of the old Mercury dime. The names of 39 dead defenders appear spelled out in copper letters on carved ribbons wrapped in diagonal bands around the column of Carrara marble, to symbolize how their sacrifice binds the country together. Among the names of the soldiers who gave their lives are Daniel Wells and Henry G. McComas, the two young men who some people credit with shooting British commander Ross, so helping to blunt the enemy thrust toward the city.

Their names appear above a tableau carved by Italian sculptor Antonio Capellano that shows the death scene with Ross being laid on the ground while the American militia fire over a rail fence in a scene meant to represent the Battle of North Point.

Legend has it that Wells and McComas had seen Ross at Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, when the British routed the American militia under Brig. Gen. William H. Winder before sacking Washington. Early on the morning of September 12, as the British advanced toward Baltimore, the story goes, the word was passed down the line, "Remember, boys, General Ross rides a white horse today."

How would the Americans have known what color horse Ross would have been riding? In an 1831 reminiscence, the Royal Navy lieutenant who took Ross's body down to the landing place clearly remembered "the dead general 's servant leading a magnificent black horse"!

Be that as it may, the story goes that our heroes recognized Ross as he rode up Long Log Lane (present-day Old North Point Road). McComas said, "I see a mark." To which Wells replied, "So do I." They each took shelter behind separate trees and "fired simultaneously." (To be cynical, the latter is essential so they can get equal credit for the one bullet that killed Ross!) As Ross fell, the British troops fired toward the telltale smoke and both fell dead. When his body was recovered several days later, it was thought that McComas had been in the act of reloading when he was shot through the heart. Wells meanwhile is said to have been shot through the back of the head.

So much for the legend. What of the facts? It is certain enough that Wells and McComas were privates in Captain Edward Aisquith's militia rifle company which saw action at Bladensburg. According to the muster rol1 of Aisquith's company to be seen in the manuscripts department of the Maryland Historical Society, both were "killed in the advance" on September 12 just prior to the Battle of North Point. Indeed, both did die in the skirmish in which Ross received his fatal wound, a short while before the British under new commander Col. Arthur Brooke engaged Brig. Gen. John Stricker's Third Brigade of Militia near Bear Creek where Patapsco Neck narrows (in the vicinity of present-day Battle Acre), and eventually, at cost. drove the Americans from the field.

Whether either Wells or McComas fired the fatal shot that killed Ross is another question entirely. British official reports relate that Ross was shot in the right side, through the bridle arm, but the accounts vary between saying that a rifleman killed the general or that a musketbal1 (in contrast to a lighter rifleball) did the damage.

Advocates of the Wells and McComas theory are able to come up with a number of biographical facts about the two dead riflemen.

We know, for example, that Wells and McComas were both apprentices who worked in the city's leather industry. Henry McComas,; whose mother and father came from Harford County, worked for Felix Jenkins in the business of making saddles, harnesses and trunks. Wells, meanwhile, was apprenticed to Edward Jenkins, who had a business specializing in making saddlery. It is also known that Daniel Wells, born to an Annapolis family, had a grandfather of the same name who fought in the American Revolution.

We also know that in the mid- 1850's the military companies of Baltimore thought highly enough of the two fallen heroes to form a Wells and McComas Monument Association to honor their memory. In 1858, the remains of the two riflemen were disinterred from their vault in Greenmount Cemetery, laid in state in the old Maryland Institute, and reburied in Ashland Square at Monument and Gay Streets. In 1873, after funding had been raised by public subscription (in a manner similar to the way citizens raised the money to build the Battle Monument), a 21-foot high obelisk of Baltimore County marble was built over their grave. According to the inscriptions on the base, at death, Daniel Wells was "aged 19 years, 8 months, and 13 days" and Henry G. McComas "aged 18 years, 11 months, and 22 days." However. no claim is made on the monument that the boys shot Ross. Nineteenth century historian J. Thomas Scharf viewed this as highly significant. "Thus it will be seen," he wrote in a letter to the press, "that the comrades of Wells and McComas, who erected the monument to their memory, did not claim that they killed General Ross."

A quite different school of thought maintains that it was not a rifleman who shot Ross at all but a regular militiamen. It is known that there were several militia units in the vicinity of the deadly skirmish. In this period, militia infantrymen regularly loaded their muskets with a "buck and ball", that is, they would load the barrel with buckshot along with a musketball. In his 1913 book, The British Invasion of Maryland, William M. Marine reports a conversation that allegedly took place in the English Lake District in 1846. An American, Henry Wilson, "met a gentleman at the dinner table" who claimed to have been Ross's aide de camp and who related that Ross's wound had been "caused by a musket ball and a buck-shot." This "evidence" is taken by the anti-Wells and McComas camp as being proof that another unit, perhaps the Independent Blues, a company of the Fifth Regiment, did the deed. The muskets of the Independent Blues, were, it is said, loaded with "buck and ball." The unit's commander, Capt. Aaron R. Levering, is alleged to have seen an officer ride up at the head of the enemy line. He is deported to have ordered his men, "Take good aim, there's an officer." The militiamen saw the British officer fall from his horse and from the description of his uniform it was thought that it was Ross.

We may never know the truth of the matter. A friend of mine, archaeologist Kathy Erlandson, who has carried out work on the North Point battlefield, has talked of investigating General Ross's remains in St. Paul's Graveyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She would like to ascertain if there is evidence of buckshot in Ross's remains. If that were so it would finally lay to rest the Wells and McComas story.

In any case, these two monuments, the Wells and McComas Monument and the Battle Monument, are city treasures. Given its historical and architectural] importance, is it any wonder that the city's Commission on Architectural and Historic Preservation has chosen the Battle Monument as its major capital project this year? If you would like to help renovate the Battle Monument, there is still time to do so. Tax-deductible donations may be mailed to:

417 E. Fayette Street
Baltimore, MD 21202

[Device] Christopher T. George is a local free-lance writer and poet and the author of the recent picture book on our city, Baltimore Close Up, from Arcadia Publishers, on sale at local bookstores.

Questions or comments about this article for Mr. George.

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