Nova Scotia

Trump blames Canada for torching White House. Meet the 'reluctant arsonist'

Historians say U.S. President Donald Trump is wrong about the War of 1812. Still, the British Army officer who ordered the burning of the White House is buried in a Halifax graveyard.

Did Donald Trump get the War of 1812 wrong? Historians say yes, but a Halifax graveyard suggests another story

During the War of 1812, 188 American soldiers died in British custody and were buried on Halifax's Deadman's Island. In 2010, Americans and Canadians gathered to honour them. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

As U.S. President Donald Trump arrives in Quebec for a G7 meeting today, he's flying into a historic storm over the burning question: Did Canada torch the White House?

During a heated exchange with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over tariffs, Trump reportedly asked, "Didn't you guys burn down the White House?"

Robert Ross cut a dashing figure in his British red coat. (Submitted by John McCavitt)

CBC News went to the experts to find out the truth about what happened during the War of 1812. John McCavitt wrote The Man Who Captured Washington, the biography of Robert Ross, the soldier who ordered the fire.

So did Canada burn down the White House?

"Absolutely not," McCavitt says. "It was a British Army led by an Irishman Maj.-Gen. Robert Ross from Rostrevor, County Down, present-day Northern Ireland."

We put the same question to John Boileau, a retired army colonel and author of Half-Hearted Enemies: Nova Scotia, New England and the War of 1812.

Did Canada burn the White House?

"No. Interestingly enough, it wasn't Canada that burned the White House. There were a couple of Canadians there because they were serving in the British Army," Boileau says.

A 'pivotal moment' in Canadian history

And yet in 2012, the Canadian government spent $28 million marking the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Then-prime minister Stephen Harper called it "a pivotal point in the development of our great country."

Harper said the war bonded the French, English and Indigenous peoples as they rallied around the common goal of resisting American invasion. "These bonds created by our ancestors are at the origin of a truly pan-Canadian identity that made possible our Confederation," Harper said.

As prime minister in 2012, Stephen Harper said the War of 1812 was 'a pivotal point in the development of our great country.' (Canadian Press)

Looking out the window of his home in Rostrevor, McCavitt can see the obelisk honouring Ross. But he says the War of 1812 isn't well known in Britain or Ireland. "Or in America, either, if we go by President Trump's remarks."

The British were busy fighting Napoleon's France and the U.S. took the chance to invade pre-confederation Canada. When Napoleon abdicated, British troops were freed up to defend Canada. Ross gathered his men in Bermuda in August 1814 and sailed directly into U.S territory.

American newspapers were full of fear that the whole country would fall to the British, just 38 years after the Declaration of Independence. McCavitt says the "trumpeted" threats were mostly scare tactics.

The capture of Washington

"He had no intention whatsoever of attacking Washington," McCavitt says of Ross. "When he arrived on the coast of America, he couldn't believe how easy it was to carry out operations, partly because Americans were so frightened they were going to face this massive expedition."

In suspiciously Canadian fashion, Ross accidentally captured Washington. "He never dreamt for one minute that an army of 3,500 men with 1,000 marines reinforcement, with no cavalry, hardly any artillery, could march 50 miles inland and capture an enemy capital."

When the British opened fire on the Americans in Bladensburg, U.S. militiamen sprinted for safety. This photo comes from a 2012 reenactment in Ontario. (The Canadian Press)

Boileau says the Americans had about 9,000 fighters to defend the city, but they were mostly untrained militiamen. The key battle took place in Bladensburg, just outside of Washington.

"These are hardened, experienced British soldiers who had been fighting Napoleon's best troops, against militiamen who had never fired a shot in anger in their lives. Although some Americans stood and fought, it was basically a rout," Boileau says.

The Americans fled. A young British lieutenant quipped, "Never did men with arms make better use of their legs." An admiral said Ross didn't follow up his victory because "the victors were too weary and the vanquished too swift."

One American supposedly died from excessive running.

Ross's hometown of Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, honours him with this obelisk. (Submitted by John McCavitt)

Ross had clear orders: The Americans had burned York (now Toronto) and he was to take revenge. He could demand a ransom or burn the city down. 

Ross, whom McCavitt describes as "an officer and a gentleman," first sought an orderly surrender of the American capital.

But treachery was afoot. As Ross entered Washington under a flag of truce, an American militiaman opened fire.

"His horse was shot dead. Two of his men were killed," McCavitt says. "He very reluctantly agreed and ordered the burning of the White House and also the Capitol. I would describe him as a reluctant arsonist."

To the victors go the spoils

The soldiers torched the Library of Congress, the Capitol building and the Treasury. British troops stormed the president's mansion, only to find an American victory meal prepared for the departed U.S. president, James Madison. The troops tucked in.

"They then set the White House on fire," Boileau says. "The legend is, to cover up the scorch marks on the presidential palace, [Americans] used whitewash. From that time, it was called the White House."

"The people of Washington in general were very appreciative that Ross didn't carry out a revenge raid on the city," McCavit adds. Canadians thought they got what they deserved.

Ross led his troops onto Baltimore to make his second great contribution to Americana by launching rockets creating a red glare as the bombs burst in the air, inspiring amateur poet Francis Scott Key to pull out his pen.

"Francis Scott Key — who actually had dinner with general Ross on board a Royal Navy vessel — he was watching and dreading: Would the Star-Spangled Banner still be in Baltimore?" McCavit says.

Key started writing the poem Star-Spangled Banner, which would later become America's national anthem, when the dawn rose to reveal the flag was indeed still there. Ross wasn't. An American sniper had killed him.

McCavit, who has spoken about Ross to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, says the general died respected by enemies and friends alike. When President Andrew Jackson later toasted the American militiaman who killed Ross, "American newspapers were full of condemnation of the American president for insulting the memory of an honourable enemy."

A newspaper in Washington said Ross "took the horror out of the war."

Half-hearted friends?

Boileau called his book Half-Hearted Enemies because his research showed most people in Nova Scotia and New England wanted to avoid fighting each other and kept trading deep into the War of 1812. Canadian lumber headed south and American beef headed north.

"I would say [today] we're more than half-hearted friends," Boileau says. "This is just an argument within a family. I can't think of any two nations that are closer than Canada and the United States."

After his death, Ross was embalmed in a cask of rum and taken to Halifax, where he was laid to rest in the Old Burying Ground. It's not clear why he ended up there.

He was buried with full military honours in the historic graveyard in downtown Halifax. It's a quiet spot today, despite being surrounded by busy roads. Large trees cast shadows over lichen-covered graves. Ross's tomb looks like an old stone resting in the ancient cemetery.

But the plaque on the graveyard gates suggests that Trump might have been onto something. It reads:

"We are not Americans because of the service of men like the sailors and soldiers, casualties of the War of 1812, buried in this historic burying ground. They fought and died at sea and ashore to prevent the United States' invasion and annexation of our country."

Ross's tomb (on the right) sits in a quiet copse in Halifax's Old Burying Ground. (Jon Tattrie/CBC)

About the Author

Jon Tattrie

Reporter

Jon Tattrie is a journalist and the author in Nova Scotia. You can reach him at jon.tattrie@cbc.ca.

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