Military Monday: Samuel Street, Part I

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

I have a British friend with whom I went to college. We both studied history and managed never to agree on just about anything. When it came to the American Revolution, my friend saw it much, much differently than I did. The above quote reminds me of our “discussions” on the subject. Everything, including history, depends greatly on our point of view.

Samuel William Street probably would not have thought himself much a part of history though he knew what he was doing mattered and mattered quite a bit.

He was born in 1737 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia to Anthony and Elizabeth Brockman Street. Spotsylvania County is now known as both the home for the Civil War battle of Fredericksburg and the home of Kunte Kinte from Alex Haley’s Roots. In fact, the Street land was directly adjacent to the land of John Waller, Kunte Kinte’s owner.

By 1758, he had married Lurana and thereafter started his own family. There were four children: William, Anthony, Joseph, and Frances. He bought 100 acres on the Plentiful branch of the Little Anna River from his father. In 1763, he sold the land and moved to Henry County.

Plentiful Creek on Little Anna River

6 March 1777. Samuel joins the 13th Virginia Regiment under Captain James Hook as a private. This regiment was part of Washington’s army and Samuel joins the army at Morristown, New Jersey.

June saw the arrival of the Marquis de Lafayette and with it, the French alliance.

Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s adopted son

In July, the army marched to the Hudson River Valley. There they fortified their position for the protection of the northeast.

By September the army was in Pennsylvania for the battle of Brandywine Creek on the 11th.

Map of Battle of Brandywine

September 11th rose with a heavy fog, covering the British troops. Washington received contradictory reports about the British movements and continued to believe that the main force was moving to attack at Chadds Ford. At 5:30 AM the British and Hessian troops under General William Howe started to march east along the “Great Road” towards the American troops at the Brandywine Creek road crossing. The first shots of the battle took place at a tavern where Howe was driven back. He sent his troops down the road to take cover behind the stone walls on the Old Kennett Meetinghouse grounds. The battle was fought in the late morning around the meeting house while the pacifist Quakers continued to hold their midweek service. One of the Quakers later wrote, “While there was much noise and confusion without, all was quiet and peaceful within.”

William Howe

From the Meetinghouse grounds, the battle continued for three miles. Eventually Howe pushed the Americans back but not before suffering heavy losses himself. He appeared on the Americans’ right flank at around 2 PM. Washington tried to reposition his troops to meet the unexpected British threat to their right flank. Howe was slow to attack, which bought time for some of Washington’s men to go to high ground at Birmingham Meetinghouse, about a mile north of Chadds Ford. By 4 PM, the British attacked, both American divisions lost ground fast.

Old Kennett Meetinghouse

British fire forced retreat. At this point, slightly after 4 PM, Washington and Nathanael Greene arrived with reinforcements to try to hold off the British, who now occupied Meeting House Hill. These reinforcements stopped the pursuing British for nearly an hour but were eventually forced to retreat. The Americans were also forced to leave behind many of their cannons on Meeting House Hill because almost all of their artillery horses were killed.

Nation Makers by Howard Pyle depicts a scene from the Battle of Brandywine

At this point Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen, leader of the Hessian troops, was on the east bank of the Brandywine and launched an attack against the weakened American center across Chadds Ford, breaking through the divisions commanded by Anthony Wayne and William Maxwell and forcing them to retreat and leave behind most of their cannon. Armstrong’s militia, never engaged in the fighting, also decided to retreat from their positions. Further north, Greene sent Brigadier General George Weedon’s troops to cover the road just outside the town of Dilworth to hold off the British long enough for the rest of the Continental Army to retreat. Darkness brought the British pursuit to a standstill, which then allowed Weedon’s force to retreat. The defeated Americans retreated to Chester where most of them arrived at midnight, with stragglers arriving until morning. The American retreat was well-organized largely due to the efforts of Marquis de Lafayette, who, although wounded, rallied the troops to himself.

Although Howe had defeated the American army, his lack of cavalry prevented its total destruction. Washington had committed a serious error in leaving his right flank wide open and nearly brought about his army’s annihilation had it not been for John Sullivan; William Alexander, Lord Stirling; and Adam Stephen’s divisions, which fought for time. Evening was approaching and, in spite of the early start Lord Charles Cornwallis had made in the flanking maneuver, most of the American army was able to escape. In his report to the Continental Congress detailing the battle, Washington stated: “despite the day’s misfortune, I am pleased to announce that most of my men are in good spirits and still have the courage to fight the enemy another day”.

British and American forces maneuvered around each other for the next several days with only a few encounters such as the Battle of Paoli on the night of September 20–21.

The Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia. Military supplies were moved out of the city to Reading, Pennsylvania. On September 26, British forces marched into Philadelphia unopposed.

Yet another defeat. I cannot imagine how crippling that had to be for morale. I wonder if they considered the cause still worth fighting — and dying — for. There had to have been doubts. 

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Mamaw and Papaw: Johnnie and Vola Null

I’ve written about many things on this blog, my family and others, but one part I’ve neglected has been my mother’s side of the family. I hope to remedy that today.

I’ve said before that I never knew any of my grandparents, but I did know one set of my great-grandparents on my mother’s side. We called them Mamaw and Papaw Null.

Their real names were Johnnie Null and Vola Earnest. When I knew them, they looked like this:

4fa28dd1-6f63-4005-8884-42d615b7b979-1My great-grandparents married young because as Mamaw put it, “I felt sorry for him.” Papaw’s parents had died when he was young and it was just him and his brother and sister. Mamaw came from a big, crazy family and I guess she thought everyone should have that. They went on to have seven children, six of whom lived to be adults.

Johnny Null family
The Johnnie Null family in the mid-1940s. From left to right: my grandmother Irene, Mamaw, Peggy, Papaw, Mary Lee. In front are Ruth and Johnnie Hugh.

The only one missing from this picture is my uncle Paul. He was the mid-life baby. I remember being 5 or 6 years old and Mamaw telling the story. It seemed by this point Mamaw and Papaw were in separate bedrooms. Mamaw said she got to missing Papaw and she went to see him one night (cue all the “ewwwws” from the kids). Nine months later…surprise! Uncle Paul was born.

Really. That’s about the way the story went. On the car ride home, I asked my mom where babies came from because Mamaw’s story just wasn’t doing it for me. I look back now and think that my mom probably wanted to kill her grandmother for telling that story.

Vola Earnest was an interesting woman to say the least. She struck me, even as a child, as a little cold. She loved me and I loved her, but cold is the only way I know how to describe her. Remember when I said she grew up in a crazy family? I meant it, but that’s a whole other blog post. Her father was married three or four times and there were a ton of kids. I don’t really know what it was like growing up for her but something intuitively feels off, if that makes sense. There was something I could feel even as a child.

I remember a time Mamaw was cooking Sunday dinner for all of us family and I was her special helper. I was maybe four. I helped her make biscuits (more like played in the flour). I did that a lot but what sets this Sunday apart was what Mamaw did next.

She wanted to make chicken so she went out in the back yard and got one. I was looking out the window at the time (bad, bad idea). Mamaw grabbed a chicken, one I had named Wilbur, and wrung its neck. I ran screaming through the house, calling Papaw and ended up in his lap. You know those outlines of a person in the wall that you see in cartoons? That was almost me. That’s how serious the situation was.

Well, it was to me. I told you she was interesting.

Mamaw died when I was six and Papaw when I was ten. I was grateful to have known them.