Military Monday: In Remembrance

Robert Louis Earnest
Robert Louis Earnest

On 2 August 1944, in the North Atlantic, the USS Fiske made visual contact with U-804, a Nazi submarine. The Fiske along with the USS David L. Howard made an attack run on the now submerged submarine. Suddenly, the Fiske was torpedoed, split in two, and sunk, while U-804 slipped back to its patrol. Thirty-three of her men were killed and 50 badly wounded by the explosion. One of those was Seaman Second Class Robert Louis Earnest, my great-grandmother’s brother. He was initially wounded and rescued by the USS Farqhuar, but died later that day. He was only 29 years old, leaving behind his wife of ten years and their son. He was buried at sea and there is no place to go to mourn and honor his memory. The best we have are the Tablets of the Missing at the Cambridge American Cemetery in Cambridge, England. His posthumous Purple Heart is not reward enough. He is a hero for America, but before he was a hero, he was family — my family.

With great love and admiration, your great-grand niece.


Military Monday: Samuel Street, Part II

I left off Part I with the battles of Brandywine and Paoli in September 1777. Barely two weeks later, Samuel found himself preparing for battle again, still in Pennsylvania. This time they were in Germantown, a small settlement.

Engraving of the Battle of Germantown by Christian Schussele
Engraving of the Battle of Germantown by Christian Schussele

A thick fog clouded the battlefield throughout the day. At the front of the army was John Sullivan’s column. They opened fire on the British pickets of light infantry at Mount Airy just as the sun was rising at around 5 AM. The British pickets resisted the American advance. William Howe rode forward, thinking that they were being attacked by foraging or skirmishing parties, and ordered his men to hold their ground. It took most of Sullivan’s division to finally overwhelm the British pickets and drive them back into Germantown.

Howe, still believing that his men were facing only light opposition, called out, “For shame, Light Infantry, I never saw you retreat before. Form! Form! It is only a scouting party.” Just then, three American cannons came into action and fired a blast of grape shot. Howe and his staff quickly withdrew out of range. I guess that changed his mind. More than one British officer was shocked to see his soldiers rapidly falling back before the powerful attack.

Now cut off from the main British and Hessian force, British Colonel Musgrave ordered his six companies to fortify the stone house of Chief Justice Chew, called Cliveden. The Americans furiously assaulted Cliveden, but the greatly outnumbered defenders beat them back, inflicting heavy casualties. General Washington called a council of war to decide how to deal with the distraction. Some of his subordinate officers favored bypassing Cliveden and leaving a regiment behind to deal with it. However, Brigadier General Henry Knox recommended that it was unwise to allow a garrison in the rear of a forward advance to remain under enemy control, and Washington agreed.

Map of the Battle of Germantown
Map of the Battle of Germantown

General William Maxwell’s brigade, which had been held in reserve, stormed Cliveden. Knox positioned four 3-pound cannons out of musket range and opened fire against the mansion’s defenders. However, the thick stone walls of Cliveden withstood the bombardment. Soldiers launched against the mansion were cut down, causing heavy casualties. The few who managed to get inside were shot or bayoneted. It was becoming clear that Cliveden was not going to be taken easily, if at all.

Before Knox and Maxwell attacked the Chew mansion, Sullivan’s division pressed past the place in the fog. Sullivan deployed Brigadier General Thomas Conway’s brigade to the right and Brigadier General Anthony Wayne’s brigade to the left and drove forward against the British. As Sullivan advanced, his troops paused frequently to fire volleys into the fog. This tactic effectively supressed enemy opposition, but they quickly ran low on ammunition. Wayne’s brigade moved ahead and became separated from Sullivan’s line. Suddenly, from the rear, the men began hearing the disquieting racket from Knox’s bombardment of the Chew mansion. To their right, the firing from Sullivan’s men died down as the Marylanders ran low on ammunition. Wayne’s men began to panic in their apparent isolation, so he ordered them to fall back. Sullivan was forced back also. Since the British units were moved to fight Greene’s late-arriving column, Sullivan’s men fell back.

Meanwhile, General Nathanael Greene’s column on Limekiln Road caught up with the American forces at Germantown and engaged the British pickets at Luken’s Mill and drove them off after a savage skirmish. Adding to the heavy fog that already obscured the Americans’ view was the smoke from cannons and muskets, and Greene’s column was thrown into disarray and confusion. One of Greene’s brigades, under the command of Brigadier General Adam Stephen, veered off course and began following Meetinghouse Road instead of rendezvousing at Market Square with the rest of Greene’s forces. The wayward brigade collided with Wayne’s brigade and mistook them for the redcoats. The two American brigades opened heavy fire on each other, became badly disorganized, and both fled. The withdrawal of Wayne’s reserve New Jersey Brigade, which had suffered heavy casualties attacking the Chew house, left Conway’s right flank exposed to the enemy.

In the north, an American column led by General Alexander McDougall came under attack and was forced to retreat, suffering heavy losses. Still convinced, however, that they could win, Greene’s column launched an attack on the British and Hessian line as planned, managing to break through and capturing a number of prisoners. However, they were soon surrounded by two arriving British brigades led by General Cornwallis. Greene, upon learning of the main army’s defeat and withdrawal, realized that he stood alone and he withdrew.

With night rapidly falling, the British had repulsed all attacks, but gave up the chase, and Washington decided to withdraw. Yet another defeat. How many could the Continental Army, and the cause, endure?

The_Virginia_Gazette_Fri__Oct_17__1777_17 October 1777 Virginia Gazette17 October 1777 Virginia Gazette

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. 

Who Are You?: The Mystery of John Little

John Little was born 23 October 1834 somewhere in Ireland to yet to be found parents. Vague, frustrating, and disappointing to me as a researcher and most assuredly not the way I wanted to begin this post. But I guess that’s the lot to be expected with Irish research.

Sometime in the 1850s, John made his way to America. I’m almost sure, without knowing many details, that John came to America for the same reasons nearly every Irish immigrant did. They came to escape the overpowering poverty, the seemingly never ending famine, outbreaks of disease, and an unsympathetic government back home.

There wasn’t much different awaiting them here. There was just as much poverty and disease in the slums of the cities immigrants first settled. Jobs were incredibly hard to come by, mostly because of the outright discrimination in hiring as found in the “No Irish Need Apply” signs around town, courtesy of the nativists. The nativist movement was epitomized in the rise of the American Party, also called the Know Nothings, in American politics during the late 1840s. They were anti-immigration, forgetting that they themselves were descended from immigrants not all that long ago. The first genealogy snobs, I suppose. They were also anti-Catholic, which made them opposed to nearly everything the immigrant Irish stood for. If you’ve ever seen Gangs of New York, the Daniel Day-Lewis character is a Know Nothing politician. If you haven’t seen it, watch it.

Common Nativist Flag
Common Nativist Flag

Looking back, it can be rather difficult to figure out why so many Irish took the risk to come to America.

Example of anti-Irish discrimination in hiring, playing upon the belief that all Irish were alcoholics.

But come they did, braving the unknown and treacherous seas. Because here was, if not prosperity, at least a second chance. Here was at least food to eat that didn’t belong to your landowner. It may not be much, but it was yours. Among the most successful famine immigrants were the ancestors of John F. Kennedy. It would be hard, but it could be done.

So John Little boarded ship and left everything he knew behind to try again. He settled in Perry, Ohio, on the banks of Lake Erie and about 35 miles from Cleveland. On 3 September 1857, he married fellow Irish immigrant Margaret McVitty.

John filed this intent to marry the very same day he married Margaret McVitty.
John filed this intent to marry the very same day he married Margaret McVitty.

My theory, such as it is, is that John Little was from the same Irish county, Monaghan, as Margaret McVitty. I have no special reason to believe he was and no special reason to believe he wasn’t. He seems to have married soon after his arrival, which makes me think he and Margaret already knew each other or at least their families did.

Marriage license for newlyweds John and Margaret Little
Marriage license for newlyweds John and Margaret Little

The outbreak of war in 1861 found John still in Perry with his wife, two year old son, Robert, and newborn daughter Emma. John didn’t answer Lincoln’s call to arms right away. He probably preferred to stay home with his pregnant wife and children and grow onions for his brother-in-law James McVitty.

But by the summer of 1862, John had joined the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry in Captain James McIlrath’s Company A. In the same regiment were William Rosecrans, later Union general in the Western Theatre; Eliakim Scammon, later consul to Prince Edward Island; James Comly, minister to Hawaii; Stanley Matthews, US Senator; and Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley, later US Presidents.

Colonel Eliakim P Scammon
Colonel Eliakim P Scammon
Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes
Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes

John was immediately shipped off by train to join the regiment in the outskirts of Washington, D.C..

John Little's Enlistment Papers
John Little’s Enlistment Papers

From D.C. John and his regiment joined the rest of the Army of the Potomac for the Maryland Campaign in September 1862 under George McClellan. South Mountain and Antietam were John’s baptism by fire, his initiation into real combat.

23rd Ohio Monument at Antietam
23rd Ohio Monument at Antietam

On the morning of September 17, the 23rd found itself just east of Antietam Creek. They could hear McClellan’s attack on Lee’s left flank. Burnside took his troops, including the 23rd, towards Lee’s right. It was their immediate job to ford the creek south of the Lower Bridge. They finally did so at Snavely’s Ford where they spotted A.P. Hill’s Confederates on their left — clad in blue and waving an American flag — before the Confederates opened fire. John’s commanders Major James Comly and Colonel Hugh Ewing, critical of Scammon’s hesitant manner, described the incident in their official report:

We crossed the ford of the Antietam under a shower of grape, and after being held under a trying fire from the enemy’s batteries for some time, made, under order of Colonel Scammon, commanding division, a charge upon his advancing columns, and checked and held his largely superior force at bay until the battle ceased on the ensuing day, and he was driven from the field….Soon after all doubt vanished, upon the furious attack which was made by them, almost at a feeling distance, upon the Thirtieth Regiment and our left. Almost immediately a heavy enfilading fire was opened upon our whole line, and Colonel Ewing gave the order to me in person to change front perpendicularly to the rear, which was done. From some cause (probably from the death of the aide bearing the order) we did not receive the order to fall back with the remainder of the brigade, and we consequently held our position until relieved by our division commander (O.R., Vol. 19, Part 1, 463, 468).

In the heat of the battle, the regimental colors were lost. They were later discovered near a stack of wheat. The battle was a costly one with approximately 20% casualties.

23rd Ohio regimental colors, 1861.
23rd Ohio regimental colors, 1861.

Michael Deady, also a private in Company A, kept a diary, which can be found here. His entry for 3 October reads, “Pass in review Gen’s Burnside & McClellan an President Abe all here Great time Dress Pirade in Evening.” I suppose the Union army was ready to celebrate any victory that could be found. Four days later, Deady reports that orders were given to ready for marching and cook three days rations.  The army was getting ready to move after Confederate forces under Jeb Stuart. The next day, two men dropped dead from fatigue on the seventeen mile march to Hagerstown, Maryland.

On October 8, Jeb Stuart raided Chambersburg, Pennsylvania with 9000 men. McClellan was as hesitant as ever to pursue General Lee’s army. Once Stuart made it back to Maryland, he met Federal troops, including the 23rd, now commanded by Colonel Hugh Ewing, a more aggressive commander. They chased him back toward Virginia.

Two weeks after that, the 23rd returned to what is now West Virginia. John had not been a part of the regiment at that time. He marched an average of 12-15 miles a day. In November 1862, the regiment went into winter quarters in the Great Kanawha valley and there they stayed until 15 March 1863. For the most part, the 23rd was on guard duty in the Kanawha River valley. The western part of Virginia was pro-Union territory and ironically, its secession from Virginia and the Confederacy was encouraged by the Lincoln administration. The Kanawha flowed into the Ohio River and Federal control of the valley would prohibit Confederate forces from streaming into the heart of Union territory. Federal troops were also there to protect the Union sympathizers in the region. The fighting they encountered at Antietam devolved into skirmishes with relatively small bands of troops. Duty was tedious but important.

Federal pickets at Kanawha, much like what John Little would have done. 1862. Courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives.
Federal pickets at Kanawha, much like what John Little would have done. 1862. Courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives.

They remained at that place until July performing little or no duty with the exception of a few scouts and its participation in the movements against two Confederate guerrilla raiders, John Hunt Morgan and William Loring.   The regiment headed off Morgan’s band on the line of the Ohio river at Buffington island and near Hockingport, capturing 700 guerrillas as they attempted to cross the river, including John Hunt Morgan himself. Morgan had crossed the Ohio river to raid southern Ohio and Indiana, which was the farthest Confederate troops ever reached into Union territory.

Illustration of Morgan's Raid
Illustration of Morgan’s Raid

The regiment then returned to Charleston and lay there in camp until the spring of 1864. In May, John and his regiment found themselves at Cloyd’s Mountain in western Virginia. The Confederate forces under General Albert Jenkins held the superior ground and General Crook decided to send the Union forces through the nearby forest to attack the Confederate right instead of a direct charge.  Leaves covered the forest floor and the sparks from the muskets firing ignited them, burning several wounded men alive. Most of the combat was fierce hand to hand fighting but ended in a Union victory and the destruction of the Virginia and Tennessee railroad, a vital supply link.

The regiment found itself immersed in the Shenandoah Valley campaigns of General Philip Sheridan. By June, the 23rd attempted to capture Lynchburg, Virginia and cut off Confederate supplies in the area. Unsupported as expected by General Sheridan, the battle was a Confederate victory with the Union retreat. That must have been a devastating loss to John and the 23rd.

It was not the last defeat John suffered. At Kernstown, outside Winchester, Virginia, Jubal Early delivered a devastating blow to General Crook and drove the Union forces out of the Shenandoah Valley and back into Maryland. Most of the Union troops had gone to support Grant’s efforts at Petersburg and that severely undermined the Union effort. That must have been more demoralizing than Lynchburg because the Confederate war effort was seriously in trouble at this time.

Confederate general Jubal Early
Confederate general Jubal Early
Union cavalry leader Philip Sheridan in the field

The Valley Campaigns soon took off later in the summer and fall of 1864 with a bright spot on October 19, the battle of Cedar Creek was a defeat turned into victory by the timely arrival of General Sheridan, unlike Lynchburg four months prior. Sheridan ended the threat Jubal Early caused in the valley at battles such as the third battle at Winchester and then joined Grant at Petersburg.

Map of the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns, August to October 1864. Courtesy Hal Jespersen,
Map of the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns, August to October 1864. Courtesy Hal Jespersen,

John and the 23rd stayed behind. The winter of 1864-1865 was again spent in West Virginia on guard duty. It was during this time John was brought up on court martial. The details are unknown, much like many things in John’s life. It seems he escaped the ultimate penalty but that is about all I know.

John's service record telling of his confinement and subsequent court martial
John’s service record telling of his confinement and subsequent court martial

The Confederate collapse in the spring of 1865 ended the war and John and his fellows mustered out on 26 July 1865.

23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry prior to mustering out, 1865.

If this post has started to seem like a Civil War history lesson, it was sort of supposed to do so. I tried to make it interesting but included it because John Little was a small force in all these events. He wasn’t a general, so there aren’t books written describing his exploits. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t important, just not well known. Our lives make no sense outside the context of history. Events don’t happen around us; they happen to us. John Little fought here, worried here, and suffered here. He saw those two men drop dead of fatigue in the aftermath of Antietam. He fussed over proper dress when parading in front of his superiors, including the president. He smelled those bodies burning in the forest, helpless to help them while fighting for his life. He was not unaffected. Most of his time was spent marching and guarding. He spent lots of time on his feet in boots that probably weren’t the best after a lot of marching. No one comes back from war the same as they left.

After the war, John returned home to his family. A daughter, Adeline, had been born in his absence. Four more children would follow. He tried to adjust to civilian life and keep growing onions for his brother-in-law. He worshiped at the Methodist Episcopal Church in nearby Painesville. He tried. He honestly tried.

Methodist Episcopal Church of Painesville, built in 1873. Now on the National Register of Historic Places. Also known as Painesville United Methodist Church after denominational mergers.
Methodist Episcopal Church of Painesville, built in 1873. Now on the National Register of Historic Places. Also known as Painesville United Methodist Church after denominational mergers.

The marching caused problems with his feet and legs, a common complaint in Civil War veterans. John tried to do an honest day’s work for the pay to care for his growing family but increasingly found it difficult. A relatively young man still in his thirties, John developed varicose veins which culminated in a deep running sore on his leg. His friends reported that he had trouble breathing as well as having his leg heavily bandaged. In the months before his death, it seemed he might be getting better. The spot on his leg seemed to have gone away. Alas, it was not to be and John Little died 8 August 1879 at his home in Perry, Ohio.

John Little’s obituary published in the Painesville Telegraph.

In 1885, his widow Margaret filed for a pension on the belief that John would not have died at 44 if not for serving in the military. Her initial claim was rejected, but she persisted, enlisting doctors and friends to plead her case. She was granted $8 a month for her trouble. In the pension file, it is discovered that John left her a small house and four acres that the auditor valued at $310. That’s not much. It also describes the post mortem that was done. The diseased condition the obituary talks about? Lungs, heart, and liver filled with pus and infection. No wonder he could barely breathe. The pension calls his cause of death blood poisoning, or sepsis. The spot on his leg grew skin over it, but it never healed. The infection went from skin to blood stream and, left untreated, set up in his major organs, killing him at far too young an age.

In my research, I discovered a lot of information about Memorial Day, about Ohio, and the Civil War. However, I never expected Google to lead me to this:

It’s a film of the 1929 Painesville, Ohio Memorial Day parade. Margaret Little had died two months earlier, after being a widow for fifty years.

I hope John knows how proud his home was of him. I hope he knows how proud I was for his family to give me the opportunity to learn about him.