History that teaches

Jeff stands in front of the reconstructed McLean House, where Lee surrendered to Grant. Appomattox Court House, Virginia, July 2005

Jeff stands in front of the reconstructed McLean House, where Lee surrendered to Grant.
Appomattox Court House, Virginia, July 2005

“The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.” — Robert E. Lee

Perhaps no decision in history has been more analyzed and second-guessed than Lee’s decision to refuse command of the Union army in favor of leading the troops of the Confederacy.  His decision is all the more noteworthy as it was made, not only in the face of conflicting loyalties within his state and his own family, but also with a greater realization than many of his contemporaries of how long and bloody the war was likely to be.  It’s impossible to imagine the grief, disappointment and despair that Lee must have endured in the years that followed, witnessing the horrific suffering and loss of so many lives, culminating in acknowledged defeat with his surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

How, then, to explain his statement quoted above, which was penned years after the war ended?  It would be easier to understand if Lee had indulged in bitter predictions of doom, or cynical observations about the human limitations he so eloquently describes. Yet he chose to focus on the larger picture, and to believe in an ultimately favorable outcome for much that was yet unresolved.

With these words, Lee reminds us that no matter how powerful (or not) an individual might be, all of us are part of something far more immense than our immediate circumstances suggest.  While some might argue that history teaches us to be pessimistic, I like Lee’s assertion that the trajectory of human existence moves primarily in a forward direction, despite the many setbacks that seem to get more press in the archives of history.

Whether you’re a history buff or not, I hope you will find time to reflect on the blessings available to us every day that would have been ardently appreciated by past generations.  We don’t have to look very far to see much reason for hope in history.


  1. Ann

    Thank you for the quote from Robert E Lee and his (and your) reference to hope. Usually when I see his name or references to the Civil War all I feel is overwhelming sadness. I like having this new perspective. Our ancestors did so much for us. Hopefully, we live lives that honor their sacrifices

    • Thanks, Ann. Few events in history are more full of sorrow than the U. S. Civil War, but the suffering was the beginning of a better future, as Lee apparently knew. As one who grew up in Atlanta, a proud city that was burned to the ground near the end of the war, I find great inspiration in my home town and its likeness to the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes. The official seal of Atlanta features the phoenix since 1887. It’s a symbol of hope for anyone who wants to defeat despair!

  2. Nancy

    I visited Appomattox several years ago on way back from Washington. It is indeed daunting and chilling to be on those grounds knowing its history. Driving through Virginia on the roads so many marched and died on caused such retrospection and awe. It was like they were almost hallowed. I had the same feelings at the Pearl Harbor memorial. Thanks for reminding us, Julia, that we are all intricately a part of history.

    • Thanks for your comment, Nancy. I find most all battlefields evocative, but none more so than those of the civil war, so relatively recent in our history. Living here in Virginia we are surrounded by so many of these fields, all within a few hours’ drive. Manassas (also called Bull Run) is only a half-hour away. Antietam and Gettysburg are an easy drive, neither of which we have visited, but do plan to go eventually. Our York home is located adjacent to the site of the lesser-known but historically important battle at Big Bethel. I have never been as deeply affected by any battle site as I was the first time we toured the Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor. There was something chilling about looking down into the remains of the ship. Before riding the boat out to the memorial, all visitors used to see a movie that was far eerier and I think more effective than the one the park service shows today. But even if there was no movie at all, as you know, it’s very sobering just to see that huge ship so visible beneath the clear waters of the harbor, and realize how many people died just below the platform where visitors stand.

  3. On October, the 21st instant, I made a comment containing the words, “paying a price”. Lee is a perfect example of this. Ramrod straight, and the picture of virile manhood at Appomattox Courthouse, his broken down body succombed to death just over five years later. He was a college president, but some say he died of a broken heart, at age 63. Outwardly, he was a rock. Those of us who have studied the man realize that beginning with the tough decision you describe in this blog, inwardly, he took a daily step closer to his demise. He is a fitting example, in epitome, of the “old south”.

    • Eric, I had never thought of Lee as a symbol of the “old south,” but I think you are right in citing him as exemplary of the thinking of so many in that region. Perhaps that is why he is still honored, nowhere more so than in Virginia. When we first moved here, I was a bit surprised to learn that people still referred to “King-Jackson-Lee Day” (I asked, in all seriousness, who King Jackson Lee was). I had to learn a bit more about Jackson and Lee both, to understand why their home state still honors them, despite general acknowledgment that they fought for the wrong side.

  4. Thank you. Great reminder. As I teach World History to my children this year, I have been reminded that great countries and leaders rise and then fall. In light of the recent politic issues our country has seen, I have been concentrating on the “fall” part of these great super-powers. However, you are right. History also teaches us to be hopeful . . . especially in light of the Bible and Its message.  

    Barb Winters http://www.inthemidstof.wordpress.com/ http://www.carehancock.tk/ Follow me on facebook

    • Thanks, Barb. World history is sobering indeed, especially for those of us in the USA who imagine 300 years as a long time! The lessons of history are truly mixed good news with bad, but hope prevails! Thanks for being here.

  5. Michael

    Growing up in the Northern climes there is so much to learn about the Civil War. I remember the first time visiting my son in Atlanta and his girlfriend at the time-from Atlanta-saying, “yes this is one of the few battles we won.” I think she was referring to Kennesaw Mountain battle. The word-we- took on a whole new perspective for me.
    I also visited again the Confederate cemetery in Marietta with confederate flags flying proudly and visiting the grave of my hero- Bill Hopp- 10 cent bill. Do you know what is the meaning with the large flag at the cemetery which is mostly white and has the Confederate flag insignia in one upper left hand corner.?
    My maternal grandparents are from West Virginia and came west after the civil war. So it is a complicated history.

    • Another thing a northern friend of mine in high school remarked on when he moved to Atlanta, is how everyone referred to him as a “yankee.” He said “everybody down here is still fighting the war.” Which of course, was not true, but the effects of trauma linger, whether past generations suffered from war, slavery or whatever. It’s never “just over” as so many seem to imply is possible. I never recall seeing the flag you described until recent years, when my older son told me about it. I don’t remember the story, though. Eric can probably tell you the significance.

  6. Carlyle

    I believe the most important truth which Lee expresses is that because we live in and grasp such a infinitesimal span of time, our failure to learn the truths of history leaves us ill prepared to confront the future.

    • So true. Even the events we think of as cataclysmic often lose significance in the span of hundreds or thousands of years. Sort of gives me a bit of perspective on “bad hair days” and other minor annoyances! Glad to see you back here – hope you are feeling better each day!

  7. merry

    Notice how many children was named after General Robert E Lee, you see how he was respected in the South. I’m the last in my family to be named after him. My home town is in the south Georgia…Waycross.

    • Wow, I didn’t realize that’s where your middle name came from. Interesting! I think I must have been through Waycross at one point or another, but can’t remember when. Do you still live in Georgia?

  8. OK I am going to confess that I don’t have much appreciation for Lee. How odd is that? Here is a man who made such a huge contribution to the history of this nation and I just shake my head. I have found him to be kind of a pompous fellow actually. I always sort of thought that but would not say it because everyone else seems so enamored of the man. He seemed to be driven by something no one else could touch. Some people say it was his great love and respect for God but I don’t know. When I saw how he was portrayed by Martin Sheen in Gettysburg The Movie, I thought THERE!!! Here is a man who while soft spoken has an accusatory attitude. He is upset that Pickett did not take the field. He won’t listen to Longstreet or anyone for that matter yet his men are practically bowing down to the guy. WHAT??? When Kat and I visited Washington and Lee the reverence that IS still paid to the man and HIS HORSE seemed odd to me. Those people have more money than they know what to do with. Just my two cents. Having ranted on, this is a lovely photo and being a tiny little history buff married to a HUGE history buff I do think we have much to appreciate today and lots to learn.

    • I have to admit, I don’t know enough about Lee to judge either way. I do find it interesting that on Ft. Monroe, an apartment where he lived as a young Union officer was marked with a plaque that stated he once lived there…but also noted “this is a private residence” – meaning some active duty soldier and family lived there. Can you imagine living in Lee’s former apartment? Now that Ft. Monroe is closed, I wonder what they will do with it. I had never heard of Washington and Lee until we drove through Lexington on our move here. When I found out the tuition was higher there than Harvard, I thought hmmmm, what is wrong with this picture? Not that I have any great love for Harvard either. Don’t get me started on how ridiculous college tuition is now.

  9. Thursday October 24,13 Hello everyone. As I sat down to write this post I was reminded of my latest episode with death. Today’s devotional goes along with my thoughts exactly, how much can I trust G-d with my life even if i don’t know what is ahead? As i was pondering this question “Jeremiah 29:11″ popped into my mind ” For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the L-rd, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Because of who G-d is and what He has already done for me, i can trust Him even more for the future and have no fear that He will continue to uphold me, love me, and continue His wonderful loving plan in my life. I’m grateful that G-d is outside of time and sees the end of things, and what the ‘new spring’ of eternity will be like for all who pass from here to there. “– thanks for that reminder)

    • thank you for being there

    • Thanks Connie, you have quoted Jeff’s favorite verse, one that has seen him through tough times for many years and now especially since his cancer diagnosis. I believe he has a bookmark with that verse in his Bible. I suppose it is the uncertainty of the future that constitutes faith (just as it did with Abraham) – if we knew what was going to happen, I guess it wouldn’t be faith! Thanks for being here, and for your comment!

  10. raynard

    Back in the 80’s I was going to the Army’s Quartermaster School at FT Lee, VA. While there in the town of Petersburg I was able to visit one of those battlefield towns.. And in the 90’s I visited Valley Forge National Park and where Washington crossed the Delaware River. I use to have a friend that did those civil war reenactments.Yes I did hear the statement about history repeating itself. I also hear one about”How do you know where you’re going, when you dont know where you came from..( About that man”desending from Ape thing, last time I checked, my “second cousin isnt located in a cage at ‘The Philadelphia Zoo dragging his knuckles lol.( is this the part where I start singing ‘Andy Williams IT’s the most wonderful time of the year lol

    • Raynard, I haven’t spotted any of my relatives at the zoo either, although sometimes I wonder if some of us wouldn’t make for amusing displays! You can start singing Andy Williams any time. The department stores have already started, that’s for sure. They sing it with dollar signs: “It’$ the mo$t wonderful time of the year!” I have to admit, I’m always glad to see the Christmas decorations come out.

  11. Sheila

    Julia, it’s so late tonight that I suppose I’ll be the “grand finale”! 🙂 For the history that is in the making today in Washington, I really hope and pray that all will be resolved with a favorable outcome. Until tomorrow…..

    • Sheila, can you imagine how all this political mess will be described in the history books? Or should I say, history databases? :-). One thing that scares me about everything going digital, is how easy it will be to re-write history and leave no traces of whatever seems inconvenient to the current governmental powers. As you say, let’s hope and pray it all comes out better than it often seems it will…

      • Sheila

        Julia, thank you for sharing your thoughts. We have the same sentiments and fears! Happy Friday….

        • Sheila, happy Friday to you! Since we share the same fears, maybe some of our cheeriness is whistling in the dark – but I still think whistling beats wailing in most circumstances! Hope you have a lovely weekend. It’s turned COLD here. I was hoping for some more of those lightly-chilly sunny autumn days!

  12. It would be hard to imagine someone talking about you or me 150 years from now, so from that aspect alone, Lee has undoubtedly made an important historical contribution. I don’t think there are any clear winners in wars. The costs are so high. Imagine the impact of a soldier being lost in battle. He has parents, siblings, maybe a wife and children, even friends who will all be affected by the loss. It’s like many pebbles being dropped in a lake, all the echo’s of water cross each other as they spread out away from the pebble. That’s how I think of humanity. No one, no country can be insulated by others actions. We’re all small pebbles, dropping in a big pond, but what we do can touch touch others away.

    • I agree, no winners in war. The effects of it linger, on an individual as well as a global level, for generations. It frightens me to think that wars are waged today with only a fraction of the population being really aware of what is going on. At least in World War II, pretty much everyone was involved in one way or another. There are many advantages to an all-volunteer military as opposed to a draft, but I can’t help but think wars would not be as frequent or common if those in power had loved ones whose lives were on the line. One of the most chilling things I saw in a newspaper in recent years was an essay about that very problem. It ended with the words “America is not at war. The military is at war. America is at the mall.” That’s been repeated so many times I have no idea who first said it, but the truth of it is haunting.

      On a lighter note — AWWW, are you SURE nobody will be talking about Boomdee and Jules and their friends in 150 years? Maybe not as many as discuss Lee, but would you rather be known for losing a war, or for starting an online aqua revolution? Vintage junkies UNITE! 🙂 🙂 🙂

      • LOL, maybe you’re right Jules !! That would be aqualicious in every way! 😀 May all our dreams come true xoK


  1. The past is beautiful | Defeat Despair

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