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.

This post was first published seven years ago today. The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Good morning, Julia! Thank you for Lee’s quote and your reflection on it. I needed this: “…we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave….” It certainly seems overwhelming at times, and I wonder if we will be the generation the wave will break and come crashing down on. Possibly all generations wonder the same thing.

    • I agree, and more than a few of them have indeed been standing there when the wave crashed down, as already has happened many times and places in human history. Perhaps too many decades of relative ease will inevitably cycle back around to more destruction, almost as nature itself has built-in means of purgation. Or as Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

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