Archives For History

I am a huge proponent of studying the lives of the great people of history. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching a modern-day trailblazer in action but there is something more pleasing about studying another’s life in full to understand their story and what we can learn from it.

I want to know their dreams, adventures, successes, struggles, and what they learned in the process. Then I want to study the life application.

Those who know me and have read this blog are aware that I am a student of Winston Churchill as are many others. The latest book of his I am reading is Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill by Michael Shelden.

Most people know Winston Churchill by his magnanimous speeches with his deep British accent, his cigar in hand as he walked, and the way he led the United Kingdom with the Allies to victory in World War II. He is one of the most quotable people of all time and books continue to be written about him and I suppose more will continue to be for years to come.

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What most people do not know is that Winston Churchill was considered an incredible failure by the age of 40.

Like Churchill, we begin life with so much promise and hope – the world is to be conquered. Churchill was desperate to establish himself as a fast-moving politician in Edwardian England. He was an astute student of history and knew that he must be daring in how he lived to gain attention. He served in the military for a few years and in 1899 he was commissioned as a war correspondent during the Boer War. Churchill became famous worldwide for his fight in a train ambush and later through his daring escape from a POW camp in South Africa. Most Americans don’t know that he was a celebrity in the US even in his twenties and went on a massive speaking tour in North America to share stories from his Boer War heroics.

It’s easy to canonize Winston Churchill because of his successes. But, pay closer attention to his failures that made him who we know him today. 

During the First World War, Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and the chief proponent of the invasion of Turkey now known as the Gallipoli campaign. His strategy was to create a southern link to Russia, their ally. The Turks were a skillful and determined enemy, repelled the allies, and the campaign costed the lives of many young Australians and New Zealanders (ANZAC troops). Perhaps not solely responsible for the tactical defeat on the ground, the campaign was never the less Churchill’s idea and it crippled him politically for years.

Churchill was a big, fat, failure. 

We now know the rest of the story as it didn’t end there.

Churchill entered the political wilderness, dug in his heels, and marched back to eventually become Prime Minister during World War II.

So what do we learn from Churchill’s first half of life?

Churchill said it best,

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We may not live life with the type of drama that Churchill lived but we do share the ups and downs of life. Which honest person hasn’t had setbacks in life? We all have taken a punch or two to the face and even have fallen. It hurts admitting it but it is part of life.

“Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

Churchill’s life has taught us that failure is part of our journey and we become better because of it.

For that, we can keep getting back up and moving forward because victory in life is found in how we respond to the punches.

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I was thirteen when my mother took me on a special trip through the midwest. She took me to two special historical homes of great midwesterners: Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois and Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri. As a kid, my mother introduced me to the stories of Tom Sawyer and like every young boy, I wanted to live the adventures just like Tom. As I grew up, I graduated to read more of his classics.

I was born in Missouri and spent my formative years there so Mark Twain has a special place in my heart. I have made it a goal to re-read The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn every couple years to be reminded of the importance of learning about people who are different than me and look at life as an eternal adventure. I read it again this past week and watched Ken Burns’ 2001 Documentary on Mark Twain so he’s fresh on my mind. Every time I read a book by ole Samuel Langhorne Clemens (his real name), I learn something new about him.

Twain possessed a wisdom and originality that was unmatched.

Based on learning about Mark Twain, here are Mark Twain’s top five secrets about life.

Mark Twain

1. He traveled.

Early in his life, Twain recognized the power of ‘travel’, living on the Mississippi River. Early on in his writing and reporting career, he ventured out to the western United States and then Hawaii, Europe, and other places throughout the world.. This inspired him to write classics like The Innocents Abroad and Following the Equator. He was inspired by travel to write and learned more about other people by doing so.

2. He never forgot his roots.

After writing great travel classics like The Innocents Abroad, he would go back every few books to write about his life. He mastered the idea of ‘write what you know.’ His heart was all over the world but it started on the Mississippi River in Missouri. Start reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn to see.

3. He took time to get to know people who were very different than he.

Once, Twain supported a young African American to pay his way through Yale and then law school. That man was one who later mentored a young Thurgood Marshall, our first African-American on the Supreme Court. Twain used his writing style and influence to help shape post-Civil War America.

4. He failed and he failed.

Throughout his life, Twain published numerous books. Not all achieved the success of The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn but he continued to write. I work in publishing and most books fail to achieve an acceptable level of financial success. He was not immune to failure with his books but he kept writing and trying new things until the day he died.

5. He found humor, even in the dark.

Mark Twain was known as one of the first stand up comics. He dreaded speaking tours but he treated his lectures became like standup comedy. Laughter is what makes life special and he was the master of his day.

The Quotable Mark Twain

Mark Twain is one of the most quotable people to have lived on earth. Here are some of my favorite quotes from him.

“Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”

“I would rather have my ignorance than another man’s knowledge, because I have so much more of it.”

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.”

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

“Classic: A book which people praise and don’t read.”

“The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”

“Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”

“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”

“There’s one way to find out if a man is honest: ask him; if he says yes, you know he’s crooked.”

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

Take some time this year to read a book by Mark Twain and study his great life.  Enjoy his wit and be inspired by his adventures.

The human race has never had access to more information at our fingertips than ever before. There is no practical reason to visit any of the places we learn about in life. But, I am reminded again of the conversation between Robin Williams’ and Matt Damon’s characters in Good Will Hunting.

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that.”

Williams’ character is pointing out how important it is to live and breathe places and experiences as opposed to being on the sideline to comment about it.

Since the earliest days of time, man embarked on pilgrimages.

A pilgrimage is defined as a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.

There are many types of pilgrimages.

  • Pilgrimages to see where we grew up
  • Pilgrimages to visit world history events
  • Pilgrimages to see the last live show the Beatles ever played
  • Pilgrimages to see old friends
  • Pilgrimages to remind you of your faith (and strengthen it)

History is a mere textbook without visiting in person because humans were meant for pilgrimages. 

My mother and father are about to embark on their own pilgrimage. My dad spends much of his time in St. Louis serving with a group of veterans whom are part of an organization called Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. Although my father served during the Vietnam era in the Army, he does this for those who served before him, especially his now deceased father, my grandfather Branch . It is a miracle that my grandfather even survived The Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 since he was severely wounded from shrapnel during one of the early days of the battle. My father has realized that their story is worth telling and more importantly to him, it is necessary in order to more fully understand our family and human history, to visit these hallowed grounds.

In 1999 while I was in college I had embarked on a similar pilgrimage to visit Normandy with my friend Heath Hildebrandt. Normandy is only an hour train ride from Paris and an essential visit for any American. I remember the how beautiful it was there but learned how it wasn’t then and how dire the circumstance were for the Allies attempting a foothold in Europe to repel Nazi Germany. This invasion was so critical and risky that Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter in advance to acknowledge defeat if needed they failed to secure the beach. Thankfully the allies did secure the beach. You’d be surprised to learn that securing the beach was a first step of many and it took another month to actually push-off of the beach. I wrote about it in an earlier post called After D-Day.

By visiting these vast beaches of Normandy stretching dozens of miles, I learned more about D-Day and its importance than decades of history classes and World War II shows on HIstory channel.

It was a pilgrimage that I’ll never forget. 

Sadly, in 2001 I also visited Bastogne in Belgium and sites where The Battle of the Bulge occurred but my camera was stolen with the precious photographs. I am excited my dad can complete that pilgrimage with photographs to share. Perhaps the pilgrimage will be complete with him?

 

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In the middle of the Normandy National Cemetery and Memorial.

 

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Omaha Beach, Normandy

What has been your most meaningful pilgrimage? What did you learn about yourself and the place you visited/ 

What pilgrimage to yearn to go on and what do you hope to learn?

From an early age, it has been ingrained in me to love history. My parents and grandparents all stressed the importance of learning about where I came from personally as well the merits of citizenship. Their thought was “If we can not learn from our mistakes, how will we as individuals and a society improve?”

I wish more people could experience history as I did growing up.

History is often the worst-tested subject among high schoolers in the United States.

Kids have voted and they are rejecting history.

Here are the most common complaints about history.

  • It is boring
  • History doesn’t help me in life
  • It is just a bunch of random facts that are difficult to remember

Dr. James Loewen offers a very simple answer to why people are frustrated with history,

“Kids don’t hate history. They hate the way we teach it.”

David McCullough, America’s storyteller and popular historian shares the ‘why’ we should love history,

“History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”

What we missed is the beautiful and entertaining narrative of history.

We love stories.

I minored in history in college but my education has not stopped there. When I was 22, I picked up a copy of Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. It is the book that changed the way I looked at history. Undaunted Courage breathed new life into me and my hope is that others will find that kind of love in history books today.

Here are six books that will make you fall in love with history.

1. Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

This is the grand story of Lewis and Clark, their commission from President Thomas Jefferson and their triumphant quest to reach the west coast. This is the book that helped make history books popular. Stephen Ambrose gives Lewis & Clark a new narrative and I recommend starting with this book.

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2. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

This is the story of Louis Zamperini who ran in the 1936 Olympics in front of Hitler and later crashed in a B-24 during World War II only to float in the Pacific for weeks only to be captured and spend the rest of the war in a Japanese POW camp. Look for the movie starring  to be released this Christmas

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3. Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley

To fully understand war in its glory, propaganda, and sacrifice, you should read Flags of Our Fathers. It follows the six famous marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima during World War II. The 2006 movie by Clint Eastwood does a nice job capturing the story but the book is where you learn more about the characters, especially from the author James Bradley, son of one of the flag bearers, Doc Bradley.

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4. How the Scots Invented the Modern World

This is a fun book that gives a reader a sense of appreciation for the Scots and their incredible innovations that we benefit from today. Their contribution to the world was well beyond kilts and haggis.

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5. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Who would have ever thought that a book about a 19th Century midwest World’s Fair would be so interesting? Larson provides readers with the dual storyline of H.H. Holmes, a notorious and inventive serial killer paralleled with the story of the main architect of the Chicago World’s Fair.  Erik Larson is a tremendous storyteller and after you finish Devil int he White City, pick up a copy of In the Garden of Beasts.

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6. April 1865 by Jay Winik

People to this day wonder what the Civil War was fought for. I’ve read dozens of Civil War books but this one by far provided the best context for the war’s beginning ‘s well as how our nation healed to become strong again.

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There are plenty of other great history books out there but if you have not read many before or have had a bad experience in history, I highly recommend you start with this list.

Which other history books do you love and why? 

I recently finished reading Killing Kennedy, an interesting take on the JFK assassination from Bill O’Reilly. I knew some of the indiscretions of Kennedy through reading history but getting a more full picture through the book was eye-opening. It also educated me about the indiscretions of some other well-known leaders of his time.

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Here is a brief history of some of the most well-known people in the world.

  • John F. Kennedy was a serial adulterer
  • So was Martin Luther King, even with prostitutes
  • Nelson Mandela was involved in terrorism early in life
  • George Washington owned slaves
  • Benjamin Franklin slept his way across America and Europe
  • Margaret Thatcher had an incredible short temper
  • John Lennon all but abandoned his son Julien when he married to Yoko Ono
  • Elvis Presley was a drug addict
  • Oprah Winfrey is known to be a diva that expects royal treatment
  • Ronald Reagan was a lousy actor divorced early in life

The list goes on and on and you’ll be surprised to learn some of these things from some of the most admired people in recent history.

One of my favorite authors and historians David McCullough shares a brilliant piece about how we should view our leaders but more importantly, how we should see ourselves.

“Now those who wrote the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia that fateful summer of 1776 were not superhuman by any means. Every single one had his flaws, his failings, his weaknesses. Some of them ardently disliked others of them. Every one of them did things in his life he regretted. But the fact that they could rise to the occasion as they did, these imperfect human beings, and do what they did is also, of course, a testimony to their humanity. We are not just known by our failings, by our weaknesses, by our sins. We are known by being capable of rising to the occasion and exhibiting not just a sense of direction, but strength.”

Ephesians 1:7 sums it up.

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”

Thank God for grace and recognition that he sees the potential in all of us and wants us to do good and succeed in his eyes. God sees us as perfect, even in our imperfections and it makes his grace shine brighter than ever.

 

 

The Thin Red Line

March 6, 2014 — Leave a comment

The past few weeks I suspect most people in the world had not heard about Crimea. When you read the headlines, you have to look twice to make sure you are not reading “crime” in the title. Crimea has a long history of political strife, unfortunately due to its strategic location in the Black Sea. The Crimean Peninsula is a crossroads for Europe, Asia, and the MIddle East.

When I lived in Scotland, I would visit Edinburgh Castle multiple times. There is an intriguing painting that hangs within the castle, specifically in the National War Museum of Scotland. It is The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb.

I purchased a print of the painting, framed it, and it has hung on the walls of my offices over the years. I look to it often in wonder and strength.

Here is its story.

The Thin Red Line, painted in 1881 by Robert Gibb. Painting showing the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders in battle with Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaklava 1854.

The Thin Red Line, painted in 1881 by Robert Gibb. Painting showing the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders in battle with Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaklava 1854.

Military History Monthly describes the story best here,

“In November 1854, The Times war correspondent William Russell, writing from the Crimea, reported that an attack by Russian cavalry had been repulsed, having come up against a piece of ‘Gaelic rock… a thin red streak topped up with a line of steel’ – a description that would later become ‘the thin red line’. Russell was describing the heroic part played by the 93rd Highlanders in the Battle of Balaclava, probably better known as the occasion of the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade.

The 93rd Highlanders had been raised in 1799 as the 93rd Regiment of Foot, drawing its recruits mainly from the remote county of Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. In Autumn 1854, the 93rd was defending Balaclava, a small village and port being used by the British as their supply base. Balaclava was of great strategic importance, and its loss could have changed the course of the entire war.

The 93rd, made up of about 500 men under the command of General Sir Colin Campbell, was stationed between the enemy and their target, but they had taken cover from the artillery fire behind a hill and were out of sight of the Russian forces. When he saw that between 400 and 800 Russian cavalry intended spearheading an attack on Balaclava,Campbell moved his men back to the crest of the hill. For a time, there was silence. Finally, the Russians charged, determined to break through the British line and reach Balaclava.

With squadrons of Russian cavalry bearing down on them, the Turks on the British flanks fired a volley at random before fleeing, leaving two ranks of kilted Highlanders to face the onslaught. As bayonets were fixed, Campbell rode to the front and called out to his troops, ‘There is no retreat from here, men! You must die where you stand.’”

But they didn’t die.

They believed and stood their ground. 

The story of the thin red line is not one of a fierce hand-to-hand battle, and it was all over in a matter of minutes. It was an example of discipline and courage in the face of the terrifying spectacle of a massed cavalry charge.

There were more Victoria Crosses (like the USA’s Medal of Honor) presented to the Highland soldiers at that time than at any other.

The Thin Red Line reminds me every time to stand strong and hold on to my faith in the hard days.

The band, Mumford and Sons, wrote a powerful song called Hold On To What You Believe that captures this as well.

But we’re young,
Open flowers in the windy fields of this war-torn world.
And love,
This city breathes the plague of loving things more than their creators

….

But hold on to what you believe in the light
When the darkness has robbed you of all your sight

Whatever you are facing, stand on the line and look to your brothers and sisters on your right and left . You are not alone.

Hold on to your faith and stand firm in the thin red line.

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 1 Corinthians 16:13

Recently a friend shared about the disappointment of being passed over for a promotion. In addition, he was removed off of a key project thus feeling a setback in his career. Our friends spent time encouraging him and letting him know he was not alone. I as well have felt similar setback in my life.

I was reading through The American Patriot’s Almanac the other day and scanning key events of Abraham Lincoln’s life. It was interesting to study his life’s major events.

  • 1832: Elected captain of an Illinois militia company
  • 1832: Defeated for state legislature
  • 1833: Failed in business
  • 1833: Appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois
  • 1834: Elected to state legislature
  • 1834: Sweetheart died
  • 1836: Received license to practice law in Illinois
  • 1838: Defeated for Speaker of the Illinois House
  • 1841: Suffered deep depression
  • 1842: Married Mary Todd
  • 1844: Established his own law practice
  • 1846: Elected to U.S. Congress
  • 1849: Failed to get appointment to US. Land Office
  • 1850: Four-year old son died
  • 1855: Defeated for U.S. Senate
  • 1857: Earned large attorney fee in a successful case
  • 1858: Again defeated for Senate
  • 1860: ELECTED PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES

I noticed a few things. Lincoln’s life was full of ups and downs. It reveals the ebb and flow of life and we cannot expect everything to work out perfectly. What we do learn is that Lincoln kept moving forward no matter how many setbacks. His failures made him a better, stronger person that was able to never give up.

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Lincoln said,

“I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end.”

Galatians 6:9 offers additional encouragement,

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

By studying people I admire the most like Lincoln, I discover their great failures and tragedies.

  • King David of the Bible committed adultery
  • George Washington experienced military setback after setback during the American Revolution
  • C.S. Lewis lost his mother when he was young and was passed over at Oxford for promotions for years
  • Winston Churchill experienced a military disaster at Gallipoli in World War I
  • John F. Kennedy’s PT boat was demolished and was injured in World War II
  • George H.W. Bush lost a daughter to leukemia
  • J.K. Rowling was on the verge of homelessness

When I feel letdown, lose something or someone, or wonder why something didn’t go my way I am drawn to these great lives for inspiration.

They all shared adversity. Most importantly, they shared perseverance and all kept moving forward.