It is often said that history is written by the victor — that in the aftermath of conflict, the defeated are often portrayed as a collective, detestable mass that follows an equally repulsive value system. Yet, though his Confederate Army was at the losing end of America’s Civil War, Robert E. Lee is remembered as one of the most celebrated generals in American history.
Rational ideas of armed conflict presume that defeated soldiers should be denounced, not exalted; punished, not praised; and despised, not admired. However, Lee is entirely of the latter. What made one man, one soldier, so special that he is remembered by more Americans today than many of his victorious Union counterparts?
Unfortunately, this is a question that many volumes of books have had trouble answering. And, I suspect that you have no desire (in this particular moment, at least) to read content of such depth and breadth (and I admit that I could not write it). Nonetheless, if I had to describe the reason for Lee’s appeal in one word, it would be “motivation.”
I will explore this theme in the context of the following quote:
“There is scarcely anything that is right that we cannot hope to accomplish by labor and perseverance. But the first must be earnest and the second unremitting.”
Robert E. Lee
Today’s culture is one in which immediacy is glorified — from the 24 hour news cycle; to tarts that “pop” before you can pour a glass of milk; to magic weight loss pills — such that it is easy to forget that anything worth accomplishing takes earnest labor, which I would define as a serious and purposeful exertion of body, mind and spirit.
For when business owners talk about pouring their blood, sweat and tears into their companies, they refer merely to earnest labor.
When the craft of a famous musician or star athlete appears to look “easy,” it is made so through earnest labor.
And, when I strive to achieve my goal of running a marathon, I will commit to one principle: you guessed it, earnest labor.
The ability to learn; the power to change; and the means by which goals are accomplished; are controlled by your ability to work hard, and to do so earnestly — without reservations (or a magic pill).
Lee fought an uphill battle for much of the Civil War. His outnumbered and poorly-supplied army shrank daily because of desertions by disheartened soldiers. Yet, in spite of this, he fought vigorously until the moment when defeat was imminent.
How often do we give up on goals when things aren’t proceeding exactly as we had anticipated? Did you decide to quit smoking, but then found out you had a huge project due at work, school, or elsewhere? Did you try making a habit of waking up earlier in the morning, but then slept in the next day and decided that it was a pointless exercise?
Lee has an answer for these, and other, problems: unremitting perseverance, which I would define as a steady, unshakable persistence in adhering to a course of action, belief, or purpose.
When I train for and eventually run the marathon, I know that there will be a little voice inside my head telling me to stop; that it hurts too much to go one step further. However, my unremitting perseverance in pursuing the challenge — all the way to the finish line — will enable me to listen only to my footsteps against the pavement; the gentle breeze passing over my ears; and the rhythm of my breathing — thus pushing that little voice into the depths of my subconscious.
Nevertheless, Lee is a perfect example that harboring unremitting perseverance does not ensure victory. After all, he was defeated in war. Yet, even in momentary failure, perseverance gives you the power to get back on your metaphorical (or actual) horse and ride into battle (hopefully metaphorical) once more, pursuing your goal with the knowledge that can only be learned through setback.
It is said that history is written by the victor; and, in Lee’s case, it is. In capturing the hearts of Americans, both through his military actions, his personal value system, and his sincere words of wisdom, Robert E. Lee is clearly victorious.