Memorial Day Pause

valley forge

The renovated barn apartment I live in offers a plethora of dwelling options for local birds.  It’s a little like living in an aviary, the day progressing with songs and shrieks from busy feathered co-inhabitants.  This morning I awoke  to birds singing outside my window and daylight streaming into the room.  My husband and family were at morning Mass particularly remembering those in our armed forces.

I slept through Mass but in the morning quiet started my day with a prayer of blessing on all those who served and are still serving.  I’m grateful for our many freedoms and way of life.  Thoughts of the suffering of so many, much of it senseless, some of it no less than a matter of destiny were going through my mind.

So in the silence of my apartment I thanked George Washington.  Living here I always remember to thank him on American holidays.  George Washington was often on this property where my husband and I live.  There are no plaques here and if it wasn’t for renting our place we never would have known.  Walking distance to Valley Forge Park the main house here was used by General Pulaski during the infamous winter at Valley Forge.  George Washington deliberated his plans here and discussed new calvary moves and war tactics that eventually would lead to the Colonies winning the Revolutionary War.  It took decades of military life to get him ready for this crucial time in world history.

I’m a big admirer of this founding father though I never set out to be.  Like many, I held him in esteem – because you just do as an American – but knew little about who George Washington really was.   Do you feel a history lesson coming on?  Well, you’re right, so settle in for a quick story very appropo on Memorial Day.  In between a beer and a burger it’s the least we can do.  Truly.

My husband, Paul, is a great history teacher.  While this isn’t what he does for a living, he has a degree in history from Rutgers University and I consider it a fun perk of being married to him that I’ve learned so much history during our 15 years (and counting) of marriage.

When Paul and I lived in Pittsburgh we visited Fort Necessity in Western PA’s Fayette County.  It was there that I learned about George Washington as a young Virginia Colonel in one of the first battles of the French Indian War.  This battle turned out to be George Washington’s only surrender.   Decades of military service and only 1 surrender.  So much to learn right there.

Up to this time the British were engaged in what would become known as the Seven Years War so they weren’t motivated to send manpower to protect their fledgling Colonies.  However, soon after Washington’s surrender things changed.  The French and Indians were threatening to take over other British interests and settlements.  Britain’s King commissioned a 60 year old British General with NO combat expereince to lead the war efforts for the British in the Colonies.  General Edward Braddock.

Braddock was in the British forces for over 45 years by this time but had yet to lead ANY troops in battle.  That turned out to not work in his favor as you can imagine perched on your vantage point 250 + years hence.  But he was a solid pedigreed General, the son of a British General.  He had qualities that were esteemed at that time for a General but he may have also received his post because no one else wanted the position.  Okay, lets assume it’s a combination.

The cultured, educated Braddock didn’t see much use for most of the colonial officers here.  And he really couldn’t connect with the Indians whom he saw as savage.  Not the best diplomat.  But he saw someone he liked very much.  Lt. Colonel George Washington.  From all accounts Washington already possessed many natural leadership qualities and had combat experience.   Washington, a successful planter, was ambitious to be commissioned a British officer at this point in his career.   Toward that goal Braddock asked Washington to join him as a volunteer officer which was not an uncommon path toward future commission in the British forces.

Washington became one of Braddock’s closest advisors and his brilliance with the art of war were becoming clear.  Braddock also came to mean a lot to Washington.  A professional mentor so to speak.  They didn’t work together that long as Braddock was killed in 1755’s Battle of Monongahela.

There were tears on my face at the historical site reading how George Washington was one of the men that dragged the severely wounded Braddock off the battlefield.  Washington endangered his own life but there was no question – he wouldn’t leave this veteran General to die out on the field.

Before he died General Braddock was able to speak a couple of words to Washington and took off  the sash he wore with his battle uniform and gave it to Washington.  Washington never wore his uniform without this sash, all the way through his later presidential years.

Afterwards he led a proper ceremonious burial for the General.  In Western PA, close to Fort Necessity is General Braddock’s gravesite.   They actually only discovered his remains in 1804 when men were working on the roads there.  And in 1913 they erected a marker for the gravesite.

When you visit these historical parks or monuments you get a sense for the human suffering and bravery involved.   Sometimes it doesn’t make sense – all of this pain for a trade route, for furs?  Just fill in reasons for war throughout history.  Of course, it’s always more complex and wars are at the core fighting for a way of life and principles of governance.  So it does matter.  It turns out a lot as the centuries unfold.

As for a lesson I learned – our battles are not for naught.

It is required to be battle scarred in order to grow into a great leader of your own life.  You can’t be born into it or talk about it sipping sherry in an overstuffed chair, though that’s what I’d have elected.  Fact is you have to get into the stuff of life and sometimes that isn’t easy.  We make mistakes; we get ambushed; we get weary.   But that is how we all grow and learn the lessons that we will have to draw upon later when the stakes are even higher.

So, perhaps we would admire those who have life ‘easy’.  At least from how we see it. General Braddock had it easier and more privileged than some during his 45 years in military service.   Like it was for General Braddock this only proves to be a liability on the battlefield.  As it does for those you lead.

Washington is a true hero to me.   The brutalites of war were horrific and tiresome.  But he continued to commandeer.  Over time there was a shift in his motivation.  Eventually he was leading from duty more than ambitious desire.  He  knew he was the best man for the job by the time of the Revolutionary War 20 years down the battle worn road.  So when the time came and he was asked to lead, he once again put on his uniform.

Washington is well known to want to return to time on his plantation and resume a more quiet life.  This was a dream that would elude hime time and again.  After the Revolutionary War he was summoned as the right man to be our nation’s first President.  It was his life, with all it’s battles, that prepared him for this important next mission in his life.

After 8 years of service he did finally retire.  And he did enjoy riding his horses on his plantation and ordinary civilian life.  But soon after he got sick with an pneumonia and died.

What a man.  What a life story.  Unintened in some ways but none of it seems accidental either.

So it is with your life and mine.  Today when we remember such heroes, let us remember to use our freedoms well.

Don’t get stuck on any particular battle.  Walk off and move on.  If you have a couple of these under your belt (and if you’ve lived a few decades, I’m sure you do!) it’s time to take up your role as General in your own life.  Time to use all you’ve learned to plan for a victory! And never surrender to defeat.

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