How We Think of Life’s Failures

Oliver Otis Howard was born in Maine in 1830. He graduated from Bowdoin College when he was 19 and then graduated from West Point in 1854.

As a junior officer far away from his wife and baby son, he found a faith that helped him through a challenging career in the military. After a short time teaching at West Point, he became engaged in the Civil War.

He lost his right arm early on in the war, but he continued on to lead troops in key battles, notably Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. In both cases, he made mistakes that ended up as military setbacks. When troops heard that he would be their leader, they started calling him “Uh-Oh” Howard, playing on his name.

He was inspired by the slaves who crossed into the areas where the North had won. He became an abolitionist and some members of Congress became his supporters.

When the war was over, he was asked to head the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, an organization to help in the transition from slavery in the South. He faced a lot of resistance from the entrenched attitudes of Southerners and the unwillingness of President Andrew Johnson to support him.

General Howard decided to focus on education as the mission of the bureau. A new institution was created in Washington DC to foster higher education for African Americans. That institution bears his name: Howard University.

The bureau was a failure and General Howard once again looked to his faith to believe he was chosen to have a meaningful life. He rejoined the military. He was sent west to deal with land disputes between Native Americans and settlers.

General Howard thought he could convince the Native Americans to give up their land and move on to reservations. Once again he failed, and violent clashes ended in deaths on both sides.

General Howard continued to serve in the military and played a role in the Spanish American War. When he died in 1909, he was the last surviving Union Army General from the Civil War.

Just imagine how we should think of the life of someone like General Howard. Should we view his life as one of his failures on the battlefield and in his attempts to transition the South to a more just society? Or should we view his life for his values and principles that led to better lives for slaves through the university he fought to create? Howard University remains a vital institution today while his failures are long forgotten.

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“The greatest glory in living lies not in failing, but in rising every time we fail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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