In 1754 before the French and Indian War had officially begun, the 22-year-old commander of the Virginia Regiment, George Washington, ordered his men into Fort Necessity, near present day Pittsburgh, PA. The superior French forces surrounded the fort and laid siege to it. Washington was forced to surrender.
How was this a good thing? When General Washington led the Continental Army years later, he was careful to always keep his troops mobile, to always have an avenue of escape, and to never again be surrounded and forced to surrender. In fact, George Washington became the master of the strategic retreat! If Washington had not had the experience at Fort Necessity, then maybe he would not have learned such a valuable lesson, and maybe the British could have surrounded the Continental Army. Had they done so, our fight for liberty would have been lost.
Washington wrote in 1781 to a colonel in the Continental Army on the value of such an experience: “We ought not to look back, unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting from dear bought experience, and to steer clear of the shelves and rocks we have steered upon, is the part of wisdom.”
In a letter to John Jay, July 18, 1788, Washington advised, "Leaders must learn from others' triumphs and disasters. It will make their own path less rocky." General Sam Houston, commander of the Texas army during its war for independence from Mexico, was well aware of George Washington's capture at Fort Necessity. He warned the Texians, led by Col. William Travis, to not get trapped at the Alamo (1836). Unfortunately, the Mexican Army, led by Gen. Santa Anna, was able to surround the mission. Unlike the French, the Mexicans showed no mercy upon the Texians' surrender. They massacred almost everyone who had managed to survive the battle.
In this light, past mistakes can be viewed as a valuable learning experiences - ones that one knows not to repeat. General Washington wrote to John Armstrong on March 26, 1781: “To inveigh against things that are past and remedial is unpleasing, but to steer clear of the shelves and rocks we have struck upon is the part of wisdom.”
"As we strive for our destiny, a study of the past will help us to determine what price we must pay for it." (Letter to Philip Marsteller on Dec 15, 1786). On this Independence Day, let us reflect upon the mistakes of history, and let them guide us as we strive to achieve our nation's destiny.