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Choose Greatness Blog

Steaming to Freedom

The gunboat “Planter,” run out of Charleston by Robert Smalls in May 1862. Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862.

The Planter, a 147-foot steamboat, began pulling away from the dock on May 13, 1862 at 4:00 am, just as the sky was beginning to show the light of another day. On board were seven slaves, which usually piloted, trimmed the riggings and packed/unpacked the cargo. With the Union Blockade outside the Charleston Bay, it wasn’t necessarily unusual for a boat to be headed toward the Atlantic Ocean before sunrise. From the shore, sentries saw the boat move out of the Southern Wharf and continued to make their rounds. What made this trip so unusual was that the white officers that normally captained the ship were still asleep in the house on shore.

In the captain’s seat was Robert Smalls, who normally piloted the boat for his master. Smalls bore a similar build as his master and with the captain’s straw hat on, he looked much him. Smalls and the other eight slaves on the boat yearned to be free, but only Smalls had a vision for how it could be accomplished. When his master and the other two white officers left the boat for the night on May 12, Smalls knew this would be his chance. He quickly called for his wife, their daughter, and the family members of the other slaves. Only Smalls’ wife knew the plan before they came to the boat. When the plan was explained, all the other women were afraid. After some time, tears and prayers, everyone was ready to proceed.

The Civil War was in full swing, and the Planter was a useful boat for the confederates in Charleston, South Carolina, because it had a relatively shallow bough – allowing it to navigate tributary rivers only four feet deep. The Planter also had two paddle wheels, which made it quick and maneuverable compared to older, single paddle boats. The Confederate military used it to run messages, transport troops and carry supplies. The day before the Planter was loaded with valuable munitions for the war – four cannons and 200 pounds of ammunition. This was going to be the biggest ship to be turned over to the Union and it would be a powerful blow to the Confederates. The challenge was getting the boat out of Charleston without raising suspicion.

The early hour was key because the lack of light would leave others to assume it was the captain leading the ship, even though they couldn’t see under the hat very well. After picking up the family members at a more remote point up river, the planter would pass four forts, which could easily sink the boat if an alarm was sounded. The incredible danger of the situation made everyone on board shake with fear – everyone except Smalls.

Under the straw hat and captain’s clothes, Smalls remained calm and focused as he piloted the ship to freedom. He remembered to blow his whistle at check points, he maintained a steady pace, and Providence helped them avoid detection. It was not uncommon for other ships to stop the Planter and request her take a message for them to other officials. If this had occurred, they would be discovered and they would all probably be killed or at least beaten and separated. However, on this morning, no one stopped the Planter.

The last fort they would pass was Fort Sumter. They would have to go right next to the fort to avoid the floating buoys that were stretched out across the mouth of the bay so the South could control the flow of traffic and keep the Union out. With the Union ships in sight, and under the shadow of the fort’s deadly cannons, Smalls blew his whistle as was required and continued calmly past the fort. A fog had rolled in during the morning, helping obscure Smalls’ features and the Confederate soldiers had no idea what was happening until the Planter was out of range and headed straight to the Union ships.

Though relieved to be out of the South’s control,  the fog which had been such a blessing before, now made it difficult for the Union officers to see the white flag the slaves had raised once out of the Charleston bay. With cannons loaded and ready to fire, the flag was finally seen and Smalls was able to explain the situation to the Union commander. Smalls, his family and the other 13 slaves on board, were now free. Smalls would continue to provide invaluable services to the Union during the war, and even became a congressional representative of South Carolina.

For you:

For a black slave to pilot a large steamer out of the second largest port in the Confederate South, takes a lot of bravery. But to do it with your wife, child and friends on board, knowing capture would mean almost certain death, it takes a vision worth the risk. Freedom was the goal, and Smalls showed great discipline to face the challenges and stay focused on the vision of making their escape.

It’s hard to fathom the trepidation all the slaves must have felt during the escape. In fact, one of the usual crew left during the night because he was too afraid of getting caught. But when your vision is great, the challenges will be great as well. The only way to overcome them is to stay focused on the vision and plan you set up to accomplish the vision.

Reflect on your vision for the future and see if you are still focusing your energy on achieving that vision. If so, keep going. If not, find a way to get back on board and sails to your goal.

Fight on the Beaches

Churchill wears a helmet during an air raid warning in the Battle of Britain in 1940.

On May 13, 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons – and essentially all of the United Kingdom through the media – for the first time as the Prime Minister. The room was hazy with smoke as many of the British leaders smoked. Everyone was anxious to hear what he would say in his first official address, even more so because they were at war.

Only a year earlier he was considering retirement from public service as he was not very popular. In 1936, he defended King Edward VIII, which was not a popular stance because the King wanted to marry an American woman who already had a husband. Also during the 1930’s Churchill advocated for the United Kingdom to prepare for war because he saw that Germany was preparing for war. After “The Great War,” no one wanted war, and applauded efforts to bring peace. King Edward VIII gave up the throne to his brother King George VI and Winston was left to himself as a man without a party or support. At 65 years old, Churchill thought his ship had sailed and he was better off writing, painting and taking care of his estate.

The world couldn’t afford to turn a blind eye any longer as Germany gobbled up Poland advanced on Scandinavia. France had a powerful standing army and believed they were prepared to stop the Nazis in the Netherlands as they had a formidable defense network built along their border with Germany. England sent some aid in 1939 and early 1940, but Germany did the unthinkable in crossing through the Ardennes Forest. The bulk of the Allied forces were trapped in the Netherlands.

It was at this time that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned. The people and the House of Commons no longer had confidence in his leadership, so he abdicated the position. He offered a surprising suggestion to the King. He thought that Winston Churchill would make a good Prime Minister because he didn’t have a strong party position and they could position him as the leader of a unified government with all parties working together.

Churchill took the floor and looked around at many of the men that he had known for decades and some he had not known long. He saw the reporters, whom he was familiar with and had aided his fall from prosperity. None of that mattered though as he needed to stand and deliver a message to unify his country.

“I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” he said in a slow, measured voice. “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. ….

“You ask, what is our policy?” he continued, his vigor and energy rising. “I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

This would be the beginning of many speeches he would give over five years as Prime Minister during World War II. He did unit the government and gave the people resolve to face what would be the worst bombing of London and the United Kingdom they would ever see. Just as Churchill’s belief in himself helped him to rise again when his country needed him most, he helped the United Kingdom believe in itself in their darkest hour and lead them through to victory.

For you:

It’s amazing to see how many hero’s must face a virtual knock out before they rise to do something they great. Churchill is seen today as the most important and influential British citizen ever. But if you look at him in 1936-1939 you would never have guessed he would be the catalyst and lynchpin for the United Kingdom and possibly Europe defeating Nazi Germany. He was no doubt the right man at the right time.

There were times during the war that Churchill would get weighed down with critics, politics and the war, but when there was a problem, he jumped up and attacked the issue head on. He believed he was the right person to fix the situation.

Are you facing doubts and fears about achieving your goals? Are you unsure if you can do what you believe deep down you should do? You aren’t alone. Many have faced similar dragons. The battles waged within our souls is as real as any battlefield. Take your set-backs and learn from them. Face your problems and choose to act to solve them. Then with Churchill say, “Victory, however long and hard the road may be” I will achieve my goal.

Burning for a Common Bible

William Tyndale, Protestant reformer and Bible translator. Portrait from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

It was a cold, wet spring day in Antwerp, in 1535 AD. A kind gentleman could be seen walking the streets looking in dark alleys and poor sections of town. He found what he was looking for. A woman and her child were searching for scraps of food so they wouldn’t starve. The man’s heart broke to see such poverty. He approached her.

“I have some money here,” he said in the Flemish tongue that natives spoke. “I give it to you so you and the child may eat.”

“Oh, thank you sir,” she said with tears in her eyes. The child’s eyes were wide as he saw the money exchanged. “I can’t repay you.”

“God gave it to me,” the man said as he stepped back a pace. “And I share it now with you with no thought of repayment. Go and feed your child.”

The woman started to leave, and then turned back to offer her gratitude again. The man nodded slightly and then went back the way he had come. This scene played out a few more times that day; stopping to talk with an elderly man, buying lunch for an invalid, visiting a large family that was barely making ends meet. Many of these people only knew him by his first name or a pseudonym because he was a wanted man. The king of his native England wanted him in prison, the Cardinal in London wanted him burned, and most of Christendom at the time, would have shied away from his company. He was a rebel reformer, and a heretic. But to those that got to know him, he was a good, honest, intelligent man. He was William Tyndale.

William spent two days a week visiting the poor, sick and elderly. Though he was English, he was fluent in French, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin and Spanish. This was helpful since he now lived in one of the busiest trade ports in Europe. It was the mix of cultures, tongues and special government over site in Antwerp that kept Tyndale safe for nearly a decade.

The other five days a week were spent translating the new testament and then the old testament into English. He wasn’t the first person to translate the Bible into English, but since the Peasants Revolt in England, it was against the law to translate the Bible into English. The French had access to a French Bible, and the Germans had a Bible in their native tongue, but the English were required to depend on the Latin translation.

This wasn’t good enough for Tyndale.

Tyndale was motivated to make the Bible accessible to all Englishmen not from greed, or power, but for their benefit. His was the first English Bible after the invention of the printing press, so once his translation was finished, he had 6,000 copies made and smuggled into Europe. The people – just like the poor and sick people he helped – were anxious to receive the New Testament. Tyndale was careful about who he associated with and tried to remain hidden as much as possible, because Thomas More and others were looking for him. If he were caught, he would be sentenced to death for heresy. Tyndale was eventually caught and sent to prison for 18 months. He was given the opportunity to denounce the things he had said and published to save his life. It’s debatable whether they would have let him go, but he wasn’t about to deny the words he had made available to the common people. Just before he was executed in October 1536, Tyndale prayed that the eyes of the King of England be opened.

Nearly 80 years later, the king of England did commission an official English Bible translation, and a majority of that Bible came from Tyndale’s work.

For you:

Service is a powerful part of society. Tyndale was well-educated and could have gone along with the social norm. He could have continued in the church and gained wealth and power. He was more interested in doing good for others. He is most well-known for his translation of the Bible, but he also was a good, honest and kind man.

When he was captured, he had many merchants sending letters in his behalf to Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor and to the King of England for his release. Some of his friends risked their lives and fortunes in attempting to set him free. That doesn’t happen when you only look out for your own interests.

The man who turned in Tyndale died penniless, friendless and disowned from his family. Not because of his role in Tyndale’s capture, but because of the way he lived his life – always feeding his desires and not caring about other people.

Find a way to help someone else today or this week. By lightening their load, you may in return feel your own burden lifted.


If you are interested in learning more about this story, you can read, God’s Bestseller by Brian Moynahan. Or you can watch this documentary about the coming about of the Bible. It’s pretty interesting and uses many different denominations to paint the picture.

Little House of Practice

Profile picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder around 1885.

Laura Ingalls Wilder sat at her kitchen table, in January 1930. She was scratching out on paper a record of her life in a collection of notebooks. This was a project she had wanted to do for some years, but with all the work to be done on the farm, she hadn’t found the time for it. Winter was the best time for projects like this on the farm, so Laura dutifully wrote each day for more than a month. She had seen her own daughter write stories for the public and Laura had written for the Missouri Ruralist over the years. She hoped that her personal experiences with moving, struggling and surviving would help others that were currently struggling with the economic problems later known as the Great Depression.

When she was finished she took it up the path to her only living child, Rose Wilder Lane.  Rose lived in the old, two-story house that Laura and Almanzo had once lived in. After Rose came back from Europe and stayed with them for a time, she built her parents a stone house. It had plumbing, electricity and a few other modern conveniences – something Laura wasn’t sure they needed and was a little uncomfortable with at first.

Rose helped pay her parent’s bills, and her own, through writing short stories and working for newspapers. She worked hard on writing. She would write every day to improve and create new stories. Her first real success came when she wrote a biography of Herbert Hoover in 1919. Rose would continue to write serial stories for Harper’s Weekly and other magazines to help pay the bills. She maintained a daily habit of writing and kept a journal.

The farm they lived on was more than Laura and her husband could take care of – at least well enough to make money. In 1888, after a scary battle with diphtheria, Almanzo had become nearly crippled and would need a cane for most of his life after that. Like many other mid-western farmers in the 1930s, the depression and droughts would leave their crops and finances severely depleted. Rather than sell their land and move to the city, the Wilders loved and held onto the land.

When Laura brought a draft of her history to Rose, it was not what we know today. It was actually rejected in its first draft as a memoir. It wasn’t until Rose took parts of it and revised a section for young readers, that a publisher was interested. They sent a letter back to Laura and said she should describe more of what life was like as a child. Her gift for description brought the frontier to life for young readers.

Her gift may be due more to practice than a talent she was born with. Her older sister had become blind when they were growing up and Laura would describe things to her sister – acting as her sister’s eyes at times. When the publisher asked for more descriptions, Laura set out adding more to her story and detailing memories from her past.

Rose meanwhile was worried about money. She wasn’t having a lot of luck with her latest set of short stories and couldn’t get any new ideas. When Laura brought her revised draft to Rose, she threw herself into the work, like she had many times before. They submitted Little House in the Big Woods and it was purchased by Harper and Brothers in December 1931. Harper would release the book for 8-to-12-year-old readers the following April.

Rose never stopped writing though. She didn’t wait for the final results of her last book before she started her next project. Not only did this improve her cash flow, she was also constantly working on her craft. The best performers continue to improve rather than revel in the past.

The work ethic of both women would turn out a series of eight books in 11 years that were almost instantly successful. At a time when the United States was reeling from the depression, it fell in love with the pioneer story of the Ingalls family. The Little House on the Prairie series is viewed by some experts to have helped improve literacy among children across America.

For you:

Laura and Rose didn’t always have a great relationship and not every book was met with immediate success. The second book, “Farmer Boy” was originally rejected and the publisher asked Laura to rewrite it. Rose helped to craft it so the theme was stronger and more impactful. She wouldn’t have known how to improve it without years of practice behind her.

Practice is the mundane, behind-the-scenes part of success that can’t be overlooked. Because practice doesn’t usually get a lot of attention from the outside, we may forget its importance.  Laura was probably more upset by the rejection than Rose because she hadn’t experienced it as much as Rose. Practice gives us confidence, even when we miss our mark, to achieve greater goals.

Reflect on the goals you set. Have you practiced on them this week? When, and for how long, will you practice the necessary skills so you can accomplish her dream?

Turning Point for Union

Major General George G. Meade standing in his Union Officer uniform.

The midnight silence was broken by the sound of a horse and rider approaching. It was early in the morning of June 28, 1863, Major General George Gordon Meade had been asleep in his tent when the messenger arrived. His aide tried to stop the messenger and asked him to come back after sunrise, but he said he was here from Washington DC and needed to speak to Meade at once.

“Come in,” Meade said as he sat up in bed.

“Sir, you have a messenger from Washington,” his aide said sheepishly.

Meade thought at first that the messenger was coming to let him know he was in trouble and would be going to prison over some political disagreement. He hated the politics of the army. It seemed to be particularly chaotic because of the Civil War they were fighting. President Lincoln had already appointed three commanding generals over the Army of the Potomac in the 12 months. They had just suffered two major defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Whenever there are defeats there are always lots of pointing fingers. Maybe this messenger was here to notify him of some congressional action or military court hearing.

It didn’t take long for the messenger to explain his business. But once he was finished, Meade and the messenger were silent for a long time.

“President Lincoln wants to appoint me to be commanding general of the Army of the Potomac?” Meade asked in disbelief. He was still reeling from the shock. “There are at least four other generals that out rank me and a few of them would do a respectable job.”

“The President is aware of those men and while appreciative of their service, he is asking you to take the lead,” the messenger said. “Some of them have refused to take the commission. And he thinks that because you are from Pennsylvania, you will fight hard to save it from the enemy.”

“We’ve been conveniently distanced from Lee’s army for three weeks now, as they have marched north,” Meade huffed. “Major General Joseph Hooker has feigned protecting Washington, but he was afraid of fighting Lee again. He was humiliated at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.”

“That’s true,” the messenger agreed. “We need to take action, and General Hooker was not interested in taking action. What should I tell the President?”

Meade took a few more minutes to consider. Then said, “Well, I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to the execution. I accept.”

Later that day, Meade wrote his first official order. In part, he wrote, “… Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo, let us have in view constantly the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest.”

Meade immediately put his army into action and began to pursue the Confederate Army which was already invading Pennsylvania. He immediately cracked down on poor discipline and didn’t allow bad weather to stop his plans either as they had to march through rain storms to try to intercept Lee’s advance. Meade thought the Rebels were going to attack Harrisburg, the state’s capital, or other pivotal army supply stations. Lee’s army had already destroyed various public properties to hinder the Union war machine. Meade sent his Calvary ahead to keep an eye on their movements.

Just two days later, the Calvary would spot a detachment of Lee’s army near Gettysburg, PA. On July 1, the Battle of Gettysburg began with a small skirmish between 3,000 Union cavalry and a battalion of Confederate soldiers. By the end of that day, the bulk of the Union and Confederate army had joined the battle. By the end of July 3, more than 28,000 Confederate soldiers were dead or wounded and the Union army suffered 22,000 casualties. It was the biggest and deadliest conflict that had ever been fought during the war. Lee was forced to retreat back down to Virginia, and the Southern states never again invaded the North. Gettysburg was a pivotal battle on the eve of our nation’s Independence Day.

For you

Could you imagine being woke up from your sleep and given command of nearly 100,000 men? He was already a commander, but this was a big change for Meade – though not a dream job. He could have refused like other generals had. He could have decided to accept the position, and wait until he felt comfortable with his role. But he didn’t. He seized the day and moved without delay.

We don’t always get to decide when the opportunities come, but we can decide to take advantage of them when they arrive. Meade wasn’t the most outstanding choice, or the most obvious. You may not feel like the best person for the job or the most capable of achieving your goal, but action is a major part of success.

Choose to take advantage of the opportunities you are given to achieve your goal. Consider your options now, and consider whether or not you are missing an opportunity now. It could be your Gettysburg and the turning point in your journey.

Measuring Success in Teamwork

UCLA Men’s Basketball Head Coach John Wooden in 1972

UCLA took the floor in Kansas City, as the only undefeated team in the country on March 21, 1964. Despite their 29-0 record, many coaches and experts didn’t expect the Bruins to beat the Duke team in the National Championship game. John Wooden had been the head coach at UCLA for 16 seasons. He had turned UCLA into a good team, but they hadn’t won a collegiate championship in all those years.

From the beginning of that season, UCLA wasn’t expected to be a good team. Their tallest player was center Fred Slaughter, who was only 6’5″ – an undersized center on most teams. Duke had two 6’10” players on their team. Wooden knew they would have a hard time winning the traditional way, so what could they do to overcome their size deficiency?

Assistant Coach, Jerry Norman came up with the idea to change their defense. They would play full court defense, putting a lot of pressure on the other teams’ players and creating dozens of turnovers. It would require a lot of effort and focus from each player to play suffocating defense throughout the entire game. Wooden always made sure his teams were well conditioned, and their stamina would be tested this season.

The effectiveness of this defense was on display early in the Championship game. With less than 8 minutes to go in the first half, UCLA was behind by three points. Then over the next 2.5 minutes, UCLA stole passes, hurried opposing players, and scored 16 points, while Duke couldn’t score any points. They led comfortably the rest of the game and won Wooden’s first national title as a coach, as well as finishing the season undefeated. He would later lead his teams to 10 national championships in 12 years.

Wooden would coach some big names at UCLA, but he didn’t always have the most talented players. He was able to get teams to play together. He did it by building character first and athletes second. He forbade his teams from criticizing each other, swearing, and lying. He also required that they be on time, clean and do their best. He didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the score.

” I never mentioned winning,” Wooden said in a Ted talk in 2001. “My idea is you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game. And you can win, when you are outscored. I wanted them to be able to hold their head up after a game [no matter the score].”

Interestingly, one of the most winningest coaches of all time was  not obsessed with wins and losses. He measured success by the effort and dedication they put in during the week and in the game. Wooden was most concerned about the athletes and how they would develop into men.

Wooden had made this crystal clear at the end of the 1947 season while coaching Indiana State. After his team won their conference, Wooden received an invitation to participate in the national tournament. Wooden declined to take his team because the tournament wouldn’t allow black athletes to participate. Rather than just leave one player home, his whole team forfeited their place in the tournament.

The following year, after a few other teams complained, the ban on African-American players was rescinded. Wooden’s team finished second in the 1948 tournament with Clarence Walker becoming the first black basketball player to play in a postseason intercollegiate basketball tourney.

For you:

Countless coaches in all levels of sports have stressed, obsessed and chased after wins. For Wooden, his team was more important than the wins and losses they accumulated. He wanted them to be successful long after they hung up their jerseys, so he wanted to give them tools that transcended the hardwood. Wooden would eventually develop a pyramid of success. Foundations in that pyramid were hard work, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm. (Here is a link to his pyramid.)

Wooden advocated that by building good character and working hard, you will eventually get the success you deserve. As a coach, who can’t play in the actual game, he had to instill these virtues in his teams.

As you look at those you teach, coach or associate with, are you inspiring them to greater character? Are you quick to criticize or do your encourage them to give their best? Are you loyal to your teammates and the goal you are all working towards?

“Most people, the overwhelming majority of us, wish to be in an organization or part of a team whose leadership cares about them, provides fairness and respect, dignity and consideration.” Wooden said in his book, Wooden on Leadership.

Make your team more than winning and losing. Make your team stronger through high character and eventually your will see the success you are supposed to have.