‘Famous last words’ sometimes depend on who heard them and what the listener wanted to hear.
Stonewall Jackson’s famous last words–“Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”–have entered the national lexicon as a timeless expression of peace, acceptance and resignation. As James I. Robertson has demonstrated in his magisterial new biography, Jackson’s final words were based on a rather humble childhood memory of coming home one night from a long day of drudgery in a sawmill. Still, they are no less touching for being rooted in actuality.
Nineteenth-century society had an absolute mania for death, and it was not uncommon for a dying man’s friends and relatives to cluster about his deathbed to record his last earthly words. Such statements, it was felt, were messages from the “great beyond.” The presumed spirituality of the messages, however, did not always deter admirers from improving upon them, or, in the case of Robert E. Lee, from inventing entirely a more suitable and poetic valedictory.
After suffering a stroke in September 1870, Lee lingered for nearly two weeks in a bed placed in the dining room of the family home in Lexington, Va. As was customary, family members attended his every groan, listening in vain for a last noble pronouncement. But Lee’s condition did not permit coherent speech. As his most recent biographer, Emory Thomas, has noted: “Those who waited beside Lee’s bed for some profound revelation seemed to wait in vain. Lee spoke an average of one word per day, according to those who remained with him for the first twelve days after his stroke. By the standards of the day, Lee may have lived an exemplary life; but he was certainly doing a poor job of dying.” Finally, on his last day, the general murmured inscrutably, “I will give that sum.” It was his last recorded sentence. No one knew what he was talking about.
The disappointing denouement of Lee’s passing did not sit well with his hero-worshiping biographer Douglas Southall Freeman. Ignoring the testimony of Lee’s wife, daughters, sons, physicians and friends, Freeman came up with a more suitable leave-taking. In his version, the stroke-impaired Lee becomes practically voluble, murmuring prayers and orders and the occasional crisp, commanding phrase, such as, “Tell Hill he must come up.” At last, according to Freeman, Lee says simply and majestically, “Strike the tent,” and expires as conveniently and dramatically as the heroine in some Victorian-era melodrama.
Another Civil War general’s famous last words were not invented from whole cloth, as Freeman invented Lee’s, but were subtly changed for comic purposes. Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was killed at Spotsylvania by a Confederate sharpshooter in May 1864. Overseeing his lines, Sedgwick had been annoyed by what he took to be his men’s excessive dodging and weaving in the face of enemy sniper fire. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” he complained to his staff. A few minutes later, a Rebel bullet crashed into Sedgewick’s face below the left eye, killing him instantly. Ever since his death, jokesters have shortened Sedgwick’s last words to the more gruesomely comic, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist–.”
When Union Brig. Gen. William Lytle was killed on September 20, 1863, at Chickamauga, men from both armies sat around their campfires that night reciting Lytle’s popular drawing-room poem, “Antony and Cleopatra,” with its famous opening line, “I am dying, Egypt, dying.” It would be pleasing to be able to say that Lytle himself had uttered the same phrase while dying gracefully on the north Georgia hill that bears his name. But Wisconsin Captain Howard Green, who was with Lytle when he died, left behind a decidedly less romantic account of Lytle’s last moments.
Hit in the spine by a Confederate bullet during the great breakthrough spearheaded by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, Lytle turned to say something to Green when he was hit simultaneously by three more bullets, one striking him squarely in the face, knocking out several teeth and exiting through his temple. Accounts differ concerning Lytle’s last moments–one has him murmuring, “Brave, brave, brave boys”–but Green’s eyewitness testimony depicts Lytle as literally drowning in his own blood. In such a case, it would have been impossible for him to say anything, much less anything poetic.
The record for brevity in famous last words is held by an anonymous Union soldier at Cold Harbor. In a bloodstained notebook found on the battlefield, the soldier had made a final entry. It read, in its entirety: “June 3. Cold Harbor. I am killed.” Sometimes, brevity and eloquence are the same thing.
Correction: In July’s America’s Civil War, the top photograph on page 53 was incorrectly credited. The credit should have read: The Collection of C. Paul Loane.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War