Share This Article

Our lexicographer considers some quotations associated with leading Civil War commanders.

Great military leaders commanded on both sides in the American Civil War, and their exploits and achievements have been well documented. Some of them also uttered memorable phrases, al- though careful research has shown that not every word attributed to each person was completely accurate.

Take, for example, Rear Admiral David Farragut’s words at the Battle of Mobile Bay. On August 5, 1864, one of his lead ships, the monitor Tecumseh, hit a mine (then called a torpedo), and foundered. When told that the ship behind it had halted for fear of being torpedoed, Farragut (right) allegedly exclaimed, “Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!” Historical research indicates that what he actually said was, “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead.” Over the years his words were shortened to the current version, sometimes put as “full steam ahead.”

An accurate version survives of General-in-Chief George B. McClellan’s words, written frequently as he endlessly trained the main Union army, probably because they were recorded in dispatches to Washington and then quoted in a famous poem that became a popular song. For several months, while McClellan commanded the Army of the Potomac from 1861 to 1862, virtually no action took place, even though the river that separated the Confederate and Union forces was often narrow, and the two sides were within shooting distance. Hence, McClellan repeatedly reported, “All quiet along the Potomac.” Northerners who wanted to see action were infuriated by the dispatches of a military quietude they regarded as an intolerable delay by McClellan, and the expression became an ironic catchphrase.

Decades later, with the Civil War utterances either unknown or forgotten, a similar stalemate arose on the Western Front during World War I. It gave rise to German military reports stating Im Westen nichts Neues (Nothing new in the West), while Allied communiqués stated “All’s quiet on the Western front.” Then this catchphrase became the title of Erich Maria Remarque’s war novel, Im Westen Nichts Neues, translated into English as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).

Union commanders were not the only sources of memorable statements. In 1862, as he watched the Battle of Fredericksburg, General Robert E. Lee reportedly said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Biographies of Lee quoted his statement with slightly different wording. The version here appeared in Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume biography, and it is the one that remains associated with him.

Among the most colorful and ironic utterances of the war was that of Union Major General John Sedgwick, veteran of many campaigns. On May 8, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, he reportedly tried to encourage his men to stay in line, saying, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” These turned out to be among his last words, because a minute later a sniper’s bullet fatally struck him in the face. Perhaps the two most famous quotations of the Civil War are those associated with Major General William Tecumseh Sherman. In the fall of 1864 General John Bell Hood’s Confederate force, which had been expelled from Atlanta in September by Union troops under Sherman, swung in a wide arc toward Tennessee, on the very route along which Sherman had advanced. Along their line of march they called on all the Union positions they encountered to surrender. Brigadier General John M. Corse, defending a Union supply depot, commanded one such position at Allatoona Pass, Georgia, and when told to give up Corse refused. Supposedly, he had received a communiqué from Sherman at Kenesaw Mountain saying, “Hold the fort! I am coming!” Actually, one report said “Hold out; relief is coming,” and another “Sherman says hold fast. We are coming.”

As with other phrases, it was shortened, and that version became the first line of a popular postwar hymn, “Hold the fort, for I am coming, Jesus signals still.”

The other phrase attributed to Sherman is “War is hell.” No written source for this statement has been located, but apparently the general often uttered it in conversation.

And he reportedly mentioned it in a graduation address at the Michigan Military Academy on June 19, 1879, in a context that seemed to show a more humane side of the general: “War is at best barbarism….It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

However, according to Zion’s Herald and Wesleyan Journal of February 1, 1860, Napoleon Bonaparte (left) said, “War is hell” more than fifty years before Sherman (found in The Yale Book of Quotations, 2006).


Originally published in the Autumn 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here