Peter Takes on History
September 13, 1864
Famous Last Words
In 1864 Ulysses S. Grant, leading 100,000 Union troops, and Robert E. Lee, leading 52,000 Rebels, began a race to the confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Grant’s intention was to take a parallel route, engaging Lee’s smaller army relentlessly, decreasing their numbers and degrading their ability to fight, making it easier for his forces to take the Confederate capital.
Their second major clash was in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. Over twelve bloody days there were 18,399 Union casualties and 12,687 Confederate casualties and, though today the battle is considered inconclusive, both sides declared victory, disengaged and continued their deadly race to Richmond. Of the nearly 31,000 casualties I want to focus on just one; Union General John Sedgwick who died on this day in history, September 13th, 1864.
Now, Sedgwick was probably a solid soldier. I mean, he made general! But today he is remembered for one thing. His last words. Spoken just a second before being taken down by a confederate sharpshooter General Sedgwick said, and I quote, "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance!"
A big thanks to “irony” for making Sedgwick's last words memorable. And thanks also to the General for suggesting today’s topic, “Famous Last Words.”
Drummer Buddy Rich had one thing in common with Sedgwick, he didn’t know his words would be his last. But Rich didn’t need the assistance of cosmic comic timing to make his memorable. Before a failed surgery a nurse asked Rich about possible allergies saying, “Is there anything you can’t take?” Rich replied, “Yeah, country music.”
German philosopher and economist Karl Marx might have made a little mistake chasing his housekeeper out of his room when she offered to record his last words. He shouted at her, “Go on, get out, last words are for fools who have not yet said enough!” That’s what she jotted down.
Others, not taken unexpectedly, had the opportunity to exercise their creativity on the way out.
Moments before passing, Groucho Marx said, and you’ve got to imagine his voice, “This is no way to live!”
Margaret Sanger, the women’s rights activist who coined the phrase “birth control,” reportedly shouted, “A party! Let’s have a party.”
Others were more sanguine. Iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo scratched in her journal, “I hope the exit is joyful and hope never to return.”
On July 1, 1566 Nostradamus predicted, “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here.” Turns out he nailed it.
Sometimes “last words” are made memorable by the context of the speaker's life.
Sir Winston Churchill, before expiring said, “I’m bored with it all.”
Then there’s the dying painter, looking back on his body of work who said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” Poor, poor Leonardo da Vinci!
Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde clearly considered posterity when he uttered his famous last words saying, "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”
Looking at “last words” I thought it was reasonable to include the carefully considered gravestone inscriptions that guarantee any decedent “the last word.” I did check these for accuracy so I was sad to disqualify one of my favorites.
W.C. Field’s monument does not say, as legend has it, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” That mock epitaph was written by Fields for a 1925 Vanity Fair article many years before his death.
Remember Mel Blanc? The remarkable artist who gave voice to Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and scores of other Looney Toons characters? His tombstone does indeed recall Porky Pig's famous sign-off, “That’s all folks.”
Irish writer and comedian Spike Milligan might have the most famous and often copied epitaph. Translated from his Gaelic marker it reads, “I told you I was ill.”
But, you don’t have to be famous to have a great epitaph. Consider 'Chuck' Mitchell III of Newport News, Virginia. The carving on his marker says simply, “Well, this sucks.”