Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: An 1863 statement by
Example: [Collected via e-mail, March 2007]
Origins: Commenting on a current political or social issue by retroactively putting words into the mouth of a well-known historical figure is a common satirical technique
However, the example quoted above (although it may feature some embellishment and/or rewording) is based on a statement dating to at least the latter half of the
"We made a great mistake in the beginning of our struggle, and I fear, in spite of all we can do, it will prove to be a fatal mistake. We appointed all our worst generals to command our armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers."But did Lee actually say this, and if so, in what context? Right away we run into the complication that the very same statement has been attributed to other famous military figures as well, as demonstrated by this example from a 1935 newspaper article:
"Why, it appears that we appointed all of our worst generals to command the armies and we appointed all of our best generals to edit the newspapers. I mean, I found by reading a newspaper that these editor generals saw all of the defects plainly from the start but didn't tell me until it was too late. I'm willing to yield my place to these best generals and I'll do my best for the cause by editing a newspaper."
This ironical vein can also be traced in [the Duke of] Wellington's correspondence, as in the following case of a letter to a London friend, in which he raps his journalistic critics over the knuckles:The overwhelming majority of sources we've turned up so far attribute this statement to Lee, and those sources date back as far as the 1870s, both of which would tend to argue in favor of this being a genuine
"We made a sad mistake in the beginning of this campaign, which may yet prove fatal to us. In the beginning all the worst generals were appointed to command our armies and all our best generals to edit the newspapers. As you know, I have planned some campaigns and fought quite a few battles. I have given the work all the thought I could, and sometimes when my plans were completed, so far as I could see, they seemed perfect. But when I have fought them through, I have discovered defects and occasionally wondered I did not see some of the faults in advance. When it was all over I found, just by the simple process of reading a newspaper, that those 'best editor' generals saw all the defects plainly from the start. Unfortunately, they did not communicate their knowledge to me until it was too late to correct my ignorance."
There was a quiet humor, and upon occasion a keen wit, in General Lee, which was only appreciated by those who came into intimate contact with him.However, a few factors about these sources give us pause: Their context is inconsistent (e.g., the person to whom Lee supposedly made the
"Lee sometimes indulged in satire, to which his greatness gave point in power. He was especially severe on newspaper criticisms of military movements
"We made a great mistake, Mr. Hill, in the beginning of our struggle, and I fear, in spite of all we can do, it will prove to be a fatal mistake," he said to me, after General Bragg ceased to command the Army of Tennessee, an event Lee deplored.
"What mistake is that, general?"
"Why, sir, in the beginning we appointed all our worst generals to command the armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers. As you know, I have planned some campaigns and quite a number of battles. I have given the work all the care and thought I could, and sometimes, when my plans were completed, as far as I could see, they seemed to be perfect. But when I have fought them through, I have discovered defects and occasionally wondered I did not see some of the defects in advance. When it was all over, I found by reading a newspaper that these best editor generals saw all the defects plainly from the start. Unfortunately, they did not communicate their knowledge to me until it was too late." Then, after a pause, he added, with a beautiful, grave expression I can never forget: "I have no ambition but to serve the Confederacy, and do all I can to win our independence. I an willing to serve in any capacity to which the authorities may assign me. I have done the best I could in the field, and have not succeeded as I could wish. I am willing to yield my place to these best generals, and I will do my best for the cause in editing a newspaper."
In the same strain he once remarked to one of his generals: "Even as poor a soldier as I am can generally discover mistakes after it is all over. But if I could only induce these wise gentlemen who see them so clearly beforehand to communicate with me in advance, instead of waiting until the evil has come upon us, to let me know that they knew all the time, it would be far better for my reputation, and (what is of more consequence) far better for the cause."
On the other hand,
Last updated: 14 March 2007
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