Famous Last Words: Military Leaders

A collection of memorable dying words spoken by famous military leaders

Benedict Arnold
Inset of "Benedict Arnold, 1741-1801" by artist John Trumbull, circa 1894. Photo © Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Whether realized at the time they are said or only in hindsight, nearly everyone will express a word, phrase or sentence that proves the last thing he or she ever says while alive. Sometimes profound, sometimes everyday, here you will find a select collection of the last words spoken by famous military leaders throughout history.

Note: The following quotations are organized alphabetically by the individual's last name.

Benedict Arnold
(1741-1801)
Let me die in the old uniform in which I fought my battles for freedom. May God forgive me for putting on any other.

While probably apocryphal, the man whose name became synonymous with "traitor" supposedly desired burial in his Continental Army uniform despite his betrayal of American military forces in 1779 and subsequent commission as an officer in the British Army.

Napoleon Bonaparte
(1769-1821)
France... Army... Head of the Army... Josephine...

Delirious on his deathbed, the French emperor and would-be conqueror of Europe and Russia possibly died due to stomach cancer or poisoning following his six-year exile on the island of St. Helena in the southern Atlantic.

Sitting Bull
(~1831-1890)
I am not going. Do with me what you like. I am not going.

The Sioux warrior famous for leading his forces against George Armstrong Custer during "Custer's Last Stand" (see next entry) resisted federal officers trying to arrest him at his home in South Dakota 14 years later. Gunfire eventually erupted, killing several men, including Sitting Bull and his son Crow Foot.

George Armstrong Custer
(1839-1876)
Unknown

Numerous sources attribute various last words to the U.S. Army officer famous for his defeat in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, but the fact is that everyone under his command that fateful June day died during "Custer's Last Stand," making claims about the accuracy of Custer's dying words dubious.

Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson
(1824-1863)
Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.

Mistaken as a member of a Union raiding party in the dark, Confederate soldiers shot the Civil War leader, resulting in the amputation of his left arm. He died a week later due to pneumonia.

Nathan Hale
(1755-1776)
It is the duty of every good officer to obey any orders given him by his commander-in-chief.

Countless American school children have heard Hale's dying words as he stood on the gallows -- "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" -- but a British officer who witnessed the 21-year-old's hanging recorded the above words in his diary later that day. It is possible that Hale delivered a longer speech before his execution and uttered both lines.

Robert E. Lee
(1807-1870)
Tell Hill he must come up. Strike the tent!

After surrendering to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, leader of the U.S. Army during the American Civil War, and officially ending the conflict in April 1865, the former supreme commander of the Confederate forces suffered a stroke five years later. Lee's dying words likely refer to his military subordinate, Ambrose Hill, who died in battle shortly before the war's end, but Lee probably didn't utter these words on his deathbed since he was unable to speak.

Horatio Nelson
(1758-1805)
Thank God I have done my duty.

Hit in the spine by a musket ball during the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain, British Admiral Nelson repeated these words until the moment he died on the surgeon's table aboard the ship H.M.S. Victory.

George S. Patton
(1885-1945)
It's too dark. I mean, too late.

Depicted as practically invincible in the Oscar-winning 1970 film Patton, "Old Blood and Guts" experienced a relatively mundane death a few months after the end of World War II when a truck struck the car in which he was riding. The resulting spinal-cord injury left him paralyzed, and he died roughly two weeks later.

George Washington
(1732-1799)
Tis well.

After serving two terms as the nation's first president, the hero of the American Revolution retired to his Virginia plantation in 1797. In mid-December 1799, after enduring harsh winter conditions on horseback while inspecting his property, Washington developed a severe sore throat and breathing difficulties. In an effort to cure him, Washington's doctors might have drained too much of his blood, which mortally weakened the Founding Father.

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