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The Most Famous Thing Robert E. Lee Never Said: Duty, Forgery, and Cultural Amnesia


This essay explains the surprising set of circumstances surrounding perhaps the best-known quotation commonly attributed to Robert E. Lee (“Duty is the sublimest word in the English language”) and explains several significant things about the famous quotation and its broader significance: (1) Lee never said any such thing. (2) The famous line appears in a forged letter. (3) It is quite likely that a Union soldier forged the letter when the US Army occupied Lee's Arlington, Virginia estate during the American Civil War. (4) The phony quotation also shows up in an amazing range of sources, from academic books and scholarly journals, to Forbes magazine, to legal briefs and judicial decisions, to speeches by major political figures. (5) Although at one point early in the twentieth century it was fairly widely known that the letter was a forgery, the bogus quotation persists in widespread usage as something like a southern (and, perhaps surprisingly, a national) equivalent of George Washington's apocryphal “I cannot tell a lie.” (6) The long, strange career of this bogus quotation has larger implications for professional and general conversations about Lee, the Civil War, and American cultural memory.

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1 “FORGED LETTER WITH LEE'S NAME; Expert Investigation Shows the Document Sold in London Was Not Written by Confederate General,” New York Times, 11 Nov. 1917, p. 84.

2 Southall Freeman, Douglas, R. E. Lee: A Biography, Volume I (New York and London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934), 316 n. 47.

3 Lawton, Christopher R., “Constructing the Cause, Bridging the Divide: Lee's Tomb at Washington's College,” Southern Cultures, 15, 2 (2009), 5–39, 6.

4 Gerald R. Ford, “Remarks in New Orleans at Groundbreaking Ceremonies for the F. Edward Hebert Library,” in The American Presidency Project: The Public Papers of President Gerald R. Ford, at

5 Fellman, Michael, “Struggling with Robert E. Lee,” Southern Cultures, 8, 3 (2002), 9; Foster, Gaines M., Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 6–17, 51; Horwitz, Tony, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Random House, 1998), 269.

6 Shelby Foote to Walker Percy, 1955, in The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy, ed. Jay Tolson, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 99.

7 Thomas, Emory, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 19, 151.

8 Nolan, Alan T., Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 124, 53, 55–56, 125.

9 Ibid., 52; Pryor, Elizabeth Brown, “Robert E. Lee's ‘Severest Struggle,’American Heritage, 58, 3 (2008), 1825; Pryor, , Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (New York: Viking, 2007), 300.

10 Nolan, 6–7, 153–54.

11 Fellman, 9; Nolan, 8.

12 Nolan, 24, 317 n. 1.

13 Wyatt-Brown, Bertram, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 109.

14 Thomas, 417.

15 Auden, W. H., “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” in Auden, , Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 1989), 81; Auden, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” in ibid., 93.

16 Kreyling, Michael, Figures of the Hero in Southern Narrative (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 51; Woodward, C. Vann, The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 264.

17 Nolan, 171–73.

18 Horwitz, Confederates, 156; Kreyling, 120, 117.

19 Horwitz, 265.

20 Nolan, 127.

21 Donaldson, Susan V., “Tate's Profession of Letters in the South,” in Goodwin Jones, Anne and Donaldson, Susan V., eds., Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 492–518, 507.

22 Warren, Robert Penn, Brother to Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), xiii. This is the 1979 version of Brother to Dragons, which is markedly different from the 1953 version.

23 Warren, , The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial (New York: Random House, 1961), 5455.

24 Ibid., 58–9.

25 Ibid., 75.

26 Ibid., 60.

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Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
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