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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