Famous Last Words

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2018-2019, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the May 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


Clark W. Griswold, Sr. in the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: “I’m retiring.”

Retired NFL quarterback Jay Cutler: “I’m not really looking to do a lot of work right now. I’m looking to do the exact opposite of that.”

From the song “Closing Time” by the group Semisonic: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

A line from The Odyssey by Homer reads, “There is a time for many words, and there is a time for sleep.” My advice to all of you is to use the next several minutes for the latter option rather than listen to my many words. My words tonight are my last as Roundtable historian, but they by no means will ever be classified as famous last words. While the expression “famous last words” is sometimes used sarcastically, there are instances when the expression can be applied legitimately to an illustrious quote that was said at the end of something memorable, such as the life of a famous person or a well-known or historic occurrence.

For example, from antiquities there are the famous last words of Julius Caesar, “Et tu, Brute?” These are the words that Caesar, while he was being assassinated, supposedly spoke to Brutus to ask Brutus if he, too, was taking part in the assassination. From the sports world, some of the most famous of famous last words are those that were spoken by Lou Gehrig. After Gehrig had been afflicted with the disease that now bears his name and which eventually took his life, Gehrig was being honored at Yankee Stadium, and a very large crowd was in attendance to pay tribute to him. In spite of the awful situation in which Gehrig then found himself, when he gave a speech that day, he did not walk off the field until after he told the crowd, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth,” and these words have come to be considered some of the most courageous and inspirational famous last words ever spoken. From the cinematic world, some well-known famous last words come from the movie The Maltese Falcon. In that movie the characters expended enormous effort and many resources in pursuit of a mysterious and priceless object, and some characters were even killed during the pursuit. Eventually the object came into the possession of the movie’s protagonist, private investigator Sam Spade, who was played by Humphrey Bogart. At the end of the movie, after the villains had been apprehended, one of the characters, a police inspector played by Ward Bond, asked Sam Spade just what the object was, and Sam Spade replied philosophically, “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

While all three of these quotes are certainly considered famous last words, these examples actually do not technically comply with that expression, not because the words are not famous, but because the words are not last. The quote “Et tu, Brute?” is widely associated with the assassination of Julius Caesar as Caesar’s last words before his death. But Julius Caesar’s last words were never definitively recorded, and no one knows for certain what, if any, last words Caesar spoke. One possible origin for the “Et tu, Brute?” quote is William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. However, that same quote appeared in another play about Julius Caesar that was written by a different English author named Richard Edes, and Edes’ play preceded Shakespeare’s play by 17 years. It is not known if Shakespeare appropriated that quote from the earlier play, but the words “Et tu, Brute?” were almost certainly not Caesar’s dying last words. As for Lou Gehrig’s speech, the version of the speech that most people know is the portrayal in the movie The Pride of the Yankees. In that version of the speech, Gehrig, as played by Gary Cooper, concluded the speech with the famous “luckiest man” statement. But in Gehrig’s actual speech, that statement came earlier. In fact, it was the second sentence in Gehrig’s real speech, which contained a total of 17 sentences. This means that those words were far from being the last words that Gehrig said in his speech. With regard to the movie The Maltese Falcon, at the end of the movie, Sam Spade spoke his famous line in which he declared in a succinct and dramatic way that objects which are imbued with mystery and great value have an allure that can intoxicate people into obsessively fantasizing about acquiring them. While this is a great line on which to end the movie, anyone who carefully watches The Maltese Falcon will notice that after Sam Spade said, “The stuff that dreams are made of,” the police inspector said, “Huh?” This means that “Huh?” is actually the last word of The Maltese Falcon. As these three examples indicate, sometimes quotes that are considered famous last words in actuality are not famous last words, because they are not last.

My words tonight are likewise not famous last words, but for a different reason: not because they are not last, but because they will never become famous. My last words are simply these. Thank you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve as the historian of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. I sometimes joked that I never understood why the Roundtable chose as its historian someone who has no formal training in history. My background is in biochemistry, which is a field that is vastly distant from history. I was always uncomfortable when I was at the podium, because I was presenting something about a historical topic to a roomful of people who know more about history than I do. I still do not understand why someone who is as historically deficient as I am was chosen to be Roundtable historian. But I am as grateful as a person can be that the Roundtable was willing to look past this deficiency, and my myriad other shortcomings, and allow me to serve as historian. What I most appreciate about serving as historian is that every time I prepared a history brief, it reminded me just how much I enjoy studying the Civil War and how much I enjoy learning new things about it, and I am profoundly grateful to the Roundtable for giving me that experience. My enjoyment in preparing the history briefs made me recall a statement from the book Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, who wrote, “The pleasure the Civil War gave me was hard to put into words, at least words that made much sense to any one other than a fellow addict.” In fact, I enjoyed preparing the history briefs so much that I would have been content to deliver them to an empty room, which would have spared everyone the ordeal of listening to me.

I am also grateful to my predecessor, Mel Maurer, who first proposed that I be given the opportunity to serve as Roundtable historian, to Paul Burkholder, Mike Wells, Jim Heflich, Patrick Bray, Chris Fortunato, Jean Rhodes, Hans Kuenzi, and Dan Ursu, who allowed me to be the historian under their terms as Roundtable president, to Paul Burkholder, again, for posting my history briefs on the Roundtable website, and to Mike Wells, again, and also Catherine Wells and Dennis Keating for including the history briefs in The Charger. And thank you to all of you for patiently enduring my ramblings at our meetings. A verse in the Old Testament book of Sirach reads, “An attentive ear is the wise man’s joy.” It would not be at all surprising to me if everyone who listened to my ramblings came to be in strong disagreement with that verse.

I want to give an especially heartfelt thank you to everyone who complimented me on any of my history briefs. I wish I could express just how much I appreciate your kind words, but nothing I say can adequately convey my appreciation. If I were to instead substitute a quantity of words which, by their sheer number, appropriately conveyed my appreciation, I would still be at the podium tomorrow morning, and no one here wants that. I thank Dan Ursu for agreeing to assume the duties of Roundtable historian. They say that the only certain things in life are death and taxes, but I am certain of one other thing. I am certain that Dan will do such a good job with the history briefs that all of you will be asking yourselves why you put up with me for eight years. Lastly, and most importantly, I thank my wife, Karen, for patiently letting me spend quite a lot of time preparing the history briefs. Everything that I did as historian was possible only because of Karen’s support, so if anyone here tonight is pleased with anything that I did, do not thank me, thank Karen.

In writing the history briefs, I tried to find topics that are not well known and to infuse into those topics a couple of recurring humanistic themes. One of these themes is that people have been dealing for a long time with certain situations or issues in society which we, perhaps because of hubris or self-centeredness, consider unique to our time. But in reality, these situations and issues preceded us by centuries, and they will exist well beyond our tenure in this realm, probably for as long as humanity survives. Another theme is that many people who would be classified as ordinary people are capable of extraordinary deeds without the intervention of anything other than their own abilities and resolve, and their abilities and resolve were all that these ordinary people needed in order to earn a place in history. An epic like the American Civil War does not happen without the involvement of many historically prominent figures who orchestrated a large number of historic events. Every one of us in this room knows the names of the prominent people of the Civil War, some of whom we know so well that we can identify those prominent people without even hearing their surnames: Abraham, Jefferson, Ulysses, Robert E., William Tecumseh, or Stonewall. But in the history briefs, I tried to bring to our attention people whose names are not written so large in history, people such as Robert Reily, Lucie Mounger, Jordan Anderson, Cornelia Hancock, Alexander and Kate McBride, Joseph and Mary Bollman, Mary Ryan, David Van Buskirk, Robert Smalls, Jack Purman and Thomas Oliver, Dick Dowling, Allen Allensworth, Stand Watie, Orin Schaffer, St. Julien Ravenel and Brutus de Villeroi, William Hammond, Mary Edwards Walker, William Hutchinson Norris, Oliver Norton, Albert and Edward Lea, and Emilie Todd Helm. So often when we discuss the Civil War, we focus on the prominent people and the prominent events, but we forget that those prominent events could not have occurred without the participation of the ordinary people, the common, everyday individuals who sacrificed so much, sometimes even their lives. It is important to remember that the prominent people of the Civil War could not have made the historic accomplishments that gave them their fame without the ordinary people, who, as the saying goes, did the heavy lifting to make those historic accomplishments possible. Those ordinary people were people like us, sincere, diligent people who were making their way through life without fanfare or glamour. But they were swept into the horrific events of the Civil War simply because of the time and place that fate chose for them to have their one and only chance at living this life. While I was working on the history briefs that describe these individuals, I felt like I came to know each one of them not just in a distant, abstract way, but as a living person. I hope that you felt the same way about them, if only for the one night when you heard the history brief that described them. And I hope that the history briefs contribute, at least in a small way, to preserving the memory of these little-known but extraordinary individuals, so that they, too, can belong to the ages.

I also hope that the history briefs were informative and entertaining and were worthy of the time that was given to them at our meetings. For all those times that I went on too long, I can only offer in my defense a quote by the Scarecrow in the movie The Wizard of Oz, who said, “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking.” Finally, the words that I want to end with are these. I sincerely hope that all of you enjoyed my time as Roundtable historian as much as I did.