Our lexicographer considers some phrases uttered by noteworthy military leaders.

Generals and other military leaders are not usually remembered primarily for their dicta, yet in some instances those have survived longer than the memory of their other accomplishments. Often as not, the circumstances surrounding these sayings also are no longer remembered, so this column is dedicated to a few of them.

Just about every student of high school Latin is familiar with Julius Caesar’s declaration Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), but how many remember what occasioned that statement? After defeating Metellus Scipio in April of 46 B.C., Caesar returned to Rome and celebrated four victories in a single month. These triumphs were the Gallic, the Alexandrian, the Pontic, and the African. In the parade, celebrating his conquest of Pontus, one of the decorated wagons, which would normally represent a stage set of scenes from the war, carried a single inscription, “Veni, vidi, vici.”

It referred not to the actual campaign but to the speed with which it had been won, in a single, decisive battle. The saying was recorded in Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars, as was another famous saying attributed to Caesar, “the die is cast” (alea iacta est). In 49 B.C. Caesar and his forces waited at Ravenna to learn whether the Roman Senate, which had ordered him to disband his army, had accepted the tribunes’ veto of that order. When he learned the veto had been disallowed, he overtook his advance guard at the Rubicon River, which formed the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy, and hesitated for a time at the bridge, realizing that if he crossed it there was no retreat. Finally, he decided to lead his army across and quoted the Roman proverb, “The die is cast.”

There are, of course, numerous more recent notable quotations. During the American Revolution, Nathan Hale, a young schoolteacher, was commissioned as an officer in the Connecticut militia and served in the siege of Boston. Then, disguised as a schoolmaster, he volunteered to get information about the British forces on Long Island and was captured. On September 22, 1776, the British hanged him, without trial, as a spy, and as he mounted the gallows he allegedly said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” He was twenty-one years old. As a teacher, he may have been familiar with a similar phrase recorded by Cato and repeated by Joseph Addison, but it is Hale who is remembered for it.

John Paul Jones’ adventures dated from his earliest days at sea. Originally named simply John Paul, he added Jones to his name while trying to avoid the stain on his reputation after a sailor he had ordered flogged died a few weeks later. In 1775 he obtained a commission in the Continental navy and hoisted the first ensign flag, on the flagship USS Alfred. Three years later, commanding Ranger, he captured the first British warship to surrender to a Continental vessel, Drake.

After some time he was given command of an old French merchant ship, which had been refitted. He dubbed it Bonhomme Richard, in honor of Benjamin Franklin, who used Richard as a pen name (Poor Richard’s Almanac). On September 23, 1779, that vessel and other American ships encountered a British merchant fleet returning from the Baltic Sea, convoyed by HMS Serapis and a smaller warship. Jones sailed in close. Both ships were badly damaged in the ensuring four-hour battle, with each side losing half its crew. Yet when the British captain, Richard Pearson, asked Jones if he had struck his colors, Jones replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.” When the heavily damaged Serapis finally surrendered, Jones and his crew had to board it thirty-six hours later while their own ship sank.

Despite further exploits, including a stint as a Russian navy officer, Jones was largely forgotten, but his defiant words are still remembered. A recent biography of Jones by Evan Thomas suggests he actually never uttered those words. However, another statement of Jones’ that he wrote in a 1778 letter is also memorable: “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”

Another famous saying comes from the War of 1812. In June 1813, Captain James Lawrence, in command of USS Chesapeake, engaged the British frigate Shannon just outside Boston Harbor. An exchange of fire left Chesapeake badly damaged and Lawrence mortally wounded. As he lay dying, he supposedly said, “Tell the men to fire faster; fight till she sinks; don’t give up the ship.” The British boarded and captured his ship after a spirited but disorganized defense. Nevertheless, the admonition of Lawrence lived on, usually shortened to “Don’t give up the ship.”

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry stitched those words on a battle flag that he flew during the decisive Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813. His flagship, Lawrence, was badly damaged, but he took the flag with him when he transferred to the brig Niagara. From there Perry dispatched a report to General William Henry Harrison that became equally famous: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” The flag bearing Lawrence’s words is on display at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. As for Perry’s words, more than a century later they were paraphrased by Walt Kelly’s cartoon character, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


Christine Ammer is the author of several dozen wordbooks, including The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés (2006).

Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.