10 Famous Military Quotations

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A Brief History

On June 1, 1813, the commander of the USS Chesapeake, James Lawrence, lay dying, and uttered the immortal words, “Don’t give up the ship!”  Inspiring words are not always enough, for the Chesapeake was captured in that battle and was re-rigged as the HMS Chesapeake.  We list 10 of the greatest military quotations, whether they achieved their intended result or not.  (We cannot claim they are the 10 greatest, because of course that is strictly a matter of opinion.)  Which ones would you add to the list?

Digging Deeper

10. James Lawrence, “Don’t give up the ship!”

As described above, the last order by Capt. Lawrence did not quite work out, and the rest of the quote is “Fight her till she sinks!”  The Chesapeake was captured when she lost her wheel and steering sails which caused her to blunder into the HMS Shannon, which tied up to the Chesapeake and boarded her, taking the ship and crew captive.

9.  George Washington, “One of the best ways to keep peace is to be prepared for war.”

After a war the natural reaction is to disband the military and enjoy the economy of not maintaining large forces, which Washington warned is a path to the next war.  Still, apparently many folks were not listening because it seems the US regularly does just what Washington warned against.

8.  Sir Arthur Harris, “They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

Air Marshall “Bomber” Harris paraphrased Hosea (from the Bible) to justify bombing Germany into flaming rubble during World War II.

7.  Stanley Baldwin, “The bomber will always get through.”

Speaking to British Parliament in 1932, Baldwin was talking about the futility of trying to defend against enemy bombers, and that ensuring your country bombs the enemy country into the stone age first is the only defense.  During World War II it was found that bombers could indeed be caused to suffer so many losses that they would not be able to continue and that other techniques must be used.

6.  Robert E. Lee, “Duty then, is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more, you should never wish to do less.”

This admonition by the great general forms the core of what it is to serve your country.  All positive things stem from living up to this quote.

5.  David Farragut, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” 

During his assault on Mobile Bay in 1864 (Civil War), Farragut (our nation’s first Admiral) was faced with a profusion of mines (called torpedoes back then).  In response to a stopping of his ships, he gave the famous order, which actually was, “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells Captain Drayton, go ahead. Jouett, full speed!”  The “torpedoes” were no joke, as the USS Tecumseh (a clone of the ironclad USS Monitor) struck one and sank.

4.  Julius Caesar, “Veni, vidi, vici.”

In a 46 BC letter to the Roman Senate, Julius was saying, “I came, I saw, I conquered.”  This boast seems intended to put the Senate on notice that Julius Caesar is not someone to trifle with.

3.  Napoleon Bonaparte, “An army marches on its stomach.” 

Possibly the most profoundly true statement here, Napoleon was recognizing the absolute necessity of feeding an army in order to wage war effectively.  Feeding a huge mass of men is no small task and a wise commander will remember that.

2.  John Paul Jones, “I have not yet begun to fight.” 

Now would be a good time to start, John!  The so called “Father of the US Navy” was commanding the 42 gun Bonhomme Richard in 1779 when they engaged the 50 gun HMS Serapis.  Taunted by the British, Jones gave his famous reply.  The Bonhomme Richard ended up sinking, but not before the Serapis surrendered and the Americans won the day.

1.  William T. Sherman, “War is hell.”

Spoken in an 1879 speech to the Michigan Military Academy, Sherman was cautioning the graduating class against romanticizing war, for the reality of it, as fought by Sherman with his scorched earth/total war policy, was indeed Hell.  Interestingly, President Truman later said, “Sherman was wrong, I’m telling you I find peace is hell.”

Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Charlton, James.  The Military Quotation Book: More than 1,100 of the Best Quotations About War, Leadership, Courage, Victory, and Defeat.  Thomas Dunne Books, 2013.

You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.