As he was being assassinated in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar purportedly said, “Et tu, Brute?” (You too, Brutus?) Those were his last words, according to William Shakespeare, expressing Caesar’s disappointment that his protégé Marcus Junius Brutus had joined the conspirators. I don’t know — frankly, those don’t seem like authentic last words to me. No offense, Mr. Shakespeare, but they sound a little, well… written. I’ll grant you that it’s an exit line that helps move the plot along, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing anyone would say while they were being repeatedly stabbed. Early accounts record Caesar’s last words differently; Plutarch quotes him as saying, “You villain, Casca, what are you doing?” It seems more plausible to me that the last thing Caesar really said was more like, “Sumbitch, that smarts!” Of course, since he said it in Latin, it sounded noble.
My point is, in extreme circumstances, one doesn’t usually have the calm presence of mind to compose a nice little speech. In his book Exit Lines, the unfortunately named Brian O’Kill records what are alleged to be the dying words of an array of historical figures. He identifies some famous last words that seem to have been posthumously fabricated by admirers of the deceased person, and O’Kill also points out that some last words are forever unknown. For instance, when Albert Einstein died in 1955, his last words were in German, but nobody else in the room happened to speak that language.
Although it’s not included in Exit Lines, a quotation that strikes me as authentic involves a Union Army general named John Sedgwick. There are variations in the details depending on which historical account you read, but here’s the, uh, general idea:
On May 9, 1864, during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (Virginia), Union and Confederate troops were maneuvering into position. Even though a distance of approximately 1,000 yards still separated the combatants, Confederate sharpshooters fired off a couple of rounds. Some of Sedgwick’s men dove for cover.
The general rebuked his timid soldiers: “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets?”, he said. “I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” When some of the men were still a bit slow in getting to their feet, he emphatically repeated the last part of his rallying cry:
“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist — ”
Sedgwick fell, a bullet hole in his left cheek. In fairness to General Sedgwick, it was a virtually impossible shot that took him out. The odds of a Civil War rifleman hitting his intended target from 1,000 yards away were astronomical, perhaps even greater than the odds of the Washington Nationals ever winning a World Series. So in one sense, General Sedgwick was absolutely right. He just happened to be dead wrong. For irony, Sedgwick’s last words are hard to top… although Caligula’s exit line — “I am still alive!” — comes close.