Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Abraham Lincoln? Ambrose Burnside? Charles Fair?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the worst military strategists in history was a Civil War general named Ambrose Burnside (sideburns are named after his whiskers). After a military fiasco called the Battle of the Crater, Abraham Lincoln relieved him of command and supposedly said:

Only Burnside could have managed such a coup, wringing one last spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory.

The phrase “defeat from the jaws of victory” might be a cliché now, but I think Lincoln was one of the first to use it in this powerful quotation. Unfortunately, I am having trouble finding any solid references to this quote from before the 1970s. Can you tell me where I can find it in a Civil War newspaper, or a diary, or some other document from the era?

Quote Investigator: You have stumbled upon a Lincoln legend based on a false quotation. A fascinating newspaper article from 1971 states that the saying began as a mistake on the cover of the book “From the Jaws of Victory” by Charles Fair [LCF]:

The book, described as a “history of the character, causes and consequences of military stupidity, from Crassus to Johnson and Westmoreland,” is written satirically by Fair who said he has taken as his “hero” Gen. Ambrose Burnside of the Union Army during the Civil War.

Burnside, “so versatile in his stupidity as to defy categorization,” pulled such a masterpiece of ineptitude during the Peninsular Campaign, the book’s cover says, it prompted then President Abraham Lincoln to comment: “Only Burnside could have managed such a coup, wringing one last spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory.”

The only thing wrong with that, Fair said, is that Lincoln never said it. Fair said the quote was actually his own, but somewhere along the line Simon and Schuster, New York publishers, got the idea Lincoln had said it. Not only did the “quote” provide the title, Fair said, “We’ve probably created another Lincoln legend.”

Fair’s prediction was accurate. A legend was created by this spurious quotation, and now it is found in history books for adults and children.

How long have people been using the phrase “defeat from the jaws of victory”? The Yale Book of Quotations traces the phrase back to an instance in the New York Times dated March 5, 1891. QI located an 1874 example in the sports section of an Illinois paper. The reporter of a baseball game is sorely disappointed by the performance of a team named the White Stockings [WS]:

The White Stockings yesterday earned their third defeat for the season. They were badly self-whipped, and in this lies their humiliation. Were they fairly defeated after having played a creditable game there would be no censure for them; but when they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory there can be little sympathy for their deserved misfortune.

It is possible that the phrase “defeat from the jaws of victory” was in use during the Civil War, but QI has not found any evidence at this time. Thanks for the question. It is admirable that you tried to check the apocryphal Lincoln quote by attempting to find earlier references.

[LCF] 1971 September 27, Bennington Banner, “New Book Details General’s Goofs: From the Jaws of Victory” by David Haskell, Page 12, Column 1, Bennington, Vermont. (NewspaperArchive)

[WS] 1874 May 24, The Daily Inter-Ocean, Sporting News: The White Stockings Defeated by the Mutuals for the Second Time, Page 8, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)