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]: