"Seeing the Elephant"

by Gerald Conti

(June 1984 Civil War Times Illustrated)

Diaries and letters of Civil War soldiers are sometimes puzzling. The variety of phonetic spellings and archaic expressions present small mysteries within the larger story of the war and deciphering these can be either gratifying or frustrating. One phrase familiar in enlisted men's writings is, "I've seen the elephant," or, "I'm off to see the elephant." Used to describe the experiences of war and soldiering, the term has many possible origins.

In the generation before the Fort Sumter crisis, Mexican War volunteers and gold-hungry "Forty-Niners" referred to their Western trials and adventures in precisely the same fashion. Newspapers and periodicals of the 1840s sometimes carried cartoons depicting an elephant pursued by miners, or of Death in his howdah, trampling American dragoons and infantrymen. It is likely, however, that the expression dates from well before this time. In the 3rd Century B.C., Alexander the Great's Macedonian warriors defeated the elephant- mounted army of King Porus in the Indus valley. Surely these men brought memories of the strange beasts back to their hearthsides to thrill and excite their families. Considering the remarkable distance traveled by this army and its exotic exploits, it may be that "seeing the elephant" became synonymous with journeys and experiences in strange and far-off places.

More than a 1,000 years after Alexander, Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne heard stories of an enormous animal that could uproot living trees. After African traders assured the emperor that elephants could clear paths throughout the heavily forested empire, he became obsessed with the idea of acquiring one. Through the efforts of an exiled Arab lord and a merchant named Isaac, an elephant was obtained in Baghdad and laboriously brought by land and sea to the emperor's seat at Aix. The animal, named Abul Abbas, created a tremendous stir in the Frankish world. Word of the monster that had pulled down its own stone stable and yet would gently eat from its royal master's hand spread throughout the empire. When the beast was paraded during festivals and celebrations, peasants, who had seldom if ever left their homes before, traveled miles to "see the elephant."

An American and more ironic derivation dates from the 1820s and the first days of the traveling circuses. A New England tale tells of the farmer who had heard much of the unique appearance of the elephant, but had never seen one. He was told by a neighbor that the circus was expected in a nearby community and he swore he would attend. Setting out early on the following morning in his wagon, the farmer hoped to make the first performance. Upon reaching a crossroad several miles from home, where vision was obscured by a tall hedgerow, the farmer urged his horse into the intersection. At that same moment the circus train, led by the elephant, reached the crossroad from a different direction. The resulting collision smashed the wagon to splinters, killed the horse, and knocked the farmer unconscious. The circus train passed on as though nothing had happened. Awakening after several hours, the farmer surveyed the destruction and stated dryly, "Well, at least I've seen the elephant."

NOTE: The phrase "Seeing the Elephant" in a Western context is described here.