Have You Seen the Elephant?
By Morgan Gates
Historic and Haunted Vicksburg
While this is not a truly Vicksburg-specific term, you can be quite sure that by the end of the Civil War everybody in and anywhere near Vicksburg had “Seen the Elephant”. Now quite a few of our readers know exactly what I mean by this, but, for the benefit of those who do not, allow me to elaborate.
Anybody who has seen “The King and I” knows that the King of Siam (later known as Burma and now Myanmar) did indeed offer the President of the United States a stock of Elephants, but Old Abe did in fact politely decline. A bit less well known is that the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, had in the past experimented with exotic animals. When he was the U.S. Secretary of War, under President Franklin Pierce, he had imported a number of Dromedary Camels from Arabia to help explore the desert southwest, and at least one survivor of that herd was at Vicksburg (blog for another day). Did Davis instead receive the rejected shipment? Unfortunately, no he did not. It might be fun to have imagined Grant's advance up the Rodney Road, in the wee hours of May 1st, being met by a column of War Elephants though. But no, there were no war elephants on either side, I’m afraid. The pachyderm witnessed by so many during the late unpleasantness was of a more metaphorical kind. To “See the Elephant” was a 19th century euphuism for seeing combat.
By 1861, the Revolution, was in the history books, the War of 1812--except for Jackson’s heroic victory in New Orleans-- was also too far away in time and place to have much impact. Only the short and glorious Mexican-American War was part of living memory of that time. Both sides were absolutely sure this war--the Civil War-- would also be short and glorious. Young men on each side were eager to dangle their toes in this pool of bloody glory and perhaps to come back with their own “Red Badge of Courage” and, more importantly, with bragging rights of their own. They had no idea of the tidal wave of blood that would wash over their generation. In these early days of the war, this euphuism seems almost innocent and naïve to us with the 20/20 hindsight of history.
No one is quite sure where the term comes from, and it seems to have been around for a long time by the Civil War, but one popular American story to explain the phrase is this:
There once was an old farmer who lived outside a small city. He had lived on his farm his entire life, and he made a good living selling his produce in the nearby city. The farmer was a fine old man, but, he had never had the opportunity to travel and see much of the world, so to satisfied his curiosity he read extensively. Whenever he went to the city to sell his goods, he would always come home with several new books and he would spend the long winter evenings traveling in his mind to faraway places. He had become quite fascinated with the elephant. The old farmer knew all about horses and cows and pigs and chickens, and the animals of the surrounding forests, but he found the enormous pachyderm hard to imagine.
One day, the old farmer was heading into town with a load of produce for the local market. His farm wagon was piled high with the fruits of his labors. Unknown to him, the circus was coming to the small city that day. As he neared the city, he rounded a bend in the road and came face to face with the circus parade being lead, of course, by the circus elephants. The famers old horse panicked at the sight and bolted from the road. The wagon over turned, the old farmer was tossed into the brambles, and all his produce was scattered and ruined. Some bystanders rushed to his aid. He emerged from the brambles battered and bleeding but with a huge smile on his face! The bystanders eagerly asked him if he was alright and he exclaimed, “Oh yes, I am just fine for I have seen the elephant”!