Civil War soldiers called going into battle for the first time "seeing the elephant."
New soldiers had preconceived notions of what battle would be like. Especially early in the war, these notions were based on stories and lithographs that depicted the glory of war. Some men would die or be wounded of course, but those deaths and wounds would be heroic and have a purpose.
Men on both sides were imbued with ideas of manhood, honor, duty, and courage. “Courage … is universally recognized as the manliest of all human attributes,” Horace Porter later wrote; “it nerves its possessor for resolute attempts, and equips him for putting forth his supreme efforts.”
Men hoped to proved their courage in the test of battle. They saw themselves advancing steadily toward the foe, faces always to the front, never showing their backs to the enemy -- just like in those lithographs.
An example of a Currier & Ives depiction of battle
No man knew how he would respond when he “saw the elephant.” New soldiers felt fear, but in many case their biggest fear was of showing their fear as they went into battle. “Courage, like most other qualities, is never assured until it is tested,” Porter wrote. “No man knows precisely how he will behave in battle until he has been under fire, and many a gallant fellow has been sorely perplexed by the doubts that entered it previous to his first fight.” “I well remember the mental strain to which I was subjected on entering the Army, as to how I should feel and act under fire,” Frank Holsinger, who served in the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves and then was an officer in the 19th USCT, recalled. “Being of a highly nervous organisation, I was exceedingly anxious to see an engagement, not that I thought I should perform heroic deeds, but rather to satisfy the craving of an indefinable feeling as to my ability to stand or run. Which I should do was not certain. How often we debated with our fellows this question!”
The reality of battle was quite different then what most men expected, and their preconcieved notions seldom survived their first sight of the elephant. Men soon realized that combat was chaotic and death was random and often not heroic or glorious.
By the time John McCreery enlisted relatively late in the war, most men had a more realistic idea of what to expect when they saw the elephant than the recruits of 1861. Even still McCreery was not prepared for what he experienced during his first battle. "I got to see the Elephant at last and to tell you the honest truth I don't care about seeing him very often any more, for if there was eny fun in such work I couldent see it," he wrote soon after his first experience of battle in October 1864.... It is not the thing it is braged up to be."