Discussion Say What? Saturday: Seeing the Elephant

Andy Cardinal

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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.

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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."
 

Ole Miss

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Andy this is a great thread sharing the reactions of the men who faced battle for thye 1st time. I am sure that soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen have the same thoughts and fears today!
I would recommend that this book really goes into depth about the reactions of the soldiers:
Seeing the Elephant: RAW RECRUITS AT THE BATTLE OF SHILOH by Joseph Allan Frank and George A. Reaves
Regards
David
 

John Hartwell

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You know, I have always wondered about that phrase! I’ve also heard, “Don’t talk about the Elephant”. I always thought that this meant no modern politics allowed around the camp fire.
The origin of the phrase, apparently, was quite prosaic:
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John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1859), p. 136
 
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Carol

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Andy this is a great thread sharing the reactions of the men who faced battle for thye 1st time. I am sure that soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen have the same thoughts and fears today!
I would recommend that this book really goes into depth about the reactions of the soldiers:
Seeing the Elephant: RAW RECRUITS AT THE BATTLE OF SHILOH by Joseph Allan Frank and George A. Reaves
Regards
David
I stand also with this recommendation. Powerful book !!
 

A. Roy

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“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.”
“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!”

An interesting topic. I've never been in the military, but I wonder whether good training and preparation might have a lot to do with how a soldier responds when confronted with that first fight. I did serve for some time as a volunteer ambulance worker during the 1970s. The first time I came upon a bad auto accident, I was off-duty. There were two dead and several people seriously injured. Once I realized I was the only one on the scene who knew what to do, my training kicked in, and I just started doing what had to be done, completely deliberate and cool-headed. It was almost automatic -- just following procedures that had been drilled into me. It was only after the EMTs got there and I was discharged and driving away from the scene that I felt any emotion at all -- had to pull over until I could stop shaking.

Anyway, I wonder if that's what happens to a lot of soldiers in their first combat, and if that is one of the functions and values of training as a determiner of behavior.

Roy B.
 

Harman Farm

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An interesting topic. I've never been in the military, but I wonder whether good training and preparation might have a lot to do with how a soldier responds when confronted with that first fight. I did serve for some time as a volunteer ambulance worker during the 1970s. The first time I came upon a bad auto accident, I was off-duty. There were two dead and several people seriously injured. Once I realized I was the only one on the scene who knew what to do, my training kicked in, and I just started doing what had to be done, completely deliberate and cool-headed. It was almost automatic -- just following procedures that had been drilled into me. It was only after the EMTs got there and I was discharged and driving away from the scene that I felt any emotion at all -- had to pull over until I could stop shaking.

Anyway, I wonder if that's what happens to a lot of soldiers in their first combat, and if that is one of the functions and values of training as a determiner of behavior.

Roy B.
I know very well what you mean. I had to perform CPR on someone in the middle of a mall. Once I realized I was the only one who knew what to do, I just did it. The training kicked in and it was as automatic as breathing after that. It all happened so fast I don't really remember much, except I remember being scared s%$#less and after the EMT's got there and took over I couldn't stop shaking for a couple of hours after that. I would say being properly trained could make seeing the elephant not quite so traumatic.
 
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