The origin of the phrase “seeing the elephant”

Civil War soldiers described their first combat experiences as "seeing the elephant," but not this African bull elephant displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. In February 1864, the Portland Daily Press of Maine published an explanation of the term's origination. (Library of Congress)

Civil War soldiers described their first combat experiences as “seeing the elephant,” but not this African bull elephant displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. In February 1864, the Portland Daily Press of Maine published an explanation of the term’s origination. (Library of Congress)

Throughout the Civil War, soldiers on both sides often referred to their first experience in combat as “seeing the elephant.”

A novice soldier would express his desire to “see the elephant,” effectively wishing himself to be baptized by hostile fire so he could become a veteran. Then he could write home, “I have seen the elephant.”

Until recently I’ve never read an attempted definition of the term, but Editor John T. Gilman of the Portland Daily Press explained the origin of “seeing the elephant” to his readers in the paper’s Tuesday, Feb. 2, 1864 edition. Gilman published the interesting explanation under the bold (but small) headline Origin of “Seeing the Elephant.”

The period is in the actual headline.

I did not make this up; I did “open up” the original text by spreading its few lengthy paragraphs into shorter ones. Except for a few punctuation and explanation corrections, here is the account as published in the Portland Daily Press 152½ years ago.

•                                 •                              •

Some years since, at one of the Philadelphia theatres, a pageant was in rehearsal in which it was necessary to have an elephant. No elephant was to be had. The “wild beasts” were all traveling, and the property man, stage director, and manager, almost had fits when they thought of it.

Days passed in the hopeless task of trying to secure one; but at last yankee ingenuity triumphed, as indeed it always does, and an elephant was made to order of wool, skins, paint and varnish. Thus far the matter was all very well; but as they had found no means to make said combinations travel (move).

Hear (sic) again the genius of the stage manager, director, and the property man stuck out and “two brothers” were duly installed as legs. Ned C—, one of the true and genuine “b’hoys[,”] held the station of fore legs, and for several nights he played that heavy part to the entire satisfaction of the manager and the delight of the audience.

The part, however[,] was a very tedious one, as the elephant was obliged to be on the stage about an hour, and Ned was two (sic) fond of the bottle to remain so long without “wetting his whistle,” sp he set wits to work to find a way to carry a wee drop with him.

The eyes of the elephant being made of two porter bottles, with the necks [turned] in, Ned conceived the brilliant idea of filling them with good stuff. This he fully carried out, and elated with success he willingly undertook to play fore-legs again.

Night came on—the theatre was densely crowded with denizens of the Quaker city—the music was played in the sweetest strains—the curtain rose and the play began.

Ned and the “hind-legs’, marched upon the stage. The elephant was greeted with round upon round of applause. The decorations and the trappings were gorgeous. The elephant and the prince seated on his back were loudly cheered.

The play proceeded; the elephant was marched round and round upon the stage. The fore-legs got dry, withdrew one of the [bottle’s] corks and treated the hind legs, and drank the health of the audience in a bumper of genuine elephant eye whiskey, a brand by the way, till then unknown.

On went the play and on went Ned drinking. The conclusion march was to be made—the signal was given, and the fore-legs staggered toward the front of the stage.

The conductor pulled the ears of the elephant to the right—the fore-legs staggered to the left. The foot lights obstructed the way, and he (Ned) raised his foot and stepped plump (sic) into the orchestra!

Down went the fore-legs into the leader[‘s] fiddle; over of course turned the elephant, sending the prince and hind-legs into the middle of the pit.

The manager stood horror-struck, the prince and hind-legs lay confounded; the [audience] boxes were convulsed, the actors chocking (sic) with laughter, and poor Ned, casting one look, a strange blending of drunkenness, grief and laughter, at the scene, fled hastily out of the theatre, closely followed by the leader with his wreck of a fiddle, performing various cut and thrust motions in the air.

The curtain dropped on a scene behind the scenes. No pageant—no fore-legs—but everybody held his sides.

Music actors, pit, boxes and gallery, rushed from the theatre [while] shrieking between every breath, “have you seen the elephant!”

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.