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Patriotic zeal and a zest for adventure fired many a young recruit—then reality hit.

Twenty-three years ago in the pages of Civil War Times Illustrated, Gerald  Conti addressed one of those small mysteries that turn up from time to time in soldiers’ letters and diaries. In that instance, he took up the old expression “I’m off to see the elephant,” which enlisted men used to describe the experience of going into battle.

“In the generation before the Fort Sumter crisis,” Conti explained, “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.” He continued: “In the 3rd century BC, 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.”

Imagine young men living typically mundane lives in 1861, toiling long hours in a New York sweatshop or farming hot, dusty fields in Georgia. Suddenly the news of Fort Sumter’s shelling sweeps the nation, firing Northerners and Southerners alike with patriotic fervor. Not only would joining the Army mean an escape from their daily drudgery, but also, as regimental recruiters told them, their military service would give them a chance to win fame and fortune. Hefty bounties could relieve families’ financial burdens instantaneously. It seemed worth the risk; after all, the war was going to last only a few months. Or so they thought.

Going off to “see the elephant” began with the appropriate uniform. With the donning of new garb and gear, anybody could become somebody. Consider the youthful warriors who joined elite units such as the 9th New York, also known as Hawkin’s Zouaves. They quickly discovered that they could attract the attention of the local women by parading around town in full regalia. The clothes could make the man—and make him dashing.

“Our Uniforms are here,” Johnston H. “Jack” Skelly announced to his mother just a week after enlisting in the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry. “They are distributing the shirts now. We get two shirts and two pair of drawers apiece.” Private J.R. Vanorsdale of the 134th Pennsylvania Infantry told the folks back home: “I think our cloths are a good article, one thing we have plenty of for this weather. I will just give you a list of what we got, one great coat, one dress coat, one blouse, one pair of pants, 2 pair of drawers, 2 pair of socks, 2 shirts, one pair of shoes, one Woolen blanket, one gum blanket, now you may guess what kind of a load we have to carry, well each one counting arms and every thing, his load weighs about 60 lbs.”

As time went by and the recruits settled into Army life, camaraderie, camp tales and the development of esprit d’corps tended to fill their letters—when they had time to write. Private William D. Croft’s May 20, 1861, letter home included a warning: “…do not wait to recieve a letter from me for it is hard to write here with the boys all stamping over the floor singing whistling swearing laughing &c a perfect confusion of Launges & confounding of Senses.”

From Camp McClellan, Private William H. Trombly of the 34th New York Infantry painted a picture of contentment for his parents: “(A)nd this pleasant Sunday finds me in the same good health as usual….I think some of going home on a furlough after the middle of March if everything remains so silent as now. There is some in the company that would give most anny thing to go but for my part I don’t care much about going and spend so much so long as I know that you are all well and every thing goes on right at home. I feel perfectly contented here and I like soldiering first rate.”

Private Thyman E. Jillson in the 4th Rhode Island at Camp Carey outside Washington, D.C., had only the weather to complain about to his brother: “The weather is some what cool just now the watery has skimed over once or twice. The nights are cold but the days are warm. We do not suffer any we have got a furnance in our tent. It makes it warm and comfortable. We get plenty to eat. Sprague says that the Turkeys will be ready for us Thanksgiving. He sets everything of the fourth regiment. He says that it is the pride of Rhode Island. We beat anything around here. McClellan spoke very highly of us when reviewed us. Lincoln comes out here to see us in a while. The 5 New Hampshire and 85 Pensylvana are in Camp with us. The 2 regiment is at brightwood about 2 miles from us. We drill about 4 hours a day then we do what we please. Some go to the City and some go over to see the 2 regiment and they come over here. We are practing target shootiry and in the after-noon we drill skirmishing. Regiments are coming in night and day. Pensylvania has sent about a dosin in since we come out here and the rest acordin. There us nothing but soulgers out here. The war cannot last long….”

Sergeant Samuel H. Putnam, with the 25th Massachusetts Infantry in Annapolis, Md., reported much the same to his cousin in December: “I find the love for camp life rather grows on me; It may be the being out doors is the thing, but anyhow my health is first rate and there is a kind of feeling—a sort of independent too—that one does not experience in common every day life. I hope it will be more exciting as we move onward.”

Stationed at Camp Hicks, where they were joining thousands of other troops to form General Ambrose Burnside’s 15,000- strong Expeditionary Force, Putnam and his comrades in the 25th Massachusetts witnessed the arrival of “over thirty Vessels— Steamers and Ships—large and small…and an endless amount of stores—provisions and the like for our men, and we must go soon that is certain. We had another review last Friday and Gen Burnside himself was present. It was a fine affair. I was off duty at the time and went to the field on my own hook to see what I could see. There were 11 Regiments present and the whole thing went off very finely.” Putnam wrote with pride, “Our camps are looking very nicely now clean and nice, and decorated with evergreen Arches, Mottoes-Stars-Eagles and the like.”

Camp decorating, however, was not the reason Sergeant Putnam signed on, and his restlessness was beginning to surface. He added: “I hope it will be more exciting as we move onward. Excitement is all this life lacks now. I suppose we shall be off in ten days or so, though it is uncertain. There are all sorts of rumors as to where we are going—Norfolk-Aquia Creek-Charleston-Savannah-Mobile and in fact every place that was ever heard of and some of them must be right of course.”

The novelty was soon gone. As the realities of boredom or homesickness, the rigors of soldiering or the frustration of taking orders set in, those early recruits found Army life less and less to their liking. And then, at Bull Run, they learned war’s toughest lesson: that war could kill, wound and maim horribly. Not surprisingly, many soldiers began thinking that the war was unlikely to be brief, and some who had signed up for three months declared they had already had enough.

In Confederate camps, attitudes began to shift during the first winter camp of 1861, as countless boys in gray from the Deep South learned just how unprepared they were for life in a cold climate. Twenty-year-old Sergeant Wilborn P. Smith, from Marion, Miss., a member of the famed 13th Mississippi Band (the “Pettus Guards”), found himself camped near Leesburg, Va. In his first letters to his brother, he described the wintry scene and the unit’s circumstances with only a hint of concern: “The ground is covered with snow and has been since Saturday last. On Saturday night a small snow fell about an inch deep and on Sunday night it snowed about the same, and up to this time the ground is still covered with snow and it is still cloudy. I have always wanted to see a big snow and wouldn’t be surprised if I am not gratified before the winter is over.”

He added, “There has been an order for a day or two past to cook 3 days rations and be ready to march at a moment’s warning, but up to this time nothing more of it. It was thought the Yankees advancing. Everything is quiet now and I sincerely hope it will remain so. It would be awful for us to have to leave our houses and lay out 2 or 3 nights on the snow and the weather freezing.”

In his next letter Smith admitted: “I haven’t anything of great interest to write. No news of any kind but bad, bad news. Times are beginning to look gloomy, gloomy and no prospect of better soon.”

A few days later he sounded the alarm bell for his brother: “Clay, don’t volunteer! I think enough of us are out here for a while.”

In January Smith confessed to his sister: “I had some hopes a few weeks ago that there was some probability of Peace, but now such hopes are dispelled. Sam, it is useless for me to tell you how tired I am of this war, and everyone else seems to be equally tired. It seems the Yankees would become convinced sometime that they can not subjugate us!”

A year and a half later, Smith was still in the field, by that time in Pennsylvania. Because band members were used as nurses during an engagement, Smith was left behind to tend the wounded from the Battle of Gettysburg. He was captured on July 6, 1863, sent to Point Lookout Prison in Maryland, and later exchanged. He returned to duty in April 1864 but was again captured in April 1865 at Sailor’s Creek and sent back to Point Lookout. He was released on June 30, 1865—more than four years after he first complained “how tired I am of this war.”

Poor leadership, too, took its toll on morale in both armies, and in some units the complaints contributed to outright mutiny. The story of the 66th Pennsylvania Infantry provides a good case in point. In March 1862, the 66th—few in number and never completely organized or outfitted (a private citizen, Benjamin J. Berry of Philadelphia, provided the clothing that the government failed to furnish)—was ordered to disband. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin announced that the enlisted men were to be transferred to the 73rd and 99th Pennsylvania regiments. The men of the 66th erupted. Had it not been for the immediate intervention of the nearby 10th New Jersey, Asst. Adj. Gen. Captain Henry Warren Smith might have been killed trying to execute the consolidation orders. His report explained:

Headquarters, Casey’s Division

Washington, March 3,d 1862


In accordance with your orders I went yesterday (Sunday March 2nd) to the Camp of the 66th Pa. Vols. to carry out the orders for the transfer of the Companies of the 66th Pa. Vols. to the 73d and 99th Regts Pa Vols.

On arriving on the ground and giving the orders to the commanding office, I saw at once that there was no organization to the Regiment. The men were under no control whatever so I sent for the Captains of Companies but only four Captains were present in the camp and two of the Companies were entirely without commissioned officers; the officers being absent without leave, (so I learned from the Lt Col.).

I then ordered the Companies to be drawn up in front of their tents, but the men refused to obey the officers, or any one else: and when the officers told them the nature of the orders they became perfectly uncontrollable, and crowded around me and showered down on me a perfect flood of opprobrious epithets and threats, such as “What is the dammed pup doing here” “Lets kill the dammed son of a bitch,” “We’ll have his heart’s blood,” “Let us kill him” and like expressions at the same time pushing about me and jostling me so rudely that I was obliged to knock one of them down and draw my Revolver to protect myself. I was alone as it were and unsupported amongst a crowd of Mutineers, who threatened to take my life, so I sent over to the Camp of the 10th New Jersey Vols, and ordered them under arms, their guns loaded with Ballcartridge and I have to thank the officers and men of this Regt. for the promptness with which they responded to my call for their assistance.

I then spoke to the troops for some minutes to the effect that I was there to carry out certain orders, and would do so at all hazards. Mr. Benj. F. Berry of Pennsylvania and Col Chantry, formally commander of the Regt. both made speeches on the occasion and greatly assisted me in allaying the excitement.

I respectfully tender my thanks to these gentlemen for their great assistance to me in so trying a moment.

The men being overawed by the force under arms to enforce my orders and being some what convinced of their error by the arguments used, obeyed my orders though in a grumbling manner and returned to their tents and were mustered, transferred and turned over to the Lt. Col. of the 73d Pa. Vols. who was there to receive them.

In closing I would call your attention to the total inefficiency of the officers of the Regiment and their incapability for controlling the men placed under their Commands.

Captain Moore and his 1st Lieut, Lieut. Hill, were the only officers of the Regt. who gave me the least support or had any control over their men.

The authority of the Lt. Col. was completely ignored by both officers and men and it was with great difficulty that I could prevent the men from doing him personal violence: and I would respectfully recommend that all the officers be sent before the Military Examining Board.

I have the honor

To be, General

Resply Your Obedt Servt

H.W. Smith

Asst Adjt Genl

The patriotic zeal and zest for adventure that had impelled many to serve in the Union or Confederacy would not last for long. Months after First Bull Run, Private Myron W. Herbert of the 21st New York Infantry penned a letter to his mother that would speak for thousands of his fellow soldiers:

…our term of service will expire on the 20th of this month but wheather the government will let us return home or keep us for 2 years reamains to be seen the men are all anxious to go home espesioly thoes who have families but the citizens of Buffalo sent a commity to see if they could not keep them for the remainder of the 2 years but the men are all up in arms about it they say that if they do not let them go home they will make a break for Washington which will no doubt be very serious afair Their is 5 regiments that their time is out now and ours is the last one and the rest are working for our regiments time to expire when they will all go together and Gen Masfield says that he will have a battle here if they undertake it….I supose you have heard all about the battle at bulls Run I tell you it was a hard site to see so many men cut up the way they was, we was within 5 miles of their expecting ever moment to march we was one of the reserve regiments but we did not go when the stampede commenced our regiment and a regiment from pen tride all we could to stop them but no. we done all we could for the wounded and killed but that was not much our camp was all full up [with] the wounded so we had to stay out in the rain for two days until they could get them to the hostipel. You must right to me when you get this and let me know how you get along and how earl is and ugene and laurette. direct you[r] letter to Washington, D.C. in care of James C Strong Capt Co. E. 21st regiment….

Myren W. Herbert

High Private in Co. E.

21st Regiment Buffalo Vagabons

Less than a year later, Private Herbert deserted. “Seeing the elephant” was not all it had been cracked up to be.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.