Reality vs. Myth Regarding Abraham Lincoln’s War Elephants

Imagine a mounted regiment of war elephants, such as this artillery battery in Afghanistan, sweeping Confederate lines! Many believe President Lincoln had this option and turned it down. (Wikimedia Commons)

It almost sounds like any typical Civil War engagement. A bugle sounds in the foggy distance and Confederate soldiers raise their muskets for a crushing volley. They quickly notice something is different. Deeper thuds have replaced horse gallops. As the US mounted soldiers pierce fog and smoke, the rebels sight their enemies. They instantly panic, for they are not facing cavalry. Some rebels fire their muskets to no avail, and the mounted formation quickly collides with and eviscerates the Confederate position. The battlefield this day was won by Abraham Lincoln’s war elephants!

The story is comically absurd, but there is a small historiography exploring how this could have become reality when in 1861 Abraham Lincoln was offered elephants from King Mongkut of Siam. Just like many Civil War tall tales, this one is steeped in misinterpretation and serves as a good case study exploring how mythology and reality often intermix in studying both the US Civil War and history in general.

First the mythology surrounding these elephants. The idea is that as the Civil War escalated King Mongkut of Siam (Thailand today), who took the reigning name of Rama IV, wrote to Lincoln offering elephants for use against the Confederacy. The first I could find this mentioned is in an 1886 book titled The Ivory King. It notes the king’s offer, with an explanation of Lincoln’s reaction. Apparently, Secretary of State William Seward asked President Lincoln “what should be done with the elephants if they came?” Lincoln supposedly responded that he was not sure unless “they were used to stamp out the rebellion.”[1]

This Lincoln-Seward meeting was not recorded by anyone in the cabinet or working for either leader (at least that I could locate), and the 1886 anecdote appears to be its first mention. Furthermore, if the meeting occurred as noted, it certainly sounds like a joke the president might say before starting one of his typical stories.

The myth perpetuated into the 20th century. Hollywood played its part via the 1956 film The King and I. In the movie, Anna Leonowens explained to King Mongkut that the United States was “fighting a war … to set the slaves free.” When King Mongkut asked if Lincoln was “winning the war,” Anna replied, “No one knows, really.” “Does he have guns and elephants,” the king asked, and when Anna replied no, King Mongkut commented “No wonder he’s not winning.”[2]

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson toasted Thailand’s ruler, commenting amid an escalating Vietnam War that Thailand helped the United States back in 1861. Johnson closed his toast by pondering: “Who can say tonight what the effect would have been if – in 1861 – on a foggy morning in the rolling Virginia hills – the Army had advanced behind a screen of charging Thai war elephants?”[3] Ohio Senator Stephen Young repeated this on the Senate floor in March 1969, urging President Richard Nixon to “reconsider our situation in Thailand” regarding the ongoing Vietnam War because of the “Lincoln war elephants.”[4]

The war elephant myth pervades into the 21st century. A 1991 William Seward biography mentioned the war elephants.[5] Recently published Civil War fact books mentioned Siam’s “war elephants.”[6] In 2019, an article appeared online exploring fanciful alternate history where Tom Custer (George Custer’s brother) leads a regiment of Iron Brigade elephants. At Gettysburg, General John Reynolds uses them to roll up the Army of Northern Virginia along the Chambersburg Pike. General Lee personally surrenders to Reynolds, ending the war then and there![7]

There are hints of reality amidst the story, but the truth is far different. King Mongkut did offer elephants to the United States, but not for warlike purposes and not to Abraham Lincoln. Instead, they were officially offered to then-President James Buchanan. The time-delay of globe-traversing correspondence compounded things. It seems that King Mongkut was always a president behind. In January 1859, he sent a letter to President Franklin Pierce accepting a minister to his government and forwarding several presents. By the time the king penned the letter, Pierce was replaced by James Buchanan.[8]

Photograph of King Mongkut of Siam included in the February 14, 1861 letter to President James Buchanan. (US National Archives)

King Mongkut sent another letter, dated February 14, 1861 – just six days after the Confederacy’s formation – which included a daguerreotype of the king and his daughter, a pair of elephant tusks, and a Siamese-forged sword. In this February 1861 letter King Mongkut noted the captain of USS John Adams, then visiting Siam, explained to him that “there are no elephants” in North America. The Siamese king surmised that if camels could be transplanted to America, then perhaps elephants could as well. He proposed there “should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests” to eventually forge “large herds.”[9]

The king perhaps had an ulterior motive in hoping to use elephants to “bear burdens and travel through uncleared woods and matted jungle where no carriage and cart roads have yet been made.” If America could tame the frontier using elephants, then King Mongkut was hinting he could provide them. The only drawback was that the king readily admitted Siam had “no means … to convey elephants to America.”[10]

The letter was transported on USS John Adams, but that ship did not depart Siam until July 1861. It reached the United States in January 1862, meaning Abraham Lincoln was ten months into his term when he received the letter offering James Buchanan elephants. Three weeks after receiving the note, Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward drafted their official reply dated February 3, 1862.

Siamese sword included as a gift in Ming Mongkut’s February 14, 1861 letter to President James Buchanan. (US National Archives)

Lincoln “received in good condition the royal gifts” from King Mongkut and conveyed appreciation regarding the offer of sending to the United States “a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised.” He declined the offer however, explaining that the United States did not “reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant,” further noting their use would quickly be put aside in favor of “steam” machinery, which was then the “most efficient agent of transportation.”[11]

So, Lincoln’s elephants were never intended for war and the discussion never went beyond a friendly offer. In the historiography, even though The King and I expanded mythology related to these elephants, Anna Leonowens’s 1870 memoir does not mention it at all and the 1943 novel Anna and the King of Siam sticks to the truth, explaining that King Mongkut corresponded with US leaders about elephants – even quoting Lincoln’s reply.[12] Hollywood must have preferred mythology over reality. A more historical examination of US-Siamese Civil War Era relations is the 2006 book Elephants for Mr. Lincoln. It is a great dive into this largely overlooked area.[13]

An elephant cartoon celebrates the fall of Richmond in 1865. (Library of Congress)

The Republican Party used elephants in newspapers during Lincoln’s 1864 reelection campaign. (Father Abraham, September 27 & October 18, 1864)

Today, the elephant offer’s truth is becoming more understood, but the myth of elephants charging Confederate lines persists. Realistically, the closest we ever got to Lincoln’s elephants were a handful of 1864 advertisements in the newspaper Father Abraham advocating for Lincoln’s reelection and a poster where elephants proclaimed the fall of Richmond in 1865. Perhaps the Siamese story or these 1864-1865 cartoons influenced Thomas Nast when he drew the Republican Party as an elephant in the 1874 political cartoon “The Third-Term Panic,” widely agreed to be when the elephant started representing that party. If so, the myth lives on, seen but largely unknown amidst the US population.

Thomas Nast’s 1874 cartoon is widely considered where the Republican Party’s elephant symbol was solidified. Perhaps Nast was influenced by earlier links between Republicans and elephants from the Civil War. (Harper’s Weekly, November 7, 1874 & Library of Congress)

 

Endnotes:

[1] Charles Holder, The Ivory King, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886), 215.

[2] Ernest Lehman, Script, The King and I, 1956, https://transcripts.thedealr.net/script.php/the-king-and-i-1956-Cqu, accessed September 20, 2022.

[3] Lyndon Johnson, “The President’s Toast at a Dinner Given in Honor of the King and Queen of Thailand”, October 29, 1966, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon Johnson 1966, Vol. 2, (Washington: GPO, 1967), 1280.

[4] Stephen Young, “Another Hostile Asian Nation”, March 13, 1969, Congressional Record, Vol. 115, Part 5, 6422.

[5] John Taylor, William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand, (Washington: Potomac Books, 1991), 167.

[6] Blake Magner, The Civil War Quiz Book, (Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2010), 109; Walter Coffey, The Civil War Months, (Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2012), 77.

[7] The Angry Staff Officer, “What Would Have Happened if Lincoln had Used Combat Elephants in the Civil War?”, The National Interest, September 29, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/what-would-have-happened-if-lincoln-had-used-combat-elephants-civil-war-73481, Accessed September 20, 2022.

[8] King Mongkut to Franklin Pierce, January 24, 1859, Communications from the Heads of Foreign States, 1789-1909, RG 59, US National Archives.

[9] King Mongkut to James Buchanan, February 14, 1861, Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Abraham Lincoln to King Mongkut, February 3, 1862, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), Vol. 5, 125-126.

[12] Margaret Landon, Anna and the King of Siam, (New York: John Day Company, 1943), 130.

[13] William Strobridge and Anita Hibler, Elephants For Mr. Lincoln: American Civil War-Era Diplomacy in Southeast Asia, (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006).

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3 Responses to Reality vs. Myth Regarding Abraham Lincoln’s War Elephants

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    I love this! Someone needs to do a children’s book, and I need to order Elephants for Mr. Lincoln!

  2. As a fan of “The King and I” story, I always wondered about this but never had the time to look into it. Thanks for diving into this and sharing!

  3. Hugh De Mann says:

    Not 100% sure I’d attach the term ‘myth’ to this account, but this is nevertheless a good clarification of the exact details of this piece of history.

    It’d be incredible if someone fluent in Thai or another language that earlier documentation is scribed in could examine those foreign sources about it. Who knows? Maybe there is some evidence of the account in the British colonial office from during the Raj, or something of that ilk.

    Superb article.

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