Elephants in the American Civil War?

I enjoyed a “what-if?” short story by Angry Staff Officer, imagining what might have happened if President Lincoln had accepted an unsolicited gift instead of declining it.

Brigadier General Solomon Meredith stood with his frock coat unbuttoned outside his tent, airing out his tall frame from the long march. He commanded this brigade, nicknamed the “Iron Brigade” for its ferocity on the battlefield. The only all-Midwestern brigade in the Army of the Potomac, the Iron Brigade had a reputation as the toughest unit of the lot. Meredith was staring down the road, waiting impatiently for his last unit to arrive. The form of Colonel Rufus Dawes, commander of the 6th Wisconsin, hove into view. The two exchanged pleasantries and Meredith asked Dawes how his Badgers were doing.

“Mighty fine, sir, and thank you for asking,” said Dawes. “They’re ready to revenge Chancellorsville.”

“I think we all are,” said Meredith. “And from what I hear, we’ve got some fine new troops to help us out. Some of your Ohio fellows are on their way.” Dawes, originally from Ohio, smiled, and assented that there were no finer troops in the Union. His smile faded somewhat as, out of the gloom, the sound of thunder could be heard.

“Do hope it won’t rain on the boys,” he said. Meredith shifted his booted feet uncertainly.

“No, colonel, that isn’t rain, I don’t reckon,” he said. “That would be the 198th Ohio Mounted Infantry Battalion.”

“Jiminy!” said Dawes. “Are they giants?”

“Wellllll…” Meredith trailed off. “They’re not precisely infantry and they’re not precisely cavalry. To be fair, I don’t know quite what to do with them, because…”

They were interrupted by a scream from the picket line, a wild gunshot fired into the night air, followed by the sight of the picket guard running in, faces pale, gibbering that the world had come to an end. Dawes scrambled for his sword but Meredith told him not to bother.

“Watch,” he said, gesturing down the road.

A massive bulk appeared in the firelight, flames casting its shadow ominously onto the roadway, as the sound of stamping feet echoed for a mile behind it. Two large ears flapped with unconscious gravity while a long proboscis-like nose reared skywards and unleashed a braying blast, which was echoed rearwards – echoed with surprisingly regularity, almost as if it were the call for a halt. Mounted on this beast’s back was a tall, thin man in the blue of the U.S. Army.

“Major Thomas W. Custer,” said the officer, saluting, awkwardly. “Operating on temporary commission from the War Department, I do have the honor of presenting the 1st Ohio Pachyderm Battalion, 445 officers and men, fifty-one of the finest Siam elephants in good health, arranged in five companies. Spent these last five months training, sir, and I beg to report that the men and beasts are ready for a fight.”

There’s more at the link.  Go read, and have fun.



  1. They would have been great in a logistics way. Helping move artillery, especially mortars, in rough terrain.

    Too big of a target on event that modern battlefield.

    Though, heh, could you imagine Sherman's March with elephants?

  2. Wonderful short story. The logistics would have been severe, and they would have needed the year for getting accustomed to artillery and rifled musket fire. More care than the post-war Camel Corps of the desert Southwest. They would need an outer protective layer of saddle leather backed with light chainmail, to absorb and spread impacts. I'm glad he hadn't named the commander Thomas Hannibal Custer, as too much gilding in the lily.

    The initial impacts, though, where they had room to maneuver …

    "Major Simmons, ARE you overcome by ardent spirits? I tell you, sir, there is no such thing as a Snuffleupagus!"


    {Howitzer booms. Whipcracks of rifles at intervals)

    "RUN, young man!"

  3. They'd have been very useful as cargo carriers, but would have trouble with winters and be extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. One reason the ancients dropped the idea of war elephants was that they were prone, upon getting hurt, to panicking and running amok.

  4. He's right about the Iron Brigade, though. Sherman commanded the Midwesterners, and complimented them in his memoirs.

  5. "I'm glad he hadn't named the commander Thomas Hannibal Custer, as too much gilding in the lily."

    In real life, Major Thomas W. Custer was the younger brother of George A. Custer, and a recipient of two Medals of Honor (IIRC, for capturing Confederate standards).

  6. It certainly was an entertaining read, if wildly implausible. 🙂 I always like to see the style of speech of that time.

    And Draco, thanks for using the 'gilding the lily' phrase. I've not seen it in ages and had forgotten about it.

    I didn't know about the Iron Brigade, so looked it up. That in turn got me looking into regimental histories from my home state to see if any originated from my hometown. That, in turn, led me to the texts of some letters by a private who was KIA in 1862. Interesting to see.

  7. In real life, Major Thomas W. Custer was the younger brother of George A. Custer, and a recipient of two Medals of Honor (IIRC, for capturing Confederate standards).

    And was also killed at Little Big Horn in 1876, alongside brothers George (commanding) and Boston Custer. My grandfather met some of the (elderly) Lakota warriors that participated as young men. His parents hired Indians during the labor-intensive periods of running a ranch/farm in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. He said the warriors mostly just sat, smoked, and talked about better days. It was the women who did the work. Mostly.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *