Posted by: Jim E | May 22, 2011

“See The Elephant”…Kiss Me Once And Kiss Me Twice…What???…

In reading James M. McPherson’s “For Cause & Comrades”…a book about the Civil War…I came across a phrase that was a contemporary expression denoting any awesome but exciting experience…”see the elephant”…he writes that from the correspondence early in the war, most soldiers were “spoiling for a fight”…both North and South…they were excited to get a chance to “see the elephant”…they were all dying for a fight…all of them eager to be in battle…

Seeing the elephant is like someone who has done things beyond the local norm and now are wise to the world…after “seeing the elephant” they might say in today’s vernacular, “this is not my first rodeo”…but there were some negatives with this as well…it could experiencing more than one wanted to…like seeing combat, especially for the first time…seeing the truth of the battlefield was jarring to most who took part…and no question, many, after seeing the elephant turned back…

Seeing the elephant symbolizes a great adventure…like the gold rush…many unexpected difficulties and dangers…sufferings and severe ordeals…facing ones worst expectations, overcoming their meanest realities…in a word, knowing the truth…and when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set himself about, he has “seen the elephant”…and there were stories of young farm boys who wanted to join the Union army…and “Wonders what it would be like to ‘see the elephant.'”…

Ulysses S. Grant in his memoirs tells about this phenomenon while he was stationed in San Francisco before the Civil War but during the gold rush…the city was alive with people crowding to meet miners as they came from the mines by steamers…some of these were “runners” who worked for hotels, boarding houses or restaurants…”many were young men of good family, good education and gentlemanly instincts”…From 1849 to 1853 there was a rush of people to the Pacific, some realized more than they expected…”but for one such there were hundreds disappointed, many of whom now fill unknown graves; others died wrecks of their former selves, and many, without a vicious instinct, became criminals and outcasts.”…

And after a long trek across the prairie by wagon…they found themselves a stranger, in a strange land, far from friends…all means exhausted, many became discouraged…”others would take off their coats and look for a job, no matter what it might be. These succeeded as a rule.”…these worked to start at anything they could get to do…”More became discouraged early and spent their time looking up people who would “treat,” or lounging about restaurants and gambling houses where free lunches were furnished daily.”…if they would bring in customers…these all “saw the elephant”…wanted to experience the “Gold Rush” but it proved not to be what they had hope and planned…it is no different today…how many times have we seen this occur…it may have been contemporary expression in the 1800’s…but it is still occurring today…name your “elephant”…someone wants to “see it”…

Once someone “sees the elephant”…they are never the same…the Civil War was a terrible event…thousands and thousands were killed and maimed…what made them keep going into battle, once they saw the elephant…once they experienced battle???…well, James McPherson wrote a book about why they kept on fighting…and there have been hundreds more written to try and explain it…I don’t pretend to understand…that here were normal young people with plans for the future…but willing to give it all up for a cause…and for their comrades in arms…it has always been so…in his book McPherson tells a story in the midst of the war…these were not automatons who had nothing but the war on their minds…he describes it like this:

The most poignant true deathbed scene I have encountered occurred at a Washington army hospital in October 1863. There died a sergeant in the renowned 8th Illinois Cavalry, a farmer who in 1861 had postponed his wedding to enlist in the army. He wrote frequent letters to his fiancee urging her to remain cheerful, for “if I go first I will wait for you there, on the other side of the dark waters” in ” that better world, where we can live free from sin, and wickedness.” This soldier survived all the campaigns and battles during 1862-63, including Gettysburg, where his regiment opened the battle , only to be mortally wounded in a minor skirmish near Culpeper. His fiancee, Augusta Hallock, rushed to his bedside, where she was able to write down his last words: “We’ll meet in Heaven. I’ll wait for you there…It looks light. O Lord take my spirit…Gusta kiss me,…kiss me closer. You will love me always wont you Gusta.”

As I read that story…I could see in my minds eye many young people, many who are now gone…I think of my Dad and Mom…with two small boys…he went off to the Pacific in 1943…into the unknown…he, only an example of so many who went into that war…and Mom left behind with no “safety net”as there may be today…working at Skippy peanut butter…taking care of the two boys, me being one of them…but still having all the feelings that are in the story above or that you have…on the back of this picture of my Mom in 1944, she wrote to my Dad in the Navy…”The girl you left behind. Taken on Christmas day. I didn’t feel as happy as I may look.”…and though both my folks are gone now…Dad in 1999 and Mom in 2004, I still think of them as young…before I really knew them…and all the feelings that they had…that I also had…that you have had too…”Gusta kiss me…kiss me closer. You will love me always wont you Gusta”…

And in 1945 the song that came out for all those coming back from WWII…written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne to welcome home a returning loved one…sung by Bing Crosby in 1945…but in this YouTube is a more famous 1945 version and it is great…Harry James and his orchestra…with Harry James on the trumpet and Willie Smith on the sax…and with Kitty Kallen singing this wonderful song…”It’s been a long, long time”…put yourself in the shoes of those returning and those waiting…and then…”Kiss me once and Kiss me twice, It’s been a long, long time”…

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Responses

  1. Glad to see you reading McPherson’s book…it is quit startling the stories of men and combat. And as you pointed out, the most amazing part is once they “saw the elephant”, they continued to go back into combat for many varying reasons. I do believe the one that trumps them all is found in the title…”Comrades”. It was a demonstration of a selfless generation who saw the war as something greater than themselves, but their brother in arms as they saw their own self. Thanks for this post.


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