A-Z Blogging Seeing The Elephant


At the beginning of the war, soldiers worried they’d go through their enlistment and not “see the elephant”.  After Sumter, Lincoln called up 75,000 troops for ninety days. Ah, optimism. Seeing the elephant was to see the show or see combat. I’ve been surprised during my research for Rain Crow at how many times in memoirs, letters, and diaries soldiers mentioned being afraid they would not see the elephant or talking later about their first battle experience.

For men who were so anxious to see combat, it’s a bit surprising to note that during the first battle of Manassas, some units walked off the battlefield during the battle because their time was up.

Perkins sat on the ground next to me, leaned against a tree. I had wrapped his hand with my handkerchief, which was about all I could do. His thumb was gone. It had to hurt like hell. I had a bullet in my leg and, for some reason, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It didn’t feel good, but it was now more of a severe throb. I loosened the belt I’d tied around it to stop the bleeding.

Perkins cried over his thumb. Tears coursed down his dirty cheeks in tiny runnels leaving streaks of white behind. “I wanted to see the elephant.  By God I did, too, but what if they make me go home? I just couldn’t bear it if they send me home.” He sighed. “I think I wrenched my back, too.

“Hell, what about you? What if that bullet hit the bone? You’d be as useful as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.”

I flinched and closed my eyes. Perkins gradually quieted like a wind up toy running down. At last an ambulance rolled up to collect the wounded under the trees. I nudged Perkins. “Come on. Help me up.”

He slumped forward dead, revealing the bullet hole in his back and the stain where he had bled out as we talked.

Note: While it seems remarkable, it did happen. Many men didn’t realize they were wounded or wounded as severely as they were. The story of Perkins is based on a true story. He had been visiting with a friend about his chickens at home and later keeled over dead, not realizing he’d been shot in the back.

In one case, a Union soldier charged across the lines toward Confederates who stopped shooting. The man kept running at them, but the Confederates realized the man was already dead even if he didn’t.


  1. Julie,
    This is incredible! Seriously. I’m riveted. Funny, I was never much of a history buff or a war buff until I was visiting Chicago and saw a captured German U-boat in a museum. Suddenly I couldn’t get enough about WWII.

    Now you’re making the civil war come alive for me. It’s just fascinating. This story here — wow. So I have one question, and I’ve always wondered it when reading so-called true crime: how do you treat dialog? I’m guessing nobody had all that clever dialog in their diary, so you must have to create all that, right?

    Anyway, this was a fantastic entry. (See, there I am repeating myself, but I can’t help it, this was great reading.)

  2. John,

    I’ve always been a huge history buff. Mother used to subscribe to Old West and another western history magazine. I couldn’t go to the library for books, so I inhaled these magazines.

    There are such fascinating stories in every era. I ran across the story of Germany’s WWII flying ace and would love to write about him. So many stories, so little time.

    Re dialogue, I find the more memoirs, diaries, and letters I write, the more I seem to channel these people. You’d be surprised at how much great dialogue is in these documents. I laughed my way through Mosby’s Memoirs. Some of the dialogue is from letters, but mostly it’s just them talking to me.

    Once again, thanks so much for stopping by.


  3. Hi Julie! I’d just read your yesterday’s reply ‘it’s nice to have trained fish’ before reading this – and WOW what a change of emotion! That final sentence hit me like good Flash Fiction always does. I lean back, take a breath, and think ‘Wha? Did that really just happen?’
    You write so beautifully, you really do.
    Thank you – and never stop!

  4. Wow! This is such wonderful stuff. I love your civil war stuff, but I totally see how you can use this for fantasy as well. Hurry up and get Rain Crow out. My bookshelf is dying to have it.

  5. Wow–people would actually carry on a conversation without realizing they were mortally wounded? Amazing! Was it just the adrenaline that kept them going past the point when pain would have normally quieted them before death? I have to find a story use for this phenomenon. Excellent stuff, Julie!

  6. Colin,

    No idea. Adrenaline, probably, but it happened more than once, so something kept them going. My son has been nearly mortally hurt a couple of times and only some insistence by others to go to the hospital saved him.

    Humans are interesting creatures. General Johnston insisted the doctors treated others before they tended to him. Unfortunately, his leg wound was mortal and he bled to death.

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