150 Years Ago This Week: Lincoln rejects elephants

Two letters dated Feb. 14, 1861, and addressed to President James Buchanan were delayed in transit, and delivered to President Lincoln almost a year later. The letters were from the King of Siam (today’s Thailand); one letter accompanied royal gifts of a costly sword, a photograph of the king and his daughter, and two elephant tusks. The other letter offered to send elephants.

President Lincoln wrote the following: “To the King of Siam, February 3, 1862. Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America. To His Majesty Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongut, King of Siam, Great and Good Friend: I have received Your Majesty’s two letters of the date of February 14th. 1861.”

Lincoln went on to write that, while he appreciated the king’s gifts, “our laws forbid the President from receiving these rich presents as personal treasures. They are therefore accepted in accordance with Your Majesty’s desire as tokens of good will and friendship for the American People. Under their [the Congress’s] directions the gifts will be placed among the archives of the Government, where they will remain perpetually as tokens of mutual esteem and pacific dispositions more honorable to both nations than as any trophies of conquest could be.

“I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition in the United States. Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce. Meantime, wishing Your Majesty a long and happy life, and for the generous and emulous People of Siam the highest possible prosperity, I commend both to the blessing of an Almighty God. Your good friend, Abraham Lincoln. Washington, February 3, 1862. By the President: William H. Seward, Secretary of State.”

There is a popular misconception that the offer of King Rama IV was made of elephants trained for war, but this was not indicated in the reply to the king. Still, one can only speculate what the tide of battle might have been had Gen. Pickett’s division at Gettysburg in July, 1863, reached Cemetery Ridge and encountered Federal troops mounted on a herd of angry pachyderms. The same day that Lincoln wrote to the King of Siam in Bangkok, he wrote to Gen. McClellan, urging him to move his army directly overland to Richmond, while McClellan favored landing on the Chesapeake coast and then moving northwest on Richmond.

In Richmond on Feb. 4, the Virginia House of Delegates discussed “enrolling free Negroes into the Confederate Army.” Confederate generals in several locations appealed to troops whose terms of enlistment were about to expire to re-enlist. The Confederate government mandated that each state must enlist 6 percent of its total male population to serve for the duration of the war. The next day in Tennessee, Federal troops filed ashore north of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River to cooperate with Navy gunboats in the coming Union attack. Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman commanded some 3,000 Confederate troops inside the fort, and were preparing for the defense.

In London, Queen Victoria lifted all prohibitions against shipping arms, ammunition, gunpowder, and military stores from Britain. Mrs. Lincoln gave a ball at the White House that evening; the East Room was packed and the social press was full of praise.

On Thursday, Feb. 6, Gen. Tilghman sent a major part of his garrison overland to Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River to save them from the Federal river attack which opened at 11 a.m. By 2 p.m., it was over. Gen. Tilghman, with 12 officers, 66 men and 16 patients on a hospital boat, surrendered Fort Henry to U.S. Navy Flag Officer Andrew Foote and his flotilla of gunboats. The Confederate casualties numbered five killed, six wounded, five disabled, five missing. Union forces: 11 killed, 31 wounded, five missing. Gen. Grant’s force of 15,000, slogging through the mud, heavy rain and high water, missed the fight. With Fort Henry’s fall, a major impediment to a Federal advancement south was removed, and an important river highway, bypassing the Mississippi, was opened for the Federals.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.