The truth about Siam’s offer of elephants to fight for Abraham Lincoln in the American Civil War

Siamese troops in the 1890s, with war elephants behind them.

Siamese troops in the 1890s, with war elephants behind them.

When President James Buchanan of the United States penned a letter to King Mongkut (Rama IV) in May 1859 and included 192 books of US government publications in the accompanying package, the resultant reply from the Siamese monarch has led to some misconceptions which continue to this day.

The May 1856 Harris Treaty was ratified by the United States Senate and as a way of further cementing their relations, President Buchanan sent King Mongkut a gift comprising 192 books of US government publications. These arrived in 1860, a presidential election year.

Mongkut responded by sending a sword in a gold scabbard inlaid with silver, a daguerreotype portrait of himself with the future King Chulalongkorn, and a pair of elephant tusks as presents for the American president.

Included in this selection of gifts was a letter, dated 14 February 1861. Mongkut realised the length of time taken by a voyage between Bangkok and Washington DC, and was aware presidential elections had taken place the previous November, so his letter, while addressed to James Buchanan, took account of the fact the latter may no longer have been in office.

Mongkut notes his receipt of an official letter from President Buchanan and goes on to make the point the reply is made to Buchanan ‘or to whomsoever the people have elected anew as Chief ruler in [his] place …’

The letter and the gifts were entrusted to Captain Berrien of the USS John Adams, which had paid a courtesy call on Bangkok on behalf of the US government.

Mongkut notes, ‘During the interview in reply from Captain Berrien to our enquiries of various particulars relating to America, he stated that on that continent there are no elephants. Elephants are regarded as the most remarkable of the large quadrupeds…so that if any one has an elephants’ tusk of large size, and will deposit it in any public place, people come by thousands crowding to see it…

‘Having heard this it has occurred to us that, if on the continent of America there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests where there was abundance of water and grass in any region under the Sun’s declinations both North and South called by the English the Torrid Zone- and all were forbidden to molest them; to attempt to raise them would be well and if the climate there should prove favourable to elephants, we are of opinion that after a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are on the Continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them benefit to the country.’

King Mongkut (Rama IV), with his favourite wife.

King Mongkut (Rama IV), with his favourite wife.

The letter extolled the benefits of elephants to the construction of roads and stated Mongkut would be happy to send the animals to the United States if they so desired, but Siam did not have the means to be able to convey the beasts. He therefore asked that if ‘the President… and Congress who conjointly with him rule the country see fit to approve let them provide a large vessel loaded with hay and other food suitable for elephants on the voyage, with tanks holding a sufficiency of fresh water, and arranged with stalls so that the elephants can both stand & lie down in the ship- and send it to receive them. We on our part will procure young male and female elephants and forward them one or two pairs at a time.’

By the time the gifts and letter arrived in the United States, Abraham Lincoln was president. His reply to King Mongkut was a masterpiece of diplomatic tact and courtesy. ‘Your majesty’s letters show an understanding that 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 your good will and friendship for the American People…’

Lincoln addressed the offer of elephants, diplomatically stating, ‘I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of…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 of the United States.

‘Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favour the multiplication of the elephant, and steam…has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.’ Basically, thanks, but no thanks.

For some reason, the contents of the original letter have been distorted to the extent there has arisen a belief King Mongkut did indeed send a herd of elephants which were received and kept by James Buchanan as pets, while others are under the impression Mongkut’s offer was made direct to Abraham Lincoln, suggesting elephants could be used to help the Union in its struggle with the Confederacy following the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.

In fact, no elephants ever left the shores of Siam for a life of free ranging in the forests of the United States, and most assuredly the offer was initially made to President Buchanan with the reply coming from his successor President Lincoln. King Mongkut’s offer was made prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War and the letter therefore contains no suggestion of any elephants being used for the purposes of war. An intriguing story, but a myth nonetheless.

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