Yankee Elephants
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2016

In 1944, Margaret Landon published her novel of expurgated Orientalism, Anna and the King of Siam. Based on the memoirs of English governess Anna Leonowens at the court of King Mongkut, it became a successful Rodgers and Hammerstein film starring Yul Brynner, later re-made with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat.

Anna Leonowens took some healthy liberties with reality in telling her tale, inventing a background for herself and numerous incidents at the Siamese court. One such partial truth that's worked its way into a number of Western accounts of Thai history is the supposed offer by Mongkut of war elephants to Abraham Lincoln, for use in the American Civil War.

Siam had become an imperial power in the late 18th century under the reign of Taksin the Great. Taksin expelled Burmese invaders and re-united the country before he fell into a religious mania that would lead to his overthrow by his leading general, Thuong Duang (also known as Chakri), who became King Rama I. Rama I and his son fought wars with Siam's traditional enemies, Burma and Vietnam, but change was coming to South-East Asia.

The British established Singapore in 1819, and seized much of southern Burma in 1826 with the support of Siamese troops and elephants. Under King Rama III, the Siamese signed a commercial treaty with Britain that same year, allowing the British considerable latitude but also giving the Siamese access to modern arms. The Siamese crushed a rebellion in Laos the next year, strengthening their hold there through forced popualtion transfers, and defeated the Vietnamese in a four-year war over Cambodia in the early 1840s.

Siamese Elephant Artillery. Laos, 1893.


In 1850, the British and Americans both demanded further concessions. Rama III died the next year, leaving the problem to his younger brother, Mongkut, who had spent the previous 27 years as a Buddhist monk. Mongkut, taking the name Rama IV, came to the throne already 47 years old. But he had acquired a wide range of knowledge during this time in yellow robes, speaking and reading several European languages with a sound grasp of their politics and cultures.

Beset by powerful colonial powers on either flank, Mongkut sought connections to other powers that might help redress the balance of power. British desires for commercial hegemony seemed less harmful to his kingdom's independence than France's record of conquest in southern Vietnam, and in 1855 the king gave them the treaty they sought. But the French took Saigon in 1859 and looked likely to press deeper into modern-day Cambodia, then ruled by Siam.

And so Mongkut sent a proposal to Washington, addressed to President James Buchanan. The United States should import Siamese elephants, the king suggested, as they could provide valuable labor in undeveloped areas just as they did at home. Lincoln, in office by the time the Siamese letter arrived, politely declined and noted that steam power could fulfill the same needs.

Mongkut's proposal had much greater merit than Lincoln and later amused writers have allowed. The elephant is a famously hard worker, and in the days before electrification and the internal combustion engine it offered a very mobile heavyweight force for lifting and carrying. Trade in elephants would have established a connection to a non-European power, something the king deeply desired, and forged ties outside Britain or France.

A Siamese Army supply train.


The king did not offer war elephants, but his army did employ them, chiefly in the artillery branch and in the supply train. Elephants pulled heavy artillery, and at times went into battle with light cannon mounted on platforms on their backs. The Siamese general Tengu Kudin deployed elephants bearing light artillery at Kuala Kedah on the Malay Peninsula in 1839 helped crush the fortress garrison of Malay rebels and Rajput mercenaries. Royal Navy observers reported that the Siamese infantry was well-armed with modern muskets, and used the elephant-mounted artillery to spearhead their assault.

Against a modern enemy — as Siamese troops faced during the 1893 loss of Laos to the French — elephants proved fantastically vulnerable to both artillery and rifle fire. But against poorly armed rebels they were extremely intimidating, and even effective against Rajput professionals armed with muzzle-loaders.

The Variant

For many years, one of our distributors — Blackhawk Hobby Distribution — was run by a man named Dan Masterson, who stayed on in sales after the company was sold. Dan, who died several years ago, was a Vietnam veteran who once used an anti-tank rocket to shoot a North Vietnamese elephant loaded with supplies. Dan was a dedicated player of our games, and I think he would have liked this variant.

Had Siam provided an elephant corps to the Union war effort, it's open to question how effective they might have been in crushing the Confederacy. But in Daily Content we're not limited to the reasonable, and there's not much in wargaming that's more fun than war elephants.

In Dave Powell's Chickamauga & Chattanooga, add the four units of the Siamese elephant corps as follows. In all three Chickamauga scenarios, place all elephant units and their leader in Area 86 with Rosecrans. In all three Chattanooga scenarios, place all of them with Grant (Area 267 in Scenairos Four and Six, Area 298 in Scenario Five). In Scenario Seven, the Grand Campaign, they set up in Area 86 with Rosecrans.

Elephant Leader

The Siamese corps is a formation, with its own leader, Krisadapiharn (one of Mongkut's many children by assorted concubines; he appointed his 82 children and his dozens of brothers and cousins to military and civil posts). Siamese units may only enter areas if accompanied by their own leader. If Krisadapiharn is killed in action, all Siamese units are removed from play (victory points are not received by the Confederate player for them).

Horses and Elephants

Horses hate and fear elephants, so cavalry and artillery units may never move into any areas containing one or more friendly elephant units. Elephant units can move into areas containing friendly cavalry or artillery, but this forces each cavalry and/or artillery unit in the area to check morale. Each individual unit rolls against its own morale (don’t use area morale), unmodified by any leader’s tactical rating. Each cavalry or artillery unit that rolls higher than its morale suffers a step loss.

Rampaging Elephants

When an elephant unit is eliminated, there is a chance that surviving individual elephants from the destroyed unit may go berserk. Whenever an elephant unit is eliminated (not just reduced), the Union player rolls one die for it and adds one to the result if Krisadapiharn is in the same area. If the modified result is 1 or 2, the elephant unit goes on a rampage at the end of the current combat segment (after all combat is resolved). Resolve the rampage by following these steps in the order shown:

  • If there are one or more friendly units in the area with the rampaging elephant unit, the owning player rolls one die. On a result of 5 or 6, one friendly unit (owning player’s choice if multiple units are there) loses one step. That slakes the elephant blood-lust and ends the rampage (remove the elephant from play).
  • If there are no friendly units in the area with the elephant, or the die roll result in the step above was 1 through 4, the Confederate player chooses any area adjacent to the rampaging elephant’s area that contains Union units. The Confederate player rolls one die, and on a result of 5 or 6, one unit in the selected area (owning player’s choice if more than one unit is there) loses one step. That ends the rampage (remove the elephant unit from play).
  • If there are no friendly units in any area adjacent to the rampaging elephant unit, or if the die roll result in Step 2 was 1 through 4, the player owning the elephant chooses any area adjacent to the rampaging elephant unit that contains one or more enemy units. The Union player rolls one die, and on a result of 5 or 6, one enemy unit in the selected area (owning player’s choice if more than one is there) loses one step. That ends the rampage (remove the elephant unit from play).
  • If there are no units in the same area as a rampaging elephant or in any adjacent area, then simply remove the elephant unit from play.

Casualties inflicted by rampaging elephants do generate victory points for the Confederate player.

Charging Elephants

Elephant units have two movement points. They may conduct Cavalry Charges (10.0) under all the same rules, but may not be combined in the same charge with Union cavalry. If they charge an area containing Confederate cavalry, before the charge is resolved the Confederate player must check the morale of each cavalry unit in the target area. Each individual unit rolls against its own morale (don’t use area morale), unmodified by any leader’s tactical rating, but add one to the result. Each cavalry unit that rolls higher than its morale suffers a step loss. In the event of a successful charge, elephant units may not pursue (10.7).

Elephant Guns

Elephant units are also artillery units. They may conduct bombardment (11.0) attacks, but like any unit they may not bombard and charge in the same turn.

Elephants as Targets

Elephant units are very vulnerable to enemy artillery fire. Add one to the bombardment die roll result if the target area includes an elephant unit. In an exception to rule 11.3, this is in addition to any other one modifier (a maximum of +2 if elephants are present).

Seeing the Elephant

The morale of all Confederate units adjacent to an elephant unit is reduced by one in Scenario One or the first day of Scenarios Three or Seven.

You can get your very own laser-cut, nicely and thick, scorchless and sootless elephant pieces in the Snowfall 2014 Golden Journal.

Order Chickamauga now and get the most out of your free elephants!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold knows nothing of elephants.