In the mid-19th century, variations on the phrase "I have seen the elephant" were common. The phrase referred to facing and overcoming adversity.

It was based on the story of a farmer who was bringing his produce to market. While on the road, he encountered a traveling circus. Traveling with the circus was an elephant. The farmer’s horse was spooked. It reared, upset the cart, and bolted. The farmer's produce was destroyed. Despite this disaster, the farmer proclaimed "I don't care, for I have seen the elephant."

During the American Civil War to have "seen the elephant" meant to have been tested in battle.

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