For several years before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the U.S. Army conducted an experiment using camels as pack animals in the Southwest. This desert region's punishing climate and terrain took a terrible toll on the horses and mules upon which the Army had always depended.
This idea belonged to 2LT George H. Crossman, a veteran of the Seminole wars in Florida. Crossman's arguments were that the camel was stronger, was patient in loading and unloading, and tolerant of little food, water or rest. Their feet were well suited for grassy or sandy plains, rough, rocky and hilly paths, and they required no shoeing.
Crossman befriended Henry C. Wayne, a Quartermaster and fellow officer. It was Wayne who convinced Jefferson Davis, a senator from Mississippi, of the camel's value to the Army. When Davis was appointed Secretary of War in 1852, he made an official recommendation to give camels a trial.
On 3 March 1855, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the project.
The Adventure to Get the Camels
The ship USS SUPPLY (pictured left) was commanded by LT David Dixon Porter and set sail from New York 3 June 1855. Wayne, also aboard, was charged with procuring the camels.
After weeks of searching, they finally found a plentiful supply of healthy camels in Egypt, and there purchased 30 camels.
After two months at sea, the first camels arrived at Indianola, Texas on 29 April 1856. They were given several weeks of rest to adapt to the climate and new diet. The herd was then moved to permanent quarters at Camp Verde, 60 miles west of San Antonio, Texas. Another herd of 41 camels arrived the following year.
The camels were well suited for arid, rocky, sandy and hot areas. They were able to carry loads up to four times as heavy as a mule, for longer distances and with less food and water.
The soldiers, however, were not as happy. Camels had a strong smell that did not wash off easily. The horses and mules were frightened of them, and often bolted. The camels were also known to bite and spit.
Photo to the right: Tied down
to the ship's deck during a storm.
The Camel Experiments
Over the next several years, the camels were put to several tests, used alongside mules for comparison, on extended trips throughout west Texas and as far west as California. LT Edward Beale led an exploration party from El Paso to California and took 25 camels, plus the normal pack animals, and 44 men.
"My admiration for the camels increases daily. The harder the test, the more fully they seem to justify all that is said about them.
"They pack water for others for days under a hot sun and never get a drop. They pack heavy burdens of corn and oats for months and never get a grain. They eat worthless shrubs and not only subsist, but keep fat." Journal of Lieutenant Edward F. Beal
Photo top right: "Watering the animals upon finding a stream" painting by Narjot. National Archives. The camels wait patiently in the rear while horses drink after 36 hours of travel without water.
The oil painting on the left by Tom Lovell, titled "Camels in Texas," depicts an incident in June 1859 when Lt William H. Echols commanded a column of 25 camels and 25 mules, accompanied by US Infantry and Arab drivers.
They conducted a trip of exploration in Texas from Camp Hudson on the Devils River to Fort Davis and then to Presidio del Norte (near present day Ft. Bliss).
The Demise of the Camel Corps
By 1860, the nation's mind was on the imminent Civil War, and the camels were all but forgotten. In November 1863, the California herd was put up for public sale, most going to zoos, circuses, mining companies and a few individuals, such as Edward Beale. Beale allowed his camels to live out their lives in comfort on his Texas ranch. The Texas herd was auctioned off in 1865, but some were released into the desert.
For years after the dissolution of the U.S. Camel Corps, camels wandered at will across the American desert. Bactrian camels, who had been bought and later set loose by a mining concern in British Columbia, drifted south to Nevada and Idaho. Many Arabian camels roamed through Texas, California, and Arizona. The last authenticated sightings of camels in the wild occurred in the early 1900s.
* * * * * * * * * *
Transportation is one area that lends itself to innovation.
This particular innovation probably
would have proven beneficial had it been properly supported
and objectively tested. Unfortunately, the camel has become
a little more than a footnote in the history of the Army.
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