US Camel Corps
For the strength in carrying burthens, for patient endurance of labor, and privation of food, water & rest, and in some respects for speed also, the camel and dromedary (as the Arabian camel is called) are unrivaled among animals. The ordinary loads for camels are from seven to nine to ten hundred pounds each, and with these they can travel from thirty to forty miles per day, for many days in succession. They will go without water, and with but little food, for six or eight days, or it is said even longer. Their feet are alike well suited for traversing grassy or sandy plains, or rough, rocky & hilly paths, and they require no shoeing....
E. F. Miller
It's 19th century America
. Why not use camels instead of mules
in the desert
? Forty million years ago there were
camels in North America (who had spread through South America by 1 million years ago). Sure they disappeared in the Americas, leaving only related animals (alpaca
, and vicuña
), but why not bring them back to be used out west?.
That was the brainchild of an army second lieutenant named George H. Crosman (the above quote comes from a friend and fellow "camel enthusiast"). Seems like a pretty good idea or at least something to look into but no one in the government seemed to take much interest. Eventually, Crosman got the ear of quartermaster Major Henry C. Wayne who was able to convince then-senator from Mississippi Jefferson Davis. Despite being chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Davis had trouble eliciting interest, too.
That all changed in 1852, when Davis was appointed Secretary of War. He was then able to use that position to get the idea taken seriously. It still took three years to get any action on his proposal, but on 3 March 1855:
And it be further enacted, that the sum of $50,000 be, and the same is hereby appropriated under the direction of the War Department in the purchase and importation of camels and dromedaries to be employed for military purposes.
Passed by the 33rd Congress, signed by the President Franklin Pierce
[Note: my primary source says $30,000.]
Davis gave Wayne the job of rounding up the beasts for the "experiment" (the whole thing was an experiment and there technically was never an official US Camel Corps unit of the army). In August of the same year, the major and his men landed at Tunis. Being unfamiliar with transactions of the camel persuasion, the group bought the first one they found (which was sick). They continued looking, gradually learning how to spot a "good" camel. Among things they learned were that dromedaries (single hump) were better for riding and Bactrians (double hump) for portage. But they found it difficult since the Crimean War was going on which had engaged most of the healthy camels for the same purpose the Americans wanted them: carrying troops and supplies.
They sailed all over the Mediterranean looking for their camels. To Malta, to Greece, to Turkey, and finally to Egypt. There they found healthy camels in abundance. Unfortunately for the fearless camel hunters, the Egyptian government had regulations that wouldn't allow camels to be taken out of the country. So using the time-honored methods of negotiation and bribery, they finally managed to purchase and transport 33 camels and five "camel-drovers" (to tend the camels during the voyage and after and to teach the soldiers about these desert animals). The return trip took two months. At one point, storms and a raging sea made it necessary to have the camels "lashed down in a kneeling position to prevent injuries." But despite all that, the trip was a success, even arriving at Indianola, Texas, with 34 animals due to a "camel miracle" along the way.
After a brief rest, the camels and men were based at Camp Verde in Texas. They weren't exploited much at first, mostly picking up supplies from town. But their potential was clear. Wayne was able to load four bales of hay on one camelover 1200 pounds and at least four times what a mule could carryand have the camel carry the burden with ease. The reports back to Washington were positive.
A dispute over camel-breeding caused a split between Wayne and Davis (Wayne: pro/Davis: against). A man named Edward Fitzgerald Beale effectively became the leader of the corps. In June 1857, they were taken on an expedition in order to survey territory between El Paso and the Colorado River. With him, 25 camels, 44 soldiers, horses, mules, and two camel drivers went along. The drivers were named "Greek George" and Syrian Hadji Ali, who was given the nickname "Hi Jolly" (in 1935, the Governor of Arizona built a large pyramidal monument over his grave with a copper camel atop to commemorate his part in this odd but interesting part of American history).
The initial assessment was somewhat negative. For the first few days the camels seemed slow and would arrive later than the rest of the animals at the camp. This was short-lived and soon the camels were not only outdistancing the other animals, but were unconcerned about some of the rugged terrain that the mules and horses wished to avoid. They really came through later on when the party got lost and ran low on supplies (particularly the most precious thing in a desert: water). The other animals had difficulty continuing but the camels were unfazed. In fact, when the group finally found water in the form of a river, the camels reportedly were relaxed and stood by while the humans and their animals "gulped the water they were desperate for." All in all, this mission was successful and the beasts had won over the men who had traveled with them. Not so in Washington (only partly because they weren't there to witness the success).
A new president had now taken office (James Buchanan) and he appointed a new Secretary of War (John B. Floyd). Interestingly, Floyd was in favor of the camel experiment. Unfortunately for him and the corps, the commander of the army of Texas was not. In fact, Major General David E. Twiggs seems to have been some sort of camelphobe. He was "outraged when he discovered a herd of camels under his command." Even though he knew next to nothing about the animals nor how much potential they had as desert beasts of burden for the army, he was absolutely against them ("Twigg's hatred for them was intense, and he barraged his superior with letters of complaint").
Despite the success of the expedition and the camels having proven they worth and reliability, there were some problems. The camels were sometimes ill-tempered (men claimed they held grudges against people who had treated them poorly). They sometimes kicked and spat at the men and were not the most pleasant smelling beasts in the desert (the smell also seems to have "caused panic and stampeding among domestic animals unfamiliar with the strong odor). They also apparently had what was referred to as "regurgitating tendencies." The unfamiliar creature also reportedly caused other animals and people distress when first seeing them. The camels were also underused which inevitably led to never reaching the potential they had shown (which makes it hard to convince others of said potential) and also made it appear to those in power that the whole experiment was nothing but a "financial drain that brought little return."
Then the times caught up with the animals. It was 1860 and the Civil War loomed ahead, leaving the corps unnoticed and basically forgotten. The Confederacy (who had captured Camp Verde) was in charge of the herd during the war, but little use was made of the camels (the ones in California, left over from the expedition, weren't being used much, either). It was the beginning of the end for the Camel Corps. In 1863, most the California camels were put up for sale (about $31 a piece). They ended up with zoos, mining companies, some people (Hi Jolly attempted a freight business with a few he kept and Beale kept some for his ranch where they lived out their lives), and circuses (at least five going to Ringling Brothers). Two years later the Texas herd also was auctioned off. Some of the herd was claimed as "stolen property" by the government and taken back to be released in the desert. And had that not happened this would be the end of the tale.
The camels wandered in the desert for years after being released (through Texas, California, and Arizona). Even some Bactrians that had been imported to British Columbia for use as pack animals for mining companies had been loosed (apparently due to the same behavior problems and lack of sure-footedness) and eventually moved south into Idaho and Nevada. With these beasts came legends.
The best known was about a camel referred to as the Red Ghost. In 1883, a woman was trampled by an animal that had left "clumps of reddish fur on a nearby thorn bush and huge hoof prints in the mud." A few days later, another attack occurred when a large "unidentifiable" creature ran into a miner's tent, leaving hoof prints "twice as large as those left by horses and strands of red fur." Sighting of this beast continued (eventually someone realized it was a camel). Then it was claimed by a rancher to have been seen carrying a rider. A rider that appeared to be dead (cue music). The next time it was seen, a group of prospectors saw something roll off its back. That item? A human skull.
This Red Ghost continued its "reign of terror" until 1893 when it was killed by a farmer in Arizona who had found it raiding his vegetables one morning. There was no body found but there were leather straps that would have held the rider in place. That opens up a whole set of other questions that are better left to the campfire.
For yearsafter it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that any remaining camels would have died offsightings of camels continued to be reported. Well into the 20th century, there were those that swore that there were still camels "out there" in the desert.
(Primary source: http://artemis.simmons.edu/~jacobs/camel.html; also www.militarymuseum.org/Camel.html, www.qmmuseum.lee.army.mil/historyweek/26aug-1sep.htm, www.quartzsitechamber.com/hi.jolly.grave.shtml, www.britannica.com)