The U.S. Army’s “Camel Corps” Experiment
By Vince Hawkins
In the 1830s America’s westward expansion was being severely curtailed by the inhospitable terrain and climate faced by pioneers and settlers. This was particularly the case in the southwest, where arid deserts, mountain peaks and impassable rivers were proving to be an almost insurmountable obstacle to men and animals alike. In 1836, U.S. Army LT George H. Crosman hit upon an unusual idea to deal with the situation. With the able assistance of a friend, E. H. Miller, Crosman made a study of the problem and sent a report on their findings to Washington suggesting that:
“For strength in carrying burdens, for patient endurance of labor, and privation of food, water & rest, and in some respects 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 hundred pounds each, and with these they can travel from thirty to forty miles a 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 hills and paths, and they require no shoeing… “
Their report was disregarded by the War Department. It was with this rather simple suggestion, however, that Crosman first introduced the concept for what would later become the most unique experiment in U.S. Army history.
The idea lay dormant for several years until 1847 when Crosman, now a major, met MAJ Henry C. Wayne of the Quartermaster Department, another camel enthusiast, who would take up the idea. MAJ Wayne submitted a report to the War Department and Congress recommending the U.S. government’s importation of camels. In so doing, he caught the attention of Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who thought Wayne’s suggestions both practical and worthy of attention. Davis, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, tried for several years to acquire approval and funding for the project, but to no avail. It was not until 1853, when Davis was appointed Secretary of War, that he was able to present the idea of importing camels to both President Franklin Pierce and a still skeptical Congress.
In his annual report in 1854, Davis informed Congress that, in the “…. Department of the Pacific the means of transportation have, in some instances, been improved, and it is hoped further developments and improvements will still diminish this large item of our army expenditure. In this connexion, … I again invite attention to the advantages to be anticipated from the use of camels and dromedaries for military and other purposes, and for reasons set forth in my last annual report, recommend that an appropriation be made to introduce a small number of the several varieties of this animal, to test their adaptation to our country…”
On 3 March 1855, Congress agreed and passed the Shield amendment to the appropriation bill, resolving: “And be it further enacted, that the sum of $30,000 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.” Secretary Davis would finally get his camels.
Davis lost no time in getting the experiment underway. In May 1855, he appointed Wayne to head the expedition to acquire the camels. The Navy store ship USS Supply, was provided by the Navy to transport the camels to the United States. The Supply was under the command of LT David Dixon Porter, who, on being informed of the mission and its cargo, saw to it that she was outfitted with special hatches, stable areas, a “camel car,” and hoists and slings to load and transport the animals in relative comfort and safety during their long voyage.
When Wayne inspected the Supply, he was both amazed and greatly impressed with Porter’s meticulous and thorough preparations. It was decided that while Wayne went to London and Paris to visit the zoos and interview military men and scientists with first-hand knowledge and experience in camel handling, Porter would sail the Supply to the Mediterranean and deliver supplies to the U.S. naval squadron based there. On 24 July, Wayne joined Porter in Spezzia (La Spezia), Italy and from there they sailed to the Levant, arriving at Goletta (La Goulette) in the Gulf of Tunis on 4 August.
In Goletta, the expedition purchased their first three camels, two of which they later discovered were infected with the “itch,” a form of mange. Arriving in Tunis they were joined by Mr. Gwynne Harris Heap, a brother-in-law of Porter’s, whose father had been U.S. Consul at Tunis. Heap was familiar with eastern languages and customs and his extensive knowledge of camels proved an invaluable asset to the expedition. During the next five months the expedition sailed across the Mediterranean, stopping at Malta, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. Wayne, Porter, and Heap also made a separate voyage on their own to the Crimea to speak with British officers about their use of camels during the Crimean War. A similar side trip was made to Cairo while the Supply was docked at Alexandria.
After numerous difficulties involving a lack of suitable animals and obtaining export permits, the expedition finally acquired through purchase and as gifts a sufficient number of camels. In all, they obtained thirty-three animals: nineteen females and fourteen males. The thirty-three specimens included two Bactrian (two-humped), nineteen dromedaries (one-humped), nineteen Arabian, one Tunis burden, one Arabian calf, and one Tuili or booghdee camels. The Arabian dromedaries are renowned for their swiftness and the Bactrians for their strength and burden carrying abilities. Thanks to Heap’s knowledge of camels and his negotiating skills, the cost averaged around $250 per animal, and most were in good condition. The expedition also hired five natives–Arabs and Turks–to help care for the animals during the voyage and act as drovers when they reached America. On 15 February 1856, with the animals safely loaded aboard, the expedition began its voyage home.
The expedition, slowed by storms and heavy gales, lasted nearly three months. It was Porter’s foresight and diligence in caring for the animals that enabled them to survive the horrendous weather conditions. The Supply finally unloaded its cargo on 14 May at Indianola, Texas. During the voyage one male camel had died, but six calves were born, of which two had survived the trip. The expedition therefore landed with a total of thirty-four camels, all of whom were in better health than when they left their native soil.
On 4 June, after allowing the camels some needed rest and a chance to acclimatize themselves, Wayne marched the herd 120 miles to San Antonio, arriving on 18 June. Wayne planned to establish a ranch and provide facilities for breeding the camels, but Secretary Davis had other ideas, stating, “the establishment of a breeding farm did not enter into the plans of the department. The object at present is to ascertain whether the animal is adapted to military service, and can be economically and usefully employed therein.” Despite his objections, Davis did see the advantages in sending Porter on a second trip to secure more camels. There was over half of the appropriation money remaining and the Supply was still on loan from the Navy. On Davis’ instructions, Porter once again left for Egypt. On 26-27 August, Wayne moved the herd some sixty miles northwest to Camp Verde, a more suitable location for his caravansary. He constructed a camel corral (khan) exactly like those found in Egypt and Turkey. Camp Verde would be the “corps” home for many years.
To satisfy Davis’ concerns about the military usefulness of the camels, Wayne devised a small field test. He sent three wagons, each with a six-mule team, and six camels to San Antonio for a supply of oats. The mule drawn wagons, each carrying 1,800 pounds of oats, took nearly five days to make the return trip to camp. The six camels carried 3,648 pounds of oats and made the trip in two days, clearly demonstrating both their carrying ability and their speed. Several other tests served to confirm the transporting abilities of the camels and their superiority over horses and mules. Davis was much pleased with the results and stated in his annual report for 1857, “These tests fully realize the anticipation entertained of their usefulness in the transportation of military supplies…. Thus far the result is as favorable as the most sanguine could have hoped.”
Over the next several months, Wayne worked with the civilian drovers and soldiers to accustom them to the camels and vice versa. They learned how to care for and feed the animals, manage the cumbersome camel saddles, properly pack the animals and, most importantly, how to deal with the camel’s mannerisms and temperament. By nature the camel is a docile animal, but can demonstrate a violent, aggressive temper when abused or mistreated, literally kicking, biting or stomping an antagonist to death. Camels, like cows, chew a type of cud and when annoyed would often spit a large, gelatinous, foul smelling mass of cud at its detractor. The most difficult aspect for the men to get used to was the camel’s somewhat pungent smell. Although camels really do not smell any worse than horses, mules or unwashed men, their smell was different and had a tendency to frighten horses unfamiliar with the odor.
On 30 January 1857, Porter returned to the U.S. with an additional forty-one camels. Since by this time five of the original heard had died from disease, the new arrivals brought the total number of camels to seventy. The animals were landed at Indianola on 10 February and then moved to Camp Verde.
In March 1857, James Buchanan became president and several changes were made which directly affected the camel experiment. John B. Floyd replaced Davis as Secretary of War and MAJ Wayne was transferred back to the Quartermaster Department in Washington, DC, thus removing in one blow two of the camel experiment’s main supporters. Nevertheless, Secretary Floyd decided to continue his predecessor’s experiment.
In response to a petition made by some 60,000 citizens for a permanent roadway which would help link the eastern territories with those of the far west, Congress authorized a contract to survey and build a wagon road along the thirty-fifth parallel from Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory, to the Colorado River on the California/Arizona border. The contract was won by Mr. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a former Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California and Nevada who held the rank of brigadier general in the California militia. Beale was a good choice for the survey, having traveled parts of this region during the Mexican War and while surveying a route for a transcontinental railway.
It was only after Beale accepted the contract that he learned of the Secretary of War’s special conditions. Floyd ordered Beale to take twenty-five of the camels with him on the surveying expedition. Beale protested vehemently at being encumbered with the camels, but Floyd was adamant. Since Wayne had left Camp Verde, the camels had been unused. The government had gone to some time and expense to test the camels in just this kind of situation and Floyd was determined to see if they would justify the money being spent on them. Although strongly opposed to the idea, Beale finally consented.
On 25 June 1857, the surveying expedition departed for Fort Defiance. The party consisted of twenty-five camels, two drovers, forty-four soldiers, twelve wagons, and some ninety-five dogs, horses and mules. At first, the performance of the camels convinced Beale that his original protests were well founded, as the animals moved slower than the horses and mules and were usually hours late reaching camp. On the second week of the journey, however, Beale changed his tune and noted that the camels were “walking up better.” He later attributed the camel’s slow start to their months of idleness and ease at Camp Verde. It was not long after that the camel’s settled to their task and began outdistancing both horses and mules, packing a 700 pound load at a steady speed and traversing ground that caused the other animals to balk. By the time the expedition arrive at Fort Defiance in early August, Beale was convinced of the camel’s abilities. On 24 July he wrote to Floyd, “It gives me great pleasure to report the entire success of the expedition with the camels so far as I have tried it. Laboring under all the disadvantages ….we have arrived here without an accident and although we have used the camels every day with heavy packs, have fewer sore backs and disabled ones by far than would have been the case travelling with pack mules. On starting I packed nearly seven hundred pounds on each camel, which I fear was too heavy a burden for the commencement of so long a journey; they, however, packed it daily until that weight was reduced by our diurnal use of it as forage for our mules.”
At the end of August the expedition left the fort on their survey. Beale was concerned about the dangers inherent in such a journey over such treacherous terrain, but these concerns proved unfounded in regard to the camels. “Sometimes we forget they are with us. Certainly there never was anything so patient or enduring and so little troublesome as this noble animal. They pack their heavy load of corn, of which they never taste a grain; put up with any food offered them without complaint, and are always up with the wagons, and, withal, so perfectly docile and quiet that they are the admiration of the whole camp. ….(A)t this time there is not a man in camp who is not delighted with them. They are better today than when we left Camp Verde with them; especially since our men have learned, by experience, the best mode of packing them.”
The camels ate little of the forage, content instead to eat the scrub and prickly plants found along the trail. They could travel thirty to forty miles a day, go for eight to ten days without water and seemed not the slightest bit bothered by the oppressive climate. At one point the expedition became lost and was mistakenly led into an impassable canyon. The ensuing lack of grass and water for over thirty-six hours made the mules frantic. A small scouting party mounted on camels was sent out to find a trail. They found a river some twenty miles distant and led the expedition to it, literally saving the lives of both men and beasts. From then on, the camels were used to find all watering holes.
The expedition reached the Colorado River on 17 October, the last obstacle in their journey. While preparing to cross the river, Beale wrote to Floyd on the 18 October, “An important part of all of our operations has been acted by the camels. Without the aid of this noble and useful brute, many hardships which we have been spared would have fallen to our lot; and our admiration for them has increased day by day, as some new hardship, endured patiently, more fully developed their entire adaptation and usefulness in the exploration of the wilderness. At times I have thought it impossible they could stand the test to which they have been put, but they seem to have risen equal to every trial and to have come off of every exploration with as much strength as before starting…. I have subjected them to trials which no other animal could possibly have endured; and yet I have arrived here not only without the loss of a camel, but they are admitted by those who saw them in Texas to be in as good a condition as when we left San Antonio…. I believe at this time I may speak for every man in our party, when I say that there is not one of them who would not prefer the most indifferent of our camels to four of our best mules.”
On 19 October, as the expedition began to cross the Colorado, Beale was concerned about the camels getting across as he had been told they couldn’t swim. He was pleasantly surprised when the largest camel was led to the river, plunged right in fully loaded and swam across with no difficulty. The remaining camels also crossed without incident, but two horses and ten mules drowned in the attempt. Their surveying mission completed, Beale led the expedition to Fort Tejon, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, to rest and re-provision. The expedition had lasted nearly four months and covered over twelve hundred miles.
Floyd was extremely pleased with the results. He ordered Beale to bring the camels back to Camp Verde, but Beale demurred, giving the excuse that if the troops in California became involved in the “Mormon War,” the camels would prove invaluable carrying supplies. Instead, Beale moved the camels to the ranch of his business partner, Samuel A. Bishop, in the lower San Joaquin Valley. Bishop used the camels in his personal business, hauling freight to his ranch and the new town arising near Fort Tejon. During one such venture, Bishop and his men were threatened with attack by a large band of Mohave Indians. Bishop mounted his men on the camels and charged, routing the Indians. It was the only combat action using the camels and it was performed not by the U.S. Army, but by civilians.
In April 1858, Beale was ordered to survey a second route along the thirty-fifth parallel from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the Colorado River for use as a wagon road and stage line He was given the use of another twenty-five camels from Camp Verde for this expedition. It took Beale nearly a year to complete this mission and his report to Floyd again extolled the exemplary performance of the camels.
In his annual report to Congress in December 1858, Floyd enthusiastically stated, “The entire adaptation of camels to military operations on the plains may now be taken as demonstrated.” He further declared that the camel had proven its “great usefulness and superiority over the horse for all movements upon the plains or deserts” and recommended that Congress “authorize the purchase of 1,000 camels.” Congress, however, was not convinced and authorized no further funding. Undeterred, Floyd pleaded his case again in his annual report in 1859, “The experiments thus far made – and they are pretty full – demonstrate that camels constitute a most useful and economic means of transportation for men and supplies through the great desert and barren portions of our interior… An abundant supply of these animals would enable our Army to give greater and prompter protection to our frontiers and to all our interoceanic routes than three times their cost expended in another way. As a measure of economy I can not too strongly recommend the purchase of a full supply to the consideration of Congress.” Despite the abundant evidence and sound arguments Congress wouldn’t budge. Floyd tried again in 1860, but by then the clouds of civil war had Congress’ undivided attention and the idea of purchasing camels was far from their minds.
In November 1859, the Army took charge of the twenty-eight camels on Bishop’s farm and moved them to Fort Tejon. Although the animals were in rather poor physical shape, there were now three more than Beale had originally left on the ranch, demonstrating MAJ Wayne’s theory that the camels – if given the opportunity – could breed on their own. This herd remained at Fort Tejon until March 1860, when they were relocated to a rented grazing area some twelve miles from the fort. In September several camels were sent to Los Angeles to take part in the Army’s first official test of camels in California.
The test, under the command of the Assistant Quartermaster, CPT Winfield Scott Hancock, was to see if the camels could effectively be used as an express service. The camels were tested against the existing service, a two-mule buckboard, in carrying messages some three hundred miles from Camp Fitzgerald to Camp Mohave on the Colorado River. Two test runs were made and, in both, the camels died from exhaustion, leading the Army to realize what other tests had already shown, that camels were not bred for speed but for transport. Although the test proved that the “camel express” was significantly cheaper, it was no faster than the mule and buckboard service and was much harder on the camels. This was the only test they had ever failed.
A second Army experiment was run in early 1861 when four camels were assigned to accompany the Boundary Commission on their surveying expedition of the California-Nevada boundary. The expedition, hopelessly disorganized from the start, was a complete failure and nearly ended in disaster. The expedition got lost and wandered into the merciless Mojave Desert. After losing several mules and abandoning most of their equipment, it was the steadfast camels that saved the day and led the survivors to safety.
The advent of the Civil War effectively halted the camel experiment. Rebel troops occupied Camp Verde on 28 February 1861 and captured several of the remaining camels, using them to transport salt and carry mail around San Antonio. The camels suffered greatly at the hands of their captors, who had an intense dislike for the animals. They were badly mistreated, abused and a few of them were deliberately killed.
The herd near Fort Tejon, numbering thirty-one camels, was transferred to the Los Angeles Quartermaster Depot on 17 June 1861. During the next three years the camels were kept well fed and continued to breed, frequently being transferred from post to post as no one knew what else to do with them. Several recommendations to use them for mail service were proposed, but never adopted. The expense of feeding and caring for the unused animals finally became too much and, on the recommendation of the Department of the Pacific, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered them to be sold at public auction. Apparently unaware of the numerous successful tests performed with the camels, Stanton stated, “I cannot ascertain that these have ever been so employed as to be of any advantage to the Military Service, and I do not think that it will be practical to make them useful.”
On 26 February 1864, the thirty-seven camels from California were sold for $1,945, or $52.56 per camel. The surviving forty-four camels from Camp Verde were finally recovered at the end of the war. On 6 March 1866, they too were put on the auction block, bringing $1,364, or $31 per camel. The Army’s Quartermaster-General, MG Montgomery Meigs, approved the sale, stating his hopes that civilian enterprises might more successfully develop use of the camel and expressing his sincere regrets that the experiment had ended in failure.
The camels ended up in circuses, giving rides to children, running in “camel races,” living on private ranches, or working as pack animals for miners and prospectors. They became a familiar sight in California, the Southwest, Northwest, and even as far away as British Columbia, their strange appearance often drawing crowds of curious people. In 1885, as a young boy of five living at Fort Seldon, New Mexico, GEN Douglas MacArthur recalled seeing a camel: “One day a curious and frightening animal with a blobbish head, long and curving neck, and shambling legs, moseyed around the garrison…. the animal was one of the old army camels.”
Eventually, when the curiosity wore off or their new owners simply did not want or need them anymore, many of the camels were turned loose in the wild to fend for themselves. They were seen for many years afterward, wandering the deserts and plains of the Southwest. The last of the original Army camels, Topsy, was reported to have died in April 1934, at Griffith Park, Los Angeles, at the age of eighty, but accounts of camel sightings continued for decades. Although never officially designated, “U.S. Army Camel Corps,” this is how the Army’s camel experiment has been remembered. Ignored and abandoned, it was an ignominious and unfortunate end for these noble “ships of the desert.”