It all started with an order that no one really saw coming, “Sir: [you are] assigned to special duty in connection with the appropriation for importing camels for army transportation and for other military purposes.” It was a message written and sent by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to Brevet Major Henry C. Wayne on May 10, 1855. Thus, the beginning of the attempt of the United States to establish the US Camel Corps.
Strength in Carrying Burdens
In the 1830s, the expansion of the United States to the west was hindered by the inaccessible terrain and climate encountered by the settlers and pioneers, specifically in the southwest with arid deserts, mountain peaks, and impassable rivers. That’s why in 1836, US Army LT George H. Crosman came up with an idea,
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…
His idea was disregarded, as it was just a suggestion until, in 1847, Crosman met with Major Henry Wayne, and the two of them joined forces to push and get government support for the implementation of the Camel Corps. Another supporter of the camel movement was Jefferson Davis. Still, although he was a chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, he didn’t have enough influence to get the necessary approval and funds for the said project. In 1852, he was appointed Secretary of War, and only then was he able to present the idea of importing camels to President Franklin Pierce and Congress. It took another two years for them to agree on the establishment of the Camel Corps, and they allotted $30,000 to buy and test a small camel herd.
And so, the quest to establish the Camel Corps began. In June 1855, Wayne left New York City and boarded the USS Supply under Lieutenant David Dixon Porter.
They crossed the Atlantic and made their stops in Malta, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, managing to secure a total of 33 camels. The two were happy with the number of animals they purchased and sailed back to the United States on February 11, 1856.
After surviving the stormy weather, they safely made it back home and reached Indianola, Texas, on May 14, 1856. One of the male camels died, but six calves were born— two of which survived the travel. After the 34 camels they got, Davis ordered Porter back to Egypt to buy more camels. By February 1857, the US Army had a total of 70 camels.
During the time that Porter was on his trip to acquire more camels, the first 34 were already put on to the test to measure their strength. The army wanted to see the capabilities of these camels in combat as we all their potential as transportation. Although their transporting capabilities were better than ox and horses in the desert, it was clear that the camels were not suitable for the combat style of the US cavalry.
The camels were also found to require huge amounts of care. If not, they’d develop mange, which would infect other camels, too. Army veterinarians were wholly unfamiliar with the animals as well.
Camels were found not to run as fast as a horse but could lope a much longer distance. It was also found that horses cavalry and camel calvary had to be carefully separated. The camels absolutely terrified the horses which would bolt uncontrollably whenever the camels came anywhere near them.
Another issue that arose was the temperamental nature of camels when it came to their handlers. Even when the animals are generally docile, they could be very incredibly stubborn, and it was common for them to vomit on the troops trying to discipline them for their stubbornness. Unlike horses, mules, and donkeys that could be “broken” to passivity, Camels were much harder to break. When annoyed, they might kick, headbutt, or even viciously bite their handlers. Those soldiers riding the camel would also often complain of motion sickness, that persisted for days. Needless to say, having sick and dehydrated camel troopers arriving at a battle would not be a good thing. Cavalrymen in that time were selected for height and weight, the less the better. Most troopers weighed less than 150 lbs to not overburden their mounts. The same was true of camel riders, they were pretty small guys trying to manage a beast that stood as tall as 7 ft and weighed in at 1,500 lbs. The taller stance of the camel also meant that falling off or being thrown from one greatly increased the chance of being seriously injured. Because of where the saddle was placed and the position of the rider, the most common fall was forward over the neck of the camel and then under its hooves. That is not a good way to fall at all.
When James Buchanan became the president of the US in March 1857, he made several changes that affected the Camel Corps experiment. Davis was replaced as Secretary of War by John B. Floyd, while Wayne was transferred back to the Quartermaster Department in Washington.
End of the Camel Corps
The main supporters of the corps were gone, but Floyd was still there, and he believed that the Camel Corps was still a worthwhile project. He ordered a survey of a wagon road from where the camels were stationed in Camp Verde to Fort Defiance, New Mexico, on the Colorado River. Twenty-five of the camels were sent.
The camel party arrived at Fort Defiance in August 1857, proving their capabilities in terms of transportation. Each of them managed to carry a load of 600 pounds, greatly outperforming the horses and oxen on their party. Thus, camels continued to be part of organized expeditions in the years leading up to the Civil War. When the war broke out, these camels were to be used in carrying mail between Fort Mohave and New San Pedro (New Mexico Territory to California), but with no success. They were also used in transporting animals, but it was only partially successful.
After the Civil War, the camels were sold off at auctions and ended up in circuses, running in camel races, working as pack animals for miners and prospectors, or living on private ranches.