What was the U.S. Camel Corp?
By Roberta Sherer
Aransas County History Center, Lifetime member
Camels are not animals associated with the United States. This is a cold case mystery of a forgotten area of our Western plains. The camel saga began in the early part of 19th century. America had obtained land in the southwest which was desert, scarce water, and mountains. It was not a place mules, horses or man could exist. Yet, there was land to explore and adventures to be had.
In 1836, Major George Crosman suggested camels from the Middle East deserts be purchased for Western exploration. No one listened to this preposterous idea. A Mississippi U.S. senator, Jefferson (Jeff) Davis - the future Confederate President - liked the idea. He and Major Henry Wayne made a proposal to the 1849 Congress. It was denied.
President Franklin Pierce in 1853 appointed Jeff Davis Secretary of War. The Secretary was building forts in the West for settlers’ protection from hostile Indians; to promote communication; and to aid in transportation of goods to the Western territories. So the camel issue was again proposed. Finally, on March 3, 1855, Congress appropriated $30,000 to the War Department for the purchase and importation of camels for military purposes. The U.S. Camel Corps was official after 19 years in the making.
Secretary Davis dispatched Major Henry Wayne from the Quartermaster’s Department and Lt. David Porter, Naval Officer, on an exotic voyage to the Middle East – Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, and Malta. They purchased 34 camels (one died and one was born) and hired five handlers on their tour. The return trip took nine months and a special deck was built for the camels to be comfortable and safe.
The Navy ship, Supply, arrived in Indianola, TX, on May 14, 1856. The herd had been housed in tight quarters so when the camels were unloaded, they went berserk: kicking, bellowing, and running. This behavior scared the mules, horses, and people. After the camels got their land legs, they calmed.
From Indianola the animals marched to Camp Verde - 60 miles southwest of San Antonio. This would be the headquarters of the U.S. Army Camel Corps. Thus, the “Camel Experiment” began. A Naval officer, Lt. Edward Beale, was the commander of the camel team. Lt. Beale was ordered to survey a route from Ft. Defiance, NM, to eastern California, which involved crossing a lot of desert terrain. This route would later become the famous Route 66 - “Get your kicks on Route 66”.
Off went the horses, mules, and camel teams: they were in a competition to see who could go the distance to Ft. Defiance. At first the camels could not keep up with the others; then they adapted to the environment and left the others in the dust. The “ships of the desert” carried 600-plus pounds of salt, mail, and goods; be without water for days; and eat Texas cedar and creosote bush which other animals would not consume. They could out distance horses, especially the Dromedaries, which are the swift Arabian camels with one hump. The Bactrian Camels have two humps and carried heavy loads; however, they were not as fast as the former. The Dromedary went 90 miles in two days while horses took four days.
Beale submitted a positive camel report to Congress. The camel experiment was a success. There was a new Secretary of War who made a recommendation to Congress to import 1,000 more camels. Timing was wrong, the civil war was looming. Congress had no time for camels.
Camp Verde was taken by the Confederacy and they had no clue how to deal with the beasts. Camels were considered nasty, uncooperative, and mean. Another criticism was their hooves were not suited for the rough terrain. Yet during the Civil War, the Confederates used the camels to carry cotton to Mexico in exchange for supplies and money.
Douglas, a camel, was treated as a pet by Company A of the 43rd Mississippi Confederate Infantry. Douglas was their mascot for the regimental band and carried instruments/knapsacks. He served in the 1862 siege of Vicksburg. A Northern soldier intentionally shot and killed Douglas. The 43rd retaliated and killed the culprit. Douglas was buried in a military cemetery