The United States Camel Corps was an experiment by the Army in using camels as pack animals in the Southwestern United States. Even though camels proved to be hardy and well suited to travel through the region, the Army decided not adopt them for military use. The Civil War interfered with the experiment and it was eventually abandoned and the animals were sold at auction.
In the 1830s westward expansion was being severely hindered by the inhospitable terrain and climate faced by pioneers and settlers. The arid deserts, mountain and impassable rivers were proving to be an almost insurmountable obstacle for both men and animals.
As a result, in 1836, Army Lt. George H. Crosman got the an idea and with the able assistance of a friend, E. H. Miller, they made a study and sent a report on their findings to Washington suggesting that camels and dromedaries (Arabian camels) could be used owing to their endurance and ability to suffer privation of food, water and rest. They also possessed a good speed.
The camels could carry seven to nine hundred pounds each and travel from thirty to forty miles a day, for many days in succession. They could go without water and just a little food for six or eight days, or maybe even longer. Plus, they could travel over all kinds of terrain and they didn’t need shoes. As often happens in the military the report was disregarded by some desk jockey officer the War Department.
Later, Major Henry C. Wayne, an officer in the Quartermaster Department was an advocate for the Army’s use of camels, but he resigned from the Army in December 1860 and was later commissioned a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. Consequently the idea of using camels lay dormant until 1847 when Crosman, now a Major, met Major Henry C. Wayne of the Quartermaster Department, another camel enthusiast.
Wayne submitted a report to the War Department and Congress recommending the government importation of camels. The report caught the attention of Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who thought it was a great idea.
Davis was chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs and tried for several years to get undoing for the project, but couldn’t. When Davis was appointed Secretary of War in 1852 he present the idea to President Franklin Pierce and Congress.
Finally in March of 1855, Congress allocated $30,000 and directed the War Department to purchase camels and dromedaries to be used for military purposes..
In May 1855, Major Wayne headed up two expeditions to acquire camels. A Navy ship was specially outfitted to handle it cargo of camels so that they could be loaded and transported in comfort and safety.
After a lot of difficulties finding suitable animals and obtaining export permits, the expedition finally acquired through purchase and as gifts a sufficient number of camels. In all, they obtained 33 animals: nineteen females and fourteen males which included two two-humped and 19 one-humped. The cost averaged around $250 per animal, and most were in good condition. The expedition also hired five Arabs and Turks to help care for the animals during the voyage and act as drovers when they reached America. On 15 February 1856, the expedition headed home.
Weather conditions turned out to be horrendous with storms and dales, but the camels survived an on May 14 they were unloaded at Indianola, Texas. During the voyage one male camel had died, but six calves were born, of which two had survived the trip.
After letting the camels rest they were driven 120 miles to San Antonio and in a couple of months they were moved some sixty miles northwest to Camp Verde which would be the camels home for many years.
As a test Major Wayne 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. Not to be outdone, the six camels carried 3,648 pounds of oats and made the trip in two days. Several other tests also demonstrated that when it came to transporting goods, the camels were superior to horses and mules.
Major Wayne worked with drovers and soldiers to accustom them to the camels and vice versa. They learned how to care for and feed the animals, manage the camel saddles, properly pack the animals and 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. They can kick, bite or stomp an antagonist to death.
Camels, which chew a cud, when annoyed would often spit a large, gelatinous, foul smelling mass of cud at its detractor.
Camels also have a somewhat pungent smell that while wasn’t worse than a mule, horse or smelly, sweaty man, smell differently and their odor had a tendency to frighten horses unfamiliar with it.
In January 1857, an additional forty-one camels arrived at Camp Verde. The in March 1857, James Buchanan became president and several personnel changes were made which adversely affected the camel experiment.
In the meantime, some 60,000 citizens partitioned for a road to link up the eastern territories with those of the far west and Congress authorized a contract to survey and build a wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory, to the Colorado River on the California/Arizona border.
The contract was won by Edward Beale, a former Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California and Nevada who held the rank of Brigadier General in the California militia.
After Beale accepted the contract that he learned of the Secretary of War’s special conditions...he had to take twenty-five of the camels with him on the surveying expedition. Beale protested vehemently, but finally consented.
At the end of June 1857, the surveying expedition departed for Fort Defiance with 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 moved slower than the horses and mules and were usually hours late reaching camp, but by the second week the camels were doing better. Beale attributed the camel’s slow start to their months of lollygagging around Camp Verde. Once back in shape the camels
out-distanced both horses and mules, packing a 700 pound load at a steady speed and traversing ground that caused the horses and mules to balk. The camel’s performance convinced Beale that the experiment was a huge success. All totaled the expedition had lasted nearly four months and covered over twelve hundred miles.
Beale was ordered to bring the camels back to Camp Verde, but he refused giving the excuse that if the troops in California became involved in the “Mormon War,” the camels would be needed to carry supplies.
And so 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 trip 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 from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the Colorado River for use as a wagon road and stage line and for that he also used camels. It took Beale nearly a year to complete this mission and again the camel’s performance was outstanding.
In December 1858, it was declared in a report to Congress that the camel had proven its great usefulness and superiority over the horse for all movements upon the plains or deserts and it was recommended that Congress authorize the purchase of 1,000 camels.
Unconvinced and despite the abundant evidence and sound arguments Congress wouldn’t budge and authorized no further funding. Another try was made in 1860, but with the Civil War looming the idea of purchasing camels was not a priority.
There were a couple of more experiments with camels, but advent of the Civil War halted the camel experiment. Rebel troops occupied Camp Verde in February 1861 and captured several of the remaining camels, using them for transport around the San Antonio. Area. Unfortunately the Confederate troops didn’t like the camels and badly mistreated, abused and deliberately killed them.
The herd of thirty-one camels in California was transferred to the Los Angeles Quartermaster Depot in June 1861 and during the next three years 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.
Thus, in February 1864, 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 and in March 1866, they too were put on the auction block, bringing $1,364, or $31 per camel.
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.
In 1885, as a young boy of five living at Fort Seldon, New Mexico a young 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 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.