The Mexican-American War had significant consequences for the North American continent. In defeating Mexico, the US overtook 500,000 square miles of land, stretching from the Rio Grande to the Pacific Ocean, from Colorado to California.
Mexico’s capitulation allowed for the US to expand its territory by 33 percent. America earned key strategic benefits–access to the Pacific, weakening a neighbor, and increased natural resources. But the new territory also meant logistical challenges: US forces now had to traverse (and protect) some of the world’s most treacherous, impassable terrain–the American Southwest.
US troops and pack animals struggled under the burden of heat and thirst, and distance in the newly acquired land. Soaring peaks, scorching deserts, and raging rivers subdued US forces. President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War believed he had the solution: camels.
The idea–using camels in the US military–may seem odd. But camels have a long history of military application. Camels, which are better suited to arid, waterless environments than horses, have been a fixture throughout Middle Eastern warfare. The first recorded military use of camels occurred nearly three thousand years before the US was founded when the Arab king Gindibu used 1000 camels at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC. Persian armies used camels to counter the horses of the Lydian kingdom. Reportedly, the appearance and smell of the Persian camels panicked the Lydian horses. King Xerxes I mounted mercenaries with bow and arrow atop camels when he invaded Greece. The Parthian Empire employed heavily-armored, spear-wielding, camelbacked soldiers. The Roman Empire used camels. So did Muhammed. And Napoleon. The Ottoman Army kept camels through World War I. And today, the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea still uses camels for reconnaissance duties.
Despite a rich precedent of military camels, the concept was obscure in 19th century America. But West Point graduate Major George H. Crosman was convinced that camels would aid US forces. In 1836, he submitted a detailed study advocating for the creation of a US Camel Corps.
“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 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,” Crosman wrote.
Despite the merits of Crosman’s argument, his camel idea went nowhere. Then, in 1847, Crosman met Henry C. Wayne, and camels got their shot.
Crosman finally found a receptive audience in Wayne, a fellow US Army officer (and later inspector-general for the Confederacy). Wayne conducted his own camel study, concluding that camels were indeed worth attaining. He submitted his new report to the War Department and Congress. Wayne’s report was mostly disregarded, failing to catch on with members of Congress. One Senator took notice, however. A Democrat from Mississippi: Jefferson Davis.
When Wayne’s report landed, Davis was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. Davis was impressed. He spent years lobbying for a US Camel Corps without success. Congress was not interested in camels. But in 1853, Davis was elevated to Secretary of War (by fellow Mississippian President Franklin Pierce). Davis assumed the office with his camel ambitions intact. Now, with Davis’ improved clout (and direct access to the President’s ear), his camel initiative gained traction. US forces were still struggling to navigate the arid, scorching southwest territory. Davis’s 1854 annual report to Congress proposed a solution.
“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.”
Congress agreed. Davis was given $30,000 for the “purchase and importation of camels and dromedaries to be employed for military purposes.”
Funds in hand, Davis went about securing his camels. In May 1855, Davis appointed Wayne to lead a camel procurement expedition.
The USS Supply, a Navy store ship, was provided to the expedition. To accommodate camel transportation, the Supply 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” Vince Hawkins writes for Army History.
The retrofitted Supply embarked on a voyage that lasted several months. Docking in Tunisia, Italy, Malta, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, the expedition had trouble acquiring appropriate camels. “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,” Hawkins writes. Ultimately, Wayne’s expedition procured 33 camels of various species (a second expedition procured 41 more). Among the procured were Arabian dromedaries, celebrated for their speed, and Bactrians praised for their strength. The expedition spent an average of $250 per camel. Most were in good condition. Five Arabic and Turkish camel experts were also hired to accompany the animals to provide care should the need arise. Their expertise, as it turned out, would be needed.
The camels arrived in Texas on May 14, 1856, and were stationed at Camp Verde. The camels required several months to adjust to their new environment. And the American handlers needed several months to adjust to the camels, too, learning “how to deal with the camel’s mannerisms and temperament,” Hawkins writes. “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.”
Once acclimatized, the US Army camels were subject to the rigors of Secretary Davis’s inquiry, “to ascertain whether the animal is adapted to military service, and can be economically and usefully employed therein.”
Field tests were devised to test the camels relative to the Army’s existing mules and horses. In one test, a team of camels were set to race against a team of mules from San Antonio to Camp Verde, carrying 1,800 pounds of oats. The mules needed five days for the journey. The camels, only two.
Through repeated testing, the strength of the camels was apparent. In his 1857 annual report, Secretary Davis attests: “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.”
In 1857, the Army camels were subjected to their most demanding trial yet.
When 60,000 US citizens petitioned for a roadway linking the eastern territories with the newly acquired western territories, “Congress authorized a contract to survey and build a road along the 35th parallel from Fort Defiance, New Mexico to the Colorado River on the California/Arizona border,” Hawkins writes.
The contract was awarded to Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a brigadier general in the California militia. After accepting the contract, Beale was informed of special conditions: he must take 25 US Army camels on his expedition. Beale was adamantly opposed to including the foreign beasts. Despite repeated protests, Beale finally relented. He would take the camels.
In the desert, in the summer, the camels impressed. Beale’s annoyance gave way to awe. A total convert, he raved: “It gives me great pleasure to report the entire success of the expedition with the camels so far as I have tried it…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 traveling with pack mules.”
The entire expedition was enamored with their 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…so perfectly docile and quiet that they are the admiration of the whole camp. At this time, there is not a man in camp who is not delighted with them.”
Beale’s expedition arrived at the Colorado River on October 17. Crossing the river was the journey’s final obstacle.
Before crossing, Beale took a moment to reflect on his camels’ performance, “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. 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.”
The next day, every camel forded the river successfully. Two horses and ten mules drowned.
Beale’s emphatic report landed with the new Secretary of War, John B. Floyd (who had replaced Davis once President Buchanan assumed office). Floyd, convinced with Beale’s assessment, recommended that Congress “authorize the purchase of 1,000 camels” because of the camels’ “great usefulness and superiority over the horses for all movements upon the plains or deserts.”
Congress didn’t budge.
Floyd tried again, “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 [of camels] to the consideration of Congress.” Again, Congress did not budge. The Civil War was brewing. Camels were not a priority.
A few more tests were conducted, but mostly, the “Camel Corps” faded into an afterthought. When Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, the camel experiment was functionally over. Camp Verde fell to the Confederacy on February 28, 1861. Rebel troops “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,” Hawkins writes.
The camels who had come west with Beale’s expedition remained in California. Eventually, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, ordered the camels sold at public auction. Somehow, Stanton was unaware that the camels had ever been successfully tested. He wrote, “I cannot ascertain that these [camels] 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.”
The camels were sold off on February 26, 1864, at an average price of $52. As civilian entities, the camels were put to work “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,” Hawkins writes.
One such curious person was a five-year-old boy living at Fort Seldon, New Mexico, in 1855–Douglas MacArthur. Years later, he recalled: “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.”
Many of the camels were eventually released into the wild. “They were seen for many years afterward, wandering the deserts and plains of the Southwest,” Hawkins writes. The last surviving Army camel was Topsy, who reportedly died in Los Angeles in 1934, aged 80. Yet, “accounts of camel sightings continued for decades.”
The Army camels performed admirably, deserving better. Perhaps, under different circumstances, the camels would have become a mainstay of the US military, rather than an oddity, left to wander the American deserts, forgotten.
Follow and connect with author Harrison Kass on Twitter:@harrison_kass