Five Thousand Miles for a Camel


In the annals of the US Army, are recorded many strange and eccentric schemes, but none quite equals the notion of a Camel Corps for sheer daft logic. It was the sort of idea which a clever young officer would come up with, upon considering vast tracts of the southwest which the United States had acquired in the 1840s.  The country was desert - what better animal to use than one which had already been used for thousands of years in deserts elsewhere?

As a matter of recorded history it was 2nd Lt. George Crossman who first raised the matter seriously. One senses that this notion had people falling about laughing, and then slapping themselves on the forehead with a strange gleam in their eyes and exclaiming, "By George, it's a crazy idea... but it just might work!"

Other forward-thinking military men kicked the idea around; it had the backing of a senator from Mississippi, who sat on the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. But Jefferson Davis was not in a position to make it happen until he became Secretary of War in 1852. Congress appropriated $30,000 for the purpose, and a designated ship set sail for the Mediterranean. Thirty-three camels were purchased in Egypt, and the officer assigned to the project, Major Henry Wayne also hired five camel drovers to care for them.

The camels arrived at the port of Indianola, numbering thirty-four, since one was a pregnant female. This was a promising beginning to the project, which would be headquartered at Camp Verde. At a stopover in Victoria, the camels were clipped and a local woman spun yarn and knitted a pair of socks for the President of the US out of the clippings. Once established, the camels transported supplies and astounded skeptics by easily carrying four times what a single mule would bear.  They were used for an expedition to the Big Bend, and late in 1857, Edward F. Beale took 25 camels and two drivers on a long scout to explore the southwest along the 35th parallel. The camels performed heroically and were used for a time to transport supplies from Fort Tejon.

The project might have come to something but for the Civil War. As draft animals, camels were even less cooperative than mules. They spat, stank to high heaven, scared the living daylights out of horses and mules, and did not endear themselves to Army muleteers.  The California herd was sold to small enterprises and circus, or allowed to wander away. Those camels and their descendents who escaped into the desert were spotted fleetingly for decades afterwards.  The Texas herd was also sold off or left to wander. One of Major Wayne's drovers,  Hi Jolly eventually took a small herd of  camels sold as surplus after the Civil War to the Arizona territory and used them to haul water for a time, before turning them loose. Another drover eventually ended his days as a general handyman in the town of Comfort, Texas. So passed the end of an experiment, although there are scattered markers and monuments all through the Southwest, and a group of re-enactors, dedicated to reliving the improbable glory days of the US Army Camel Corps.