A Brief History
On June 4, 1855, Major Henry C. Wayne got on board the USS Supply in New York Harbor and headed to the Mediterranean Sea to procure camels (29 of the Dromedary or one-hump variety and 2 of the Bactrian or two-hump kind) for use by the US Army in the Western United States. In 1848, Wayne had conducted a more detailed follow-up study to the 1836 report submitted to the Army by Major George Crossman who had recommended the US Army acquire camels as pack animals for hot weather environments. These reports and recommendations went nowhere until Jefferson Davis, an enthusiastic proponent of the idea of camels in the Army (yes, the guy that would be the President of the Confederate States of America) became Secretary of War in 1853 and convinced Congress to authorize $30,000 to start an Army camel unit. Thus, the US Camel Corps was established and remained an active unit until disbanding in 1866.
Major Wayne and the USS Supply traveled around the Mediterranean to buy camels, stopping and shopping in Tunisia, Malta, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. Along with the 31 adult camels acquired was an additional Dromedary calf and a “Booghdee,” a cross-breed of a female Dromedary and a male Bactrian camel, for a total of 33 of the humpy ships of the desert. Under the assumption that proper saddles and packs for use with camels were not available in the United States, those items were also purchased.
Lacking expertise in the care and handling of the large beasts, Major Wayne also procured the services of 5 (Arab and Turkish) camel drivers, setting sail for Texas with the entire troupe in February of 1856.
The 3 month voyage back to Texas saw the death of one of the male camels, but while en route 2 calves were born, so Major Wayne returned with a “plus one” on his camel tally. Pleased by the excellent health of the camel herd Wayne had returned with, Davis sent the USS Supply back to Egypt in 1857 to acquire another 41 camels. During this second camel buying voyage, 5 of the first herd died, so when the new herd was joined to the original camels, the US Army was the proud owner of 70 camels. Wayne intended to go about establishing a breeding program, but Davis’s desire to field test the viability of using camels by the Army in the United States superseded the breeding idea.
The initial practical use of the Camel Corps was when 25 camels were detailed as pack animals to a road building expedition in Texas and New Mexico (Territory). Each camel was required to carry a 600 pound load, and the critters performed admirably. So impressed was the Army that Congress authorized another 1000 camels to be purchased! Further tests found heavily laden camels could carry their loads through the desert without water for 4 days and cover up to over 100 miles. On one such trek, a camel was bitten by a rattlesnake, but showed no ill effect. The camels fared better than the pack mules and horses on the same treks. The Camel Corps continued successful operations in the arid Southwestern United States until the American Civil War became the most pressing distraction for the US Army as of 1860 and 1861. Interest in the Camel Corps waned as the titanic battles raged across the country.
After the Civil War, the Camel Corps was disbanded, most of the camels having been auctioned off in 1864. The last known surviving camels of Army heritage were known to be alive in 1891. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army acquired about 80 US Army camels when the CSA forces seized Camp Verde, Texas in 1861. No record of military use of the camels by the Confederates is known. The fact that Jefferson Davis, the Civil War era President of the Confederate States of America, had been the key proponent of the Army’s use of camels was considered persona non grata by the Union probably had a major role to play in the decision to abandon the camel program. Another problem for the US Army’s use of camels was the distinct lack of experience with the handling and employment of the animals. The 5 camel drivers brought back to provide expertise probably should have been increased several fold.
The US Army’s journey into the realm of using camels in a military application has been relegated to cultural references, sometimes depicted in books, movies or television shows. The bones of one of the male camels are on display at the Smithsonian Institution. What do you think of the US Army’s efforts to use camels? Good idea or waste of time? If you have any insight or knowledge of interesting events concerning the Camel Corps, please share them with us.
Anonymous Quotation: “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.”
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For more information, please see…
Faulk, Odie. The U.S. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment. Oxford Univ Press, 1976.
Johnson, Forrest. The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment. Dutton Caliber, 2013.