THE US ARMY CAMEL CORPS
Compiled By Ellen Jacobs 1996
Edited by Floyd Farrar, Drum Volunteer August 2001
For several years before the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States Army conducted an experiment using camels as pack animals in the Southwest. This desert region's punishing climate and terrain took a terrible toll on the horses and mules upon which the Army had always depended. The suggestion that camels might fare better than these traditionally used mounts under desert conditions was met with ridicule and opposition by some, but with eager interest by others. Read on and learn the story of this fascinating and little known episode in U.S. military history.
Selling The Idea
It was George H. Crosman, a U.S. Army second lieutenant who fought in the Seminole wars in Florida , who first proposed the introduction of camels to America . His argument, articulated here by his friend and fellow camel enthusiast E. F. Miller of Ipswich , Massachusetts , was:
For strength in carrying burdens, for patient endurance of labor, and privation of food, water & rest, and in some respects for speed also, the camel and dromedary (as the Arabian camel is called) are unrivaled among animals. The ordinary loads for camels are from seven to nine to ten hundred pounds each, and with these they can travel from thirty to forty miles per 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 & hilly paths, and they require no shoeing...
Reasonable though this was, no one in Washington took Crosman seriously, until he befriended Henry C. Wayne, a Quartermaster, and fellow major (Crosman had been promoted several times by then). Wayne was able to convince Jefferson Davis, a senator from Mississippi , that the Army should give camels a trial.
In his capacity as chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Davis regularly advocated for the importation of camels on an experimental basis, but to no avail. It wasn't until Davis was appointed Secretary of War in 1852 that he was able to make an official recommendation on the subject of camels. Even then, it took another three years, during which time the matter was much discussed in the press, before the government took action. On March 3, 1855 Congress appropriated $30,000 for the project, and the stage was set for the birth of the U.S. Camel Corps.
Getting The Camels
The ship USS Supply, with Lieutenant David Dixon Porter in command, set sail from New York on June 3, 1855 . Aboard was Major Henry C. Wayne, charged by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis with the responsibility of procuring camels for the U.S. Army.
Upon arriving in the North African City of Tunis Wayne and Porter were so anxious to purchase camels, and so inexperienced, that they bought the first beast offered to them, which turned out to be sickly. They vowed to do better next time, but found that healthy camels were difficult to find. There was war in the Crimea , and most of the camels were there, carrying troops and supplies. They sailed again, for Malta , Greece , and Turkey , but had little luck in locating healthy animals.
They were, however, learning about the camel trade. They learned that Arabians(one-humped camels native to the Middle East ) were best for riding, while Bactrians(two-humped Asian camels) were best for carrying loads. They also learned how to avoid sick animals, and that camel dealers sometimes artificially inflated a sick camel's hump to give it a false appearance of plump good health.
At last, in Egypt , they discovered a plentiful supply of camels, but government regulations forbade them being taken from the country. Many bribes and negotiations later, the USS Supply headed for home with 33 camels and five camel-drovers who had been hired to care for the animals en route, and to educate American soldiers about the animals when they arrived.
The two-month trip home was far from smooth. There were storms at sea, during which the camels had to be lashed down in a kneeling position to prevent injuries. Also, the camel-drovers proved lax, and neglected their charges. Eventually, however, on April 29, 1856 , the Supply and its crew arrived at the port of Indianola , TX with 34 camels–one more than they had started with.
Camels Vs. Mules And Men On U.S. Soil
Once on dry land, the camels were given several weeks of rest before being taken to their permanent base at Camp Verde , 60 miles west of San Antonio . During this time, they were used only occasionally to carry supplies from town. Major Wayne enjoyed astonishing the locals by loading a camel with 4 bales of hay (weighing over 1,200 pounds, about four times what a mule could carry) and having it rise, grumbling and groaning for effect, but otherwise unconcerned, and walk away, hardly aware of its burden.
Soon the camels took up residence at Camp Verde , and Wayne sent very favorable reports about them to Secretary of War Davis. However, Wayne and Davis had a falling out over whether or not to breed the animals ( Davis was against it) and eventually, in frustration, Wayne requested a transfer. A series of leadership changes followed; during which time the camels were put to little use. However, in June of 1857, the Camel Corps was assigned to survey the unexplored territory between El Paso and the Colorado River . The party, led by Edward Fitzgerald Beale, consisted of 25 camels, 44 soldiers, 2 camel-drovers (Greek George and Hadji Ali, whose name had been anglicized to Hi Jolly), and numerous horses and mules. At first, the camels did not meet Beale's high expectations, and often arrived in camp hours later than the horses and mules. But after a few days on the march, they hardened to their task, and soon outstripped the other animals, often leading over terrain where mules and horses balked.
More importantly, the camels proved their mettle when the expedition became lost and its water supplies dwindled. Only the camels were fit to go on. They found a river 20 miles from camp, and led the expedition to it, then looked on with indifference as men, mules, and horses gulped the water they were desperate for. Triumphantly, the Camel Corps pushed on to the Colorado River , its mission a success. The camels had won over the skeptics among the party. There were others in Washington however, who had not seen the beasts in action, and who remained unconvinced of their worth.
The Fate Of The Camels
When James Buchanan took office as President in 1857, he appointed a new Secretary of War, John B. Floyd. Although Floyd himself was a proponent of the Camel Corps, his commander of the Army in Texas , Major General David E. Twiggs, was not. In fact, Twiggs, "was outraged when he discovered a herd of camels under his command" (Yancey, p. 47). Though he admitted that he knew little of camels or of their potential fitness for military use, Twiggs's hatred of them was intense, and he barraged his superior with letters of complaint.
The camels were also unpopular among some of the soldiers who worked with them. Some found the beasts bad tempered, and claimed that they held grudges against those who ill-treated them, waiting for a chance to exact revenge by kicking or spitting on their enemies. The camels' smell was also a bone of contention, as it was unpleasant to men, and caused panic and stampeding among domestic animals unfamiliar with the strong odor.
In addition, the camels, though they performed splendidly when required, were not used often. Apart from carrying supplies, and making occasional surveying trips, the camels didn't do much, and were seen by some as a financial drain that brought little return.
By 1860, the nation's mind was on the imminent Civil War, and the camels were all but forgotten. In the course of the War, the Camp Verde herd was little used by the Confederate forces who were in charge there. The same was true of the camels that had remained in California after the Beale expedition: they were cared for, but seldom put to use. In November of 1863, the California herd was put up for public sale. Camels were sold to zoos, circuses, mining companies, and a few individuals, such as Edward F. Beale, who allowed his camels to live out their lives in comfort on his ranch. The Texas herd was auctioned off in 1865, though some of the camels sold were later reclaimed as stolen property by the government, which promptly released them into the desert. The short, colorful career of the U.S. Camel Corps had come to an end.
WHAT BECAME OF THEM?
THE LEGEND: Phantom Camels And Others
For years after the dissolution of the U.S. Camel Corps, camels wandered at will across the American desert. Bactrians, who had been bought and later set loose by a mining concern in British Columbia , drifted south to Nevada and Idaho . Many Arabians roamed through Texas , California , and Arizona . Although the last authenticated sightings of camels in the wild occurred in the early years of this century, there are locals who claim that the beasts thrive in remote areas to this day.
Among the many legends that arose concerning these animal army veterans who had been released to fend for themselves, none was more intriguing than the tale of the camel known as the Red Ghost. The first incident occurred in 1883, when a woman was discovered trampled by some beast, which left clumps of its reddish fur in a nearby thorn bush and huge hoof prints in the mud. Several days later, a large, unidentifiable animal careered wildly into a tent in which two miners lay sleeping. It too left behind hoof prints twice the size of those left by horses, and strands of red fur. More sightings occurred, and eventually the creature was recognized as a camel. A rancher reported that the animal carried a rider, and that the rider did not appear to be alive. This claim was proved when the beast was next seen, by a group of prospectors, who saw something fall from its back and roll away into the dust. The prospectors eagerly retrieved this object, which turned out to be a human skull.
The Red Ghost and its now headless rider continued to terrorize the populace for the next decade. It was finally killed in 1893 by an Arizona farmer, who caught the huge red camel grazing in his vegetable patch one morning. When examined, it was found that the animal had at last shaken free of its grisly rider, though it still bore the leather straps with which the corpse had been attached. Who was the mysterious rider? How did he come to be tied to the camel, and why? No one knows but the Red Ghost, whose unwanted burden eventually drove him on to madness and death.
U.S. Camel Corps remembered in Quartzsite, Arizona
by Chuck Woodbury editor, Out West
From Out West #18 ©2000 by Out West Newspaper
One of the most interesting military experiments of the American West involved 77 camels and a Syrian named Hi Jolly. His real name was Hadji Ali, and he's remembered today at a pyramid-shaped monument in the Quartzsite
Honored at Hi Jolly's grave in Quartzsite.cemetery.
With the first shots of the Civil War, the Camel Military Corps was as good as dead. Most of the animals were auctioned off, although a few escaped into the desert where most were shot by prospectors and hunters as pests.
Hi Jolly kept a few and started a freighting business between the Colorado River ports and mining camps to the east. The business failed, however, and Jolly released his last camel in the desert near Gila Bend. Years later, after marrying a Tucson woman and fathering two children, Hi Jolly moved to Quartzsite where he mined with a burro. He died in 1902 at age 73 and was buried in the Quartzsite Cemetery . To his dying day, Hi Jolly believed that a few of the camels still roamed the desert. Some people think the ghosts of some still do.
Pictured above is a monument to Hi Jolly and the U.S. Camel Corps
Bibliography f>rom Web site: ©Ellen Jacobs 1996 firstname.lastname@example.org
Faulk, Odie B.The U.S. Camel Corps: an army experiment, Oxford University Press, New York , NY , 1976
Fowler, Harlan D . Camels to California ; a chapter in western transportation, Stanford University Press, Stanford , CA , 1950
Froman, Robert."The Red Ghost," American Heritage, XII (April 1961), pp. 35-37 and 94-98
Gauthiers-Pilters, Hilde and Anne Innis Dagg . The Camel: its evolution, ecology, behavior, and relationship to man, University of Chicago Press , Chicago , IL , 1981
Lesley, Lewis Burt ( ed.). Uncle Sam's Camels: the journal of May Humphreys Stacey supplemented by the report of Edward Fitzgerald Beale, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1929
Yancey, Diane. Camels for Uncle Sam , Hendrick-Long Publishing Co., Dallas , TX , 1995
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