By: Shotgun Blasts
August 1, 2015
Yes folks there was a time when the “ship of the desert” did in fact become the “HumVee” of our United States Army. It all began in 1843 when Capt. Geo. Crosman published a report to the U.S. Army encouraging the use of camels as transportation. The treatment of his study was typical, it was ignored. In 1848 his suggestion was augmented by that of Major Henry Wayne and got the attention of Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.
Davis attempted to promote the program but was unsuccessful until appointed Sec. of War in 1853. When U.S. forces were required to operate in arid desert regions, the President and Congress began to seriously consider the proposal. In 1855 Davis dispatched a delegation from the U.S. Army to the Middle East to observe and report on the practicality of using camels in the American desert areas.
The officers reported observing camels being used in every environment from the Sahara to the Alps. The loads that they carried would crush even the biggest mules and they were capable of traveling between waterholes in the deserts that would leave horses or mules dead of thirst. Camels were well suited for the American Southwest. Davis authorized the purchase of 30 camels and their transport to the U.S.
It soon became apparent that within the delegation none of the officers or men were competent to handle camels. That, of course, meant that a number of camel-handlers must be employed. They included Christian Syrians and Lebanese as well as Muslem Arabs…
While at sea between the Middle East and Powderhorn, Texas one of the camels gave birth so the expedition arrived with one more camel than it left with. Just after landing, an important discovery was made. Camels frightened horses.
Some considered this to be a mixed blessing because although U.S. horses and mules would have to be trained to accept the camels which would take some time, the Indian horses would shy away from the strange looking beasts, making camel caravans safer than wagon trains passing through hostile territory.
The US Camel Corps was established at Camp Verde, Texas in the hill country north of San Antonio but there is little remaining of the site now.
Tests began immediately to learn the animals’ capabilities and limitations. Their capabilities were many, but there seemed to be no limits. They ate and apparently relished the foliage of Texas mountain cedar; no other animal would touch it. On one occasion the camels made a freight haul from the supply depot in San Antonio to Camp Verde in a rainstorm that would have stopped wagon freight operators until the ground dried sufficiently to permit them to move.
Eventually a long overland trip from Camp Verde to California was organized. The camels not only carried freight and supplies for the troops, they carried corn and grain for the horses as well. The camels ate and appeared to enjoy the foliage of the creosote bush; no other animal would eat those leaves.
While still in CA the camels were used to rescue a snowbound wagon train high in the Sierras proving their flexibility one more time.
Unfortunately, time – in the guise of American politics caught up with the camels and in 1861 when the Southern states seceded and Jefferson Davis became President of the Confederacy, their time came to an end. The camels, based in Texas, were in the possession of the Confederacy but those forces were unable to make use of them. Once the war ended the Camel Corps was ended since it was felt that anything that might have been an idea of Jefferson Davis could not possibly be good.
The camels were sold at auction to various new owners and those not sold were released to roam the Southwestern deserts and there are numerous tales of them being seen. One tale tells of a camel wandering into Fort Selden, New Mexico Territory. The young son of the post commander saw it and ran, terrified, to hide behind his mother. That post commandant was Col. Arthur MacArthur. The terrified child crew up to be General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur.