“I again invite attention to the advantages to be anticipated from the use of camels and dromedaries for military and other purposes.”
— Jefferson Davis
Secretary of War, 1854
“An abundant supply of these animals would enable our army to give greater and prompter protection to our frontiers. I cannot too strongly recommend the purchase of a full supply.”
— John B. Floyd
Secretary of War, 1857
This year marks the 160th anniversary of one of the strangest experiments in U.S. military transportation and one that, if not for the intervention of the Civil War and the taint of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, might have resulted in a very different looking Army in the years between the Civil War and World War I.
Imagine, if you will, this scene in a John Wayne war movie: The troops are pinned down under enemy fire and in dire need of fresh support. They radio for help, desperate for aid to arrive from afar. Just as all seems lost and the sad strains of violin music begin to play them off into eternity, a bugle call rings out across the night and to the rescue comes the Duke and his brigade of cavalry, riding across the countryside on … camels?
As early as the 1830s, the U.S. Army had begun to discuss the possibility of using camels, particularly in the American southwest where hot and arid conditions made it difficult for horses and other pack animals. Those calls intensified in skirmishes with Native American tribes that had been forced westward and finally, in the mid 1850s, the plan found the high ranking support it needed in the man who was then the United States Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis.
In 1855 Davis convinced Congress to appropriate $30,000 to send an expedition across the Atlantic to bring back camels for military use. Major Henry C. Wayne, a Savannah, Georgia native who had convinced Davis of the usefulness of the idea when Davis was a Senator from Mississippi, was placed in charge of the expedition that left New York City in June of 1855.
After several stops in North Africa, Major Wayne returned with 34 camels. Davis was impressed, and had the support of President Franklin Pierce, and so Wayne immediately made a second trip and acquired 41 more camels. On Feb. 10, 1857, the United States Camel Corps was formed at Indianola, Texas.
There were quite a number of doubters. In the 20th Annual Report of the U.S. Bureau of Animal Industry, published in 1903, Charles C. Carroll pens an entire chapter on ‘The Government’s Importation of Camels.’ In it, he tells of an exchange shortly after Wayne set up the Camel Corps in 1857.
He writes that one day Major Wayne became ‘greatly annoyed at the skeptical attitude’ of the locals and, ‘particularly by the jests of the unbelievers in the Texas town.’ As a result, he set up a test to both embarrass and silence them.
He brought one of the camels up into town. He commanded it to kneel and then ordered his men to load two 314-pound bales of hay on the back of the camel. The locals were convinced that there was simply no way that the animal could stand with 628 pounds on its back. It was then that Wayne ordered another two bales to be loaded on the camel.
Now the locals ‘laughed in scorn’ when the Major ordered the animal to rise while carrying 1,256 pounds. Carroll writes, ‘To the amazement of all, and to the utter confusion of the scoffers, the camel, at the word of command, easily rose and walked off with its burden.’ The locals were so impressed that Wayne reported to his superiors that one resident wrote a poem about the experience and had it published in a local newspaper.
Pierce was succeeded by James Buchanan in 1857. Davis was re-elected to the Senate and Wayne was reassigned to be the quartermaster of Washington, D.C. The camels were assigned by contract to a formal Naval officer named Edward Fitzgerald Beale. Despite their complimentary performance, there were some drawbacks. Their aroma bothered other pack animals and their handlers found them more difficult to control than horses.
In the end, however, it was neither their smell nor their skill that decided their fate. The Civil War broke out and there just wasn’t time, energy or money for dabbling in dromedaries. And when the war was over, those camels were tagged as being the pet project of a treasonous prisoner of war who had turned against his country to become President of an insurrection.
Documents at the National Archive suggest that the camels were turned loose in the late 1860s. Different sources state the last of the wild camels was seen in Arizona as early as 1878 and as late as 1905. But if not for the intervention of war and the memory that their support came from the Confederate President, camels might still roam the American southwest today.
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County of Common Pleas.