May of 1856, at Powderhorn, Texas, the US Army's most successful experiment in
overland transportation before the development of four-wheel-drive vehicles powered
by internal combustion engines began. By the end of May, 1866, the experiment
idea of using camels as overland transport in the deserts of the American Southwest
was the brainchild of then US Secretary of War Jefferson Finis Davis. Horses and
mules, the Army's only transportation at the time, had to be fed on corn or grain
to stay alive and functioning, and had to have water on a daily basis. Neither
was readily available in the vast reaches of the Southwest. Camels, however, were
desert animals. They could survive, even prosper, on desert vegetation. Though
they required tremendous amounts of water when they drank, they could go days
without drinking, hence they could cross the vast distances between water supplies
in the desert without dying of thirst. As beasts of burden, they could carry far
more than the 300 lbs that was considered a 'mule load.' They were simply ideal
for the purpose-making regular routes across the desert Southwest an actuality
rather than a remote possibility. |
Jefferson Davis realized this in 1855
and sent a delegation from the US Army to the Middle East to observe and report
on the feasibility of using camels in the American deserts. The officers reported
seeing camels being used in every environment from the Sahara to the Alps, carrying
loads that would crush even the biggest mules, and making trips between waterholes
in deserts that would leave horses and mules dead of thirst. Camels were ideally
suited, they reported, for the American Southwest. Davis authorized the purchase
of some 30 camels and their transport to the United States.
arose. Camels needed handlers, and none of the officers or men of the delegation
were competent to handle camels. Camels can make even the most stubborn of Missouri
mules seem submissive, if improperly handled. As a result, a number of camel-handlers
were employed. They included Christian Syrians and Lebanese, as well as Muslim
Arabs. One of the former, a man whose surname was Calease or Kalease, eventually
married in Mexico. His son, Plutarco Elias Calles, served as President of Mexico
in the 1920s. Another, a Muslim Arab, remained in Arizona, where he is remembered
as 'Hi Jolly' (Haj Ali) one of the most beloved characters in early Arizona Territory
While at sea between the Middle East and Powderhorn, Texas,
one of the female camels- they are known as 'cows'-gave birth, so the expedition
landed with one more camel than it left with. Immediately upon landing, a discovery
was made. Camels frightened horses. This was considered a mixed blessing. While
US horses and mules would have to be trained to accept camels-which might take
some time-Indian horses would certainly shy away from these strange, ungainly-looking
beasts, making camel caravans across hostile territory far safer than wagon trains.
US Camel Corps was established at Camp
Verde, Texas, in the hill country north of San Antonio. Buildings were constructed,
one of which-the camp's headquarters building-still stands. The chimney is marked
'Pisť Work, 1856.' (This is not a misspelling of 'piece work.' Pisť is the French
word for adobe.)
Almost immediately tests began to find the animals' capabilities
and limits. Of capabilities they had many, but they seemed to have no limits.
They were observed eating-and apparently relishing-the foliage of Texas mountain
cedar. No other animal would touch it. On one notable occasion, the camels made
a freight haul from the supply depot in San
Antonio to Camp
Verde in a driving rainstorm that would have halted wagon freight operations
for days, until the ground dried enough for wagons to move without bogging down
in the mud.
Eventually a long overland trek was organized, from Camp
Verde to California. 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
apparently relished-the foliage of the creosote bush, also known as 'greasewood.'
Nothing else would eat greasewood leaves. While in California the camels were
used to rescue a snowbound wagon train high in the Sierras.
unfortunately-in the persona of American politics-caught up with the camels. In
1861 the Southern states seceded and Jefferson Davis was elected President of
the Confederacy. The camels, based in Texas, were in the possession of Davis'
government, but there was little use the Confederacy could make of them. Once
the Confederacy surrendered, anything with Jeff Davis' stamp on it was anathema
to the Union. The Camel Corps was a Davis idea. Therefore it cannot have been
good. Of course, a purely West Point-trained officer corps in the Army and the
US Cavalry Corps were also Davis' ideas, and they weren't dispensed with. However,
the Camel Corps was a distinctly visible Davis innovation that could be disposed
of with some publicity.
The camels were sold at auction. An Austin attorney
bought at least one, which he used for transport between Austin
and San Antonio. He took his breakfast
at Austin's Driskill Hotel, mounted his camel, and arrived in San
Antonio in time for opening of court at 9 AM-some 70 miles to the south.
fictions were concocted to justify the dismantling of the Camel Corps. One was
that the rocky desert of the American Southwest cut the feet of the camels so
badly that it rendered them useless. None of them were true. The camels were,
without question, ideally suited for the purpose for which they were imported.
Only the fact that the man who decided to organize the US Camel Corps later became
the President of the Confederate States of America rendered them unpalatable to
the post-War Between the States US Army. Politics, not unsuitability, killed the
As a sidenote, some of the camels were simply released to
wander in the deserts. In the mid-1870s one wandered into Fort Selden, New Mexico
Territory. The young son of the post commander saw it and ran, terrified, to hide
behind his mother. The post commandant was COL Arthur MacArthur. The terrified
child grew up to be General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.
pose with camels in front of the Alamo
celebrating the sesquicentennial of their arrival in Texas
Soldier Reenactor. |
Baum of the Texas Camel Corps with friend.|
TE photos, 2006
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