U. S. Camel Corps

Few people know that the United States had a Camel Corps.  About 1836 Major George H. Crosman suggested to the United States government that camels could be used as pack animals in Florida during the Seminole Wars. Few persons in the government took this suggestion seriously but Senator Jefferson Davis was an advocate of this proposal and campaigned for it.

It wasn’t until 1855 that congress appropriated $30,000 to purchase camels. President Franklin Pierce gave his Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, the right to make the purchase and start the experiment. On June 4, 1855 Henry C. Wayne procured camels to be shipped to the USA. The camels arrived on the east coast of the USA in late January 1856 and were finally delivered by boat to Texas in mid May.

Camp Verde, Texas was the initial camp for the camel experiment. During the experiment the camels were utilized in several capacities. They would assist in surveying projects, serve as pack animals, and assist in the rescue of snow bound wagon trains. Most of the tasks that were attempted by the corps were successfully accomplished, usually quicker and with more ease than originally estimated. The camels proved to be sure footed on rocky terrain, able to cross hot desert sands and climbed mountains faster than other pack animals. They were able to ford rivers and showed themselves to be strong swimmers. Food and water supplies for the camels could almost be ignored as camels can go without food and water for days. When they did eat, any vegetation was acceptable to them. They also showed that they could withstand conditions that other animals could not tolerate such as long hot days in the sun, rainstorms and sandstorms and still continue to advance.

There were some disadvantages of the Camel Corps. The first thing that was noted was the terrorizing effect the foul smelling, odd looking, large animals had on the horses and mules. It was said that when the camels were first unloaded in Texas the horses and mules “went berserk”. This reaction was a mixed blessing. Indian ponies also avoided approaching them, making camel caravans safer than wagon trains. Another disadvantage was that US troops did not know how to handle this new animal. Specially trained handlers had to be imported along with the animals. While a camel is usually a docile animal it can be a very stubborn, aggressive animal. Camels can make mules look like obedient puppies. It can remember a ”personal affront” for a long time and just wait until he can get even. His way of getting even can be a bite, a kick or spitting green slime.

Lieutenant Edward Beale was the man put in command of the project and deemed it a great success. One thousand more camels were requisitioned by the army but the timing was wrong. A Civil war was threatening the nation. The southern states had formed the confederacy, electing Jefferson Davis as president. The union wanted to discredit Mr. Davis and direct monies toward the war effort, so the request was ignored.

The camels that were still owned by the army were sold, released or escaped to run wild. Feral camels were reported from time to time throughout the west and British Columbia until well into the 1900’s. The last sighting was reported in 1941 in Douglas, Texas.

From a paleontological perspective, it makes a lot of sense that camels would adapt themselves to conditions in North America—they originated here after all. Camels first appear in North America about 45 million years ago, and migrated to Asia and Africa about 7 million years ago. Then, like the horse, camels became extinct in their native continent at the end of the Ice Age.

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