Robert E. Lee. & The US Camel Corps That Never Were

Four German soldiers in a Camel-Schutztruppe patrol, German South West Africa, 1906.

Showing the typical hubris and racial bias of the time, Wayne declared that Americans could “manage camels not only as well, but better than the Arabs.

The U.S. military encountered a series of unique problems as Americans traveled into the wild West. Although conflicts with Native Americans, outlaws, and the Mexican-American war are well known, there was another huge problem, especially in the Southwest: the climate was deadly for horses and mules that were traditionally used to transport soldiers and supplies.

When the United States won the Mexican-American war, there were suddenly hundreds of thousands more miles of desert in the United States. Given that much of this land was near the border with Mexico, it had to be guarded.

One United States senator by the name of Jefferson Davis rose to this challenge with a unique proposal. He believed that the United States should import an exotic animal from the Middle East known as a “camel.” In one of the strange examples of foreshadowing that one finds throughout history, Jefferson Davis worked towards this goal along with the temporary commander of the Department of Texas—none other than Robert E. Lee.

Lee mounted on Traveller, September 1866.
Lee mounted on Traveller, September 1866.

Why Camels?

The idea of importing camels for American military use was first broached in 1837, and was very poorly received. However, it gained some popularity over time as more military commanders saw the struggles of working in American deserts. Major Henry C. Wayne, in particular, became an advocate for camel use due to his own experiences with horses and mules in the Southwest.

Politically, Jefferson Davis was the main proponent of camel use. However, as a Senator his two attempts to add camels to the military budget failed miserably.

Ottoman camel corps at Beersheba during the First Suez Offensive of World War I, 1915.
Ottoman camel corps at Beersheba during the First Suez Offensive of World War I, 1915.

Things took a turn when Davis became Secretary of War in 1853. As Secretary of War, Davis was able to order the military to acquire camels and put them into service. After Congress appropriated $30,000 ($800,000 adjusted for inflation), he chose Major Wayne for the job.

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Wayne traveled to both the Middle East and Europe to learn more about camels, including the various types of camels, as well as to purchase them. Showing the typical hubris and racial bias of the time, Wayne declared after a few months that Americans could “manage camels not only as well, but better than the Arabs, as [Americans] will do it with more humanity and with far greater intelligence.”

Wayne was wrong, and Middle Easterners accustomed to working with camels soon had to be brought in to work with them.

Jefferson Davis at his home, c. 1885
Jefferson Davis at his home, c. 1885

Missions and Experimental Use

Regardless of whether the military knew how to properly care for camels, the camels were brought to the United States military. Wayne purchased 33 camels, primarily of the dromedary variety. After a second journey and some camel deaths, the army had 70 of the beasts, which were stationed at Camp Verde, Texas.

Initial assessments of the camels’ performance were very positive. Retired Navy Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale won a contract to use them to conduct surveillance for a wagon road through the Southwest. He reported back that one camel was “worth more than four mules” during the trip.

Although Secretary of War John B. Floyd, who had replaced Jefferson Davis, asked Congress for funds to purchase 1,000 more camels, Congress, unfortunately, failed to act.

Secretary of War John B. Floyd
Secretary of War John B. Floyd

Nonetheless, more missions were planned. The most rigorous testing of the animals was to come during a reconnaissance mission between the Pecos River and the Rio Grande. The mission repeatedly tested the ability of camels to go without water. The camels preformed remarkably well throughout the entire journey, as none died, and they never even seemed thirsty. One was bitten by a rattlesnake, but suffered no ill effects.

Lieutenant Edward Hartz, who commanded the mission, concluded that “the superiority of the camel for military purposes in the badly-watered sections of the country seems to be well established.” Indeed, the camels seemed ideal for the American Southwest.

“The zamburak (Persian for “little wasp”) was a saddle-mounted cannon used in cavalry warfare in Central and Southeast Asia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
“The zamburak (Persian for “little wasp”) was a saddle-mounted cannon used in cavalry warfare in Central and Southeast Asia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The last camel mission before the Civil War broke out was directed by Robert E. Lee. This reconnaissance mission was directly commanded by Lieutenant William E. Echols, and traveled over some of the harshest terrains in the United States. Still, the camels once again performed well, and none of the animals were lost.

In contrast, the mules on the trip suffered greatly—three of them died and nine others had to be left behind at an outpost partway through the mission.

Camel soldier of the native forces of the British army, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, c.1900-1920
Camel soldier of the native forces of the British army, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, c.1900-1920

So What Happened?

In short—the Civil War and politics.

Although Robert E. Lee remarked that the camels’ “endurance, docility and sagacity will not fail to attract attention of the Secretary of War, and but for whose reliable services the reconnaissance would have failed,” the camels turned out to be far less interesting to the American government than winning the Civil War. Naturally, experimental ideas took a backseat during the deadliest war in American history.

On top of that, most of the Southwest, including Texas, was occupied by the Confederacy. Although there are reports of some camels being captured by the Confederacy in Texas, there is no evidence they were used for anything beyond very local supply transportation and mail delivery.

This was probably welcomed by Confederate soldiers however, as camels were notoriously stubborn and many enlisted men hated working with them.

Italian Dubats in Somalia in the 1930s. Photo: Giovanni Valle / CC BY-SA 3.0
Italian Dubats in Somalia in the 1930s. Photo: Giovanni Valle / CC BY-SA 3.0

The final nail in the coffin for the camel program was that Jefferson Davis was its primary proponent. Davis became the President of the Confederacy, and therefore was not exactly a popular figure after the war. Even within the Confederacy, he had been regarded as a poor leader, and he was despised as a traitor in the North. Unsurprisingly, his political positions became regarded as toxic.

Without Davis, there was really nobody interested in pushing for more camel use in the United States military.

A group of Confederate soldiers-possibly an artillery unit captured at Island No. 10 and taken at POW Camp Douglas
A group of Confederate soldiers-possibly an artillery unit captured at Island No. 10 and taken at POW Camp Douglas

Conclusion

What a different world it would have been if J.E.B. Stuart had charged into battle against the Union on the back of a camel. As unrealistic as that idea may be, the use of Confederate camels for supply purposes was not as far-fetched.

After all, Robert E. Lee became a proponent of camel use shortly before the war, and Jefferson Davis had been at the forefront of the military camel experiment for decades. Ultimately Lee and Davis’ failed collaboration in creating the Camel Corps foreshadowed their failure in the Civil War.

James Ewell Brown Stuart
James Ewell Brown Stuart

The Camel Corps was just not meant to be, as everybody had more important things to focus on after the war broke out. After the war, the camel was more or less rendered obsolete with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The remaining camels were sold off to private parties, or simply abandoned. Many of them ended up in circuses, where they entertained audiences for decades.

A certain Douglas MacArthur recalled seeing one of the camels when he was a young boy, writing that “One day a curious and frightening animal with a blobbish head, long and curving neck, and shambling legs, moseyed around the garrison…one of the old army camels.”

The ceremony for the driving of the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869
The ceremony for the driving of the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869

It is difficult to say when the last of the army camels died. Some claim that the last was one named Topsy, which died in April 1934 in Los Angeles. However this is unlikely, as the camel was alleged to have been 80 years old, and camels generally only live to be 40-50 years old.

Read another story from us: Heroes of America: The Civil War Within the Confederacy

Sightings of camels continued in the American South and Southwest into the mid-20th century. Could these camels have been descendants of those let loose by private owners who no longer wanted them? Regardless, the Camel Corps experiment, and its ties to some of the most important political and military leaders in American history, is an intriguing, little-known story.