The Curious Case Of The US Camel Corps

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On May 10, 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis personally wrote one of the most bizarre orders in American Army history. This order, addressed to Brevet Major Henry C. Wayne, stated “Sir: [you are] assigned to special duty in connection with the appropriation for importing camels for army transportation and for other military purposes.” And so started one of the most bizarre military campaigns in United States history: the U.S. Camel Corps.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A need for camels?

Jefferson Davis’s 1855 memo came almost 20 years after a camel corps was first suggested. In the 1830s, American westward expansion was being severely hindered by the inhospitable terrain and climate faced by pioneers and settlers.

To help alleviate this expansion problem, Major George Crosman first suggested implementing a camel corps in 1837 as an alternative to horses and mules dying of dehydration. The idea was dismissed until 1847, when Crosman met Major Henry C. Wayne of the quartermaster department. Crosman was also a camel supporter, and together they moved towards government support on the implementation of a camel corps.

Jefferson Davis was also a supporter of an American camel corps but did not have enough pull as chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs to get the necessary approval and funding for the project. Although Davis was appointed Secretary of War in 1853, it took an additional two years for Congress to agree to the camel corps and allot $30,000 to acquire and test a small camel herd.

Drawing that illustrates the camels journey to the United States
Drawing depicting the camels’ journey to the United States. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jefferson Davis wasted no time getting a start on his newly approved Camel Corps. In June 1855, Wayne departed New York City aboard the USS Supply, under the command of Lieutenant David Dixon Porter.

After crossing the Atlantic, Wayne and Porter made stops in Malta, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, eventually securing a total of 33 camels. On February 11, 1856, Wayne and Porter were happy with the animals they had secured and sailed back for America.

The journey home took longer than anticipated due to stormy weather. Finally, on May 14, 1856, the voyage safely reached Indianola, Texas. During the journey back to America, one male camel had died, but six calves were born — two of which had survived the trip.

Thirty-four camels total, therefore, landed safely on American soil. Porter was then ordered back to Egypt by Davis to secure more camels. By February 1857, the U.S. Army were the proud owners of 70 camels total.

Camel Corps State Marker in Indianola, Texas
The U.S. Camel Corps State Historical Marker in Indianola, Texas. (Photo Credit: Larry D. Moore / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

The camels are put to work

Experiments were done on the original 34 camels to test their strength while Porter was on his second trip. The Army wanted to determine the combat capabilities as well as the transportation potential of these camels. Although the camels were able to prove their transporting abilities over horses and ox in the dessert, it quickly became clear that camels were not designed for the American style of combat.

The most serious drawback was the resistance of both men and officers to the animal. Compared to the horse, the camels required huge amounts of care. Without this care, they developed severe cases of mange, which was highly contagious, unsightly, and difficult to cure.

Similarly, the camel is a generally docile animal but can often be very stubborn. When troops would discipline the camels for their stubbornness, it was common for the animal to vomit on the disciplinarian. Furthermore, when camels were annoyed with their keeper, they would often bite them unprovoked.

Soldiers often complained of motion sickness after riding the camel for any distance or at a gallop — making it especially hard for camels to be used in combat.

Only known surviving photo of the U.S. Camel Corps. A camel is tied up outside of what appears to be a frontier location. (Photo Credit: Rudolph D’Heureuse / Wikimedia Commons)
Only known surviving photo of the U.S. Camel Corps. A camel is tied up outside of what appears to be a frontier location. (Photo Credit: Rudolph D’Heureuse / Wikimedia Commons)

In March 1857, James Buchanan became president, making several changes that directly impacted the camel experiment. Jefferson Davis was replaced as Secretary of War by John B. Floyd, and Major Wayne was transferred back to the Quartermaster Department in Washington.

These changes effectively saw the removal of the main supporters of the Camel Corps in one swift movement. However, new Secretary of War John B. Floyd still saw the Camel Corps as a worthwhile project to continue funding.

In an effort to improve frontier travel, John B. Floyd ordered a survey of a wagon road between Camp Verde (where the camels were stationed) and Fort Defiance, New Mexico, located on the Colorado River. Twenty-five camels were included in this survey party.

By the time the party reached Fort Defiance in August 1857, they had successfully proved their transportation abilities. Each camel was able to carry a load of 600 pounds and outperformed the horses and oxen that also accompanied this party. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the camels continued to be a part of organized expeditions across the frontier.

Camels: the secret weapon during the Civil War?

The Civil War essentially put a pin in the camel experiment. Early on in the Civil War, an attempt was made to use the camels to carry mail between Fort Mohave (New Mexico Territory) and New San Pedro (California), but this attempt was unsuccessful. Attempts were also made to use the camels as transport animals, but this was met with limited success, as commanders were often unwilling to deal with these beasts.

One interesting story of a camel in active service during the Civil War is the case of Douglas the Camel, also known as “Old Douglas.” Douglas the Camel, who was part of the original Camel Corps, somehow made his way to Mississippi, although the details of this journey are largely unknown.

He eventually was used by Company A of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry, part of the Confederate Army. Assigned to carry instruments and knapsacks for the regimental band,  Old Douglas participated in the Battle of Iuka and the 1862 Battle of Corinth. During the Siege of Vicksburg, on June 27, 1863, Douglas the Camel was killed by a Union sharpshooter and died.

Grave marker for Douglas the Camel
Grave marker for Douglas the Camel, which can be found in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Vicksburg, Mississippi. (Photo Credit: Natalie Maynor / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

Douglas the Camel was known to break free of his rope, but he usually never wandered too far away from the regiment. However, he had broken his rope on the day he was killed and had wandered into the no man’s land between the Union and Confederate armies. Today, Douglas the Camel is memorialized by his own gravestone in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

After the Civil War, the remaining camels were sold off at auctions. They became a familiar sight in California, the Southwest, Northwest, and even as far away as British Columbia. They ended up in circuses, running in “camel races,” living on private ranches, or working as pack animals for miners and prospectors.

1916 Camel Corps training
Training the Camel Corps, circa 1916. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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Although the Camel Corps in the United States failed, a similar project was undertaken by Britain during the First World War. Established in 1916, the Imperial Camel Corps was a camel-mounted infantry force operating in the Middle Eastern and African deserts. This camel corps played an integral role in several First World War desert campaigns.