By Alexander Hawksville
Large areas of the United States have semi-arid desert conditions. The Mojave Desert, also known as ‘Death Valley’, is the hottest and most arid region on earth, and rumours have it that frontiersman Kit Carson was heard to say when he was in the area that he could do with a few Bactrian beasts. So it’s hardly any surprise that as early as 1836 Major George H. Crossman of the US army proposed bringing camels into action. However, it was not until 1853 that Jefferson Davis, the then Secretary of War, took the proposal seriously and on the advice of Henry C. Wayne, who had taken up the cause in 1848, sanctioned the importation of a number of ‘ships of the desert’.
Major Wayne departed on the ship aptly named USS Supply and visited Malta, Greece, Egypt and Turkey, bringing back thirty-three camels, nineteen of which were female. They also brought back saddles for the animals as he thought local craftsmen might not be up to the job.
Camels in Action
In 1857 the camels were deployed in the South-western states. By then John Floyd had succeeded Davis as Secretary of War, and the camels were needed to conduct a survey along a wagon road. This was from Fort Defiance in New Mexico to the Colorado River and was along the border of what became the states of California and Arizona. Twenty-five camels were taken along this route by Lieutenant Edward F. Beale, carrying in total 600 pounds in weight. Beale later remarked he would rather have one camel than four mules. Mules and horses fell sick and died on the trip, but one camel even survived an attack by a rattlesnake.
Another survey, also ordered by Floyd, took place along the Pecos River and the Rio Grande in 1859. The party travelled first 85 and then, after a break 115 miles. Lieutenant Hartz, who led the expedition also praised the superiority of the camels over mules, especially their endurance for lack of water.
In 1860, Robert E. Lee, who had first seen the camels in 1857, used the animals under an officer called Echols. Twenty camels were used to look for a suitable site for a camp near the Comanche. The expeditionary force passed through extremely dry country. The men suffered and three mules died, but the camels all survived. They finally ended the trip at Presidio del Norte near the Rio Grande, where a suitable spot for a camp was located, and finally returned to Fort Verde, which was the camels’ primary location. It was then that the Civil War broke out.
Civil War Spells the End for the Camels
The Confederate army captured Camp Verde in the spring of 1861 and acquired eighty camels, along with two camel drivers. However, they were never used by any Confederate units, being so strange to the soldiers that no-one how to deploy them. When the camp was recaptured there were now one hundred camels in captivity, with others roaming wild in the arid countryside.
All good things come to an end, and just when it looked as if the camel corps would be an established part of the US military, the war put paid to their use. The US army lost all interest in using camels and auctioned them off in 1864. The last live camel in the US outside a zoo was seen in Arizona in 1891.
Only one name survives of the native camel drivers brought over – Hi Jolly, who died in 1902, in Quartzsite, Arizona. His grave has a pyramid marker and a metal camel on it.
Little is known about why the army fell out of love with these animals, but I suspect it has to do with their size, the fact they were not as easy to keep as horses, and that those who had grown up with horses lacked the skills to successfully manage these ungainly beasts.