George H. Crosman is credited as the first man to suggest that camels could be a valuable asset if utilized by the U. S. military in dry, desert regions of the United States. He first brought up this point in 1836, when he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He claimed that camels would be unaffected by America’s most arid climates, and would also require less feed or water than the horses and mules already used by the government. Despite these fair points, Lt. Crosman’s ideas were rejected and shelved by the United States for more than a decade.
In 1847, after Crosman achieved the rank of Major, he once again brought up the idea of caravans of camels traveling westward, through the plains and deserts of the new lands claimed or conquered by the United States in North America. This time, Crosman fully convinced Major Henry C. Wayne, who conveniently worked in the Quartermaster Department. Maj. Wayne forwarded the idea to the War Department and to Congress, where it fell on the sympathetic ears of Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, the future president of the rebellious Confederate States of America. At the time, Davis did not yet have enough clout to bring Crosman’s dream to reality, but the senator did not forget the suggestion.
On March 3, 1855, Jefferson Davis (as Secretary of War) managed to convince Congress to include funding for a Camel Corps in the Shield amendment to an appropriation bill. With money in their budget, U.S. personnel journeyed over to the Mediterranean Sea to scour the region for a selection of camels and dromedaries. After searching Egypt, Greece and the remaining lands of the Ottoman Empire, the team rounded up thirty-three camels and hired five men of Arab or Turkish descent to help care for the animals. The newly purchased Camel Corps made its debut in the United States at Indianola, Texas, where the animals were unloaded on May 14, 1856. From there, the camels were herded through the city of San Antonio and were housed in Middle Eastern styled corrals at Camp Verde by late August.
By the year’s end, the camels were sent on several test runs. A team of six mules was sent to San Antonio in order to haul in a load of oats back to Camp Verde; they made the return trip in around five days. Impressively, a caravan of six camels hauled a similar shipment of oats from San Antonio back to the camp within only two days.
The next year, in 1857, the Camel Corps was utilized in its first real mission. A man named Edward Fitzgerald Beale was contracted by the government to survey and build a roadway from New Mexico to California, following the 35th parallel. One interesting requirement set by the government was that Beale would have to use twenty-five of the experimental camels.
During Beale’s four month surveying expedition, the camels had a rough start, but ultimately showed better than expected. By the end of the journey, most of the expedition members were impressed by the performance of the camels. In one incident, the surveying team wandered into a barren canyon that had no natural food or water. After more than a day without food, the mules of the survey team began to panic, but the camels remained calm. Scouts eventually mounted some of the camels and located a path to a nearby source of water. The camels were also superb at crossing the Colorado River, a feat that the survey team accomplished on October 19, 1857. All of the camels survived the river crossing. Two horses and ten mules, however, were not so fortunate.
Interestingly, Beale commandeered the camels at the end of the surveying expedition. He lent the animals to an associate named Samuel A. Bishop, who put the camels to work on his ranch in San Joaquin Valley. It was under the ownership of this Mr. Bishop that the camels were used in combat (the one and only known time)—Bishop’s ranchers charged from atop their camels against a party of Native American Mojave raiders and successfully won the skirmish. Even so, it was civilian ranchers, not military personnel, who fought on the camels during this battle.
Despite the several successful tests and missions carried out by the Camel Corps, Congress refused to provide any further funding to the project, refusing any further support as early as 1858. Nevertheless, the U.S. Army repossessed the camels from the ranch of Samuel Bishop in 1859 and put the animals to the test in Los Angeles, California. These tests did not go favorably for the camels, but the creatures were set up to fail from the start. In 1860, the Camel Corps was tested for the speed at which they could deliver mail—yet, the camels were built for endurance, not speed, and several of the camels died during the army’s test. The Camel Corps was also used in a disastrous surveying expedition in the region between California and Nevada, but human disorganization ensured that the venture ended in failure.
With the United States sliding toward civil war, and the growing railroad system quickly making caravans of camels obsolete, the United States government and military began to lose interest in the Camel Corps. On February 28, 1861, the camels owned by the U.S. government in California were publically auctioned for around $1,945. When the American Civil War erupted (c. April 1861 – May 1865), the rest of the camels that were still living in Camp Verde, Texas, were captured by Confederate troops. After the war ended, the surviving camels of Camp Verde that fell back into the hands of the victorious U. S. government were also sold in a public auction, fetching an estimated $1,364.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (Army Camel Corp training at Menangle Park, c. 1916, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons). It’s an Australian picture, but unfortunately, no decent pictures of the American Camel Corps could be found.