1855 150 Years Ago

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On March 3 Congress appropriated $30,000 for the U.S. Army to import camels form the Levant and put them to work in the desserts of the Southwest. The law was a pet project of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who as early as 1851, when he was still a senator, had suggested using camels as a way to ease communication with California. Along with Maj. Henry C. Wayne, another camel enthusiast, Davis had made an extensive study of camel breeds and habits, and in June, with funding in place, Wayne set sail for the Mediterranean in the USS Supply.

The ship was commanded by Lt. David Dixon Porter, later a highly decorated commander for the Union in the Civil War. (Wayne would side with the Confederacy, whose president, of course, was Davis.) The Supply called first in Tunisia and then went on to Greece, Malta, Turkey, and Egypt. Wayne proved to be a shrewd judge of camelflesh, selecting 33 sturdy beats of various breeds. In April 1856 the camels arrived in Texas, and Porter returned to the Mediterranean to fetch more.

By September, Wayne had determined that a camel could carry several times as much as a horse and go days without water while subsisting on meager desert forage. Camels also handled muddy roads and mountain trails more easily than horses and were much betters swimmers. But horses bolted at the sight of a camel (not to mention its powerful scent), and the Army’s animal tenders showed little interest in learning the ways of the exotic beasts. Some frontiersmen also got the impression that camels could survive on no water at all and drove them until they died of thirst.

Not everyone in the Army was opposed to the project. In 1857 Lt. Edward F. Beale used 25 camels in his survey of a route across New Mexico, Arizona, and California, and the following year he submitted an enthusiastic report to the new Secretary of War, John B. Floyd. Floyd asked Congress for another 1,000 camels, but the request never made it to the floor.

The Quartermaster Corps continued to employ camels for a few years, and after the Civil War began, the Confederates used them to carry mail and cotton. In 1863 the U.S. Army sold off the last of its camels, mostly to circuses and zoos. Private entrepreneurs tried them in mining and haulage, but by the end of the 1860s the spread of railroads had made them unnecessary. The few remaining captive camels were released into the desert, where in some cases they survived for decades, occasionally popping up to frighten settlers and provide material for campfire tall tales.