The Red Ghost

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The one stispect item in Hamblin’s account was the matter of the burden on the beast’s back. Scoffers were convinced that it was merely the camel’s hump. But a few weeks after Hamblin’s experience, the Red Ghost turned up near the valley of the Verde River about sixty miles west of Hamblin’s ranch, and the scoffing ceased. This time a party of five prospectors sighted the animal feeding on a mesa, managed to get within what they considered shooting distance, and banged away. They either missed completely or merely grazed the animal, and it rapidly loped off out of range. As it departed, something fell from its back. The prospectors investigated and found, as the Mohave County Miner described it, “a human skull with a few shreds of flesh and hair still clinffinsf to it.”

This gruesome discovery firmly established the Red Ghost as a living legend. Its career in that role was to last nearly ten years. Since the only contemporary account of this career seems to be the one in the Miner , and since newspapers in those days were by no means slaves to facts, it may be that some of the details were improvised. Most of them were reported so circumstantially, however, that this is unlikely, and none was the kind of obviously farfetched fiction the more imaginative western editors commonly went in for. The latter also were not up to inventing the ferocious human malevolence toward animals involved in the story of the Red Ghost.

The Ghost’s career made a fitting conclusion to the pathetic history of the U.S. Army’s First (and only) Camel Corps. That history had begun hopefully enough, if rather belatedly, in March, 1855, when President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War, Jelferson Davis, persuaded Congress to appropriate thirty thousand dollars for the purchase of camels to be used by the Army in exploring the Southwest. Like most military innovations, this one had been proposed many years earlier. One of the explorers of the West, Major George H. Crosman, had formally recommended in 1836 that, since the chief desert problem was lack of water and since camels could go longer without it than horses or mules, the Army should experiment with the use of camels. It took the suggestion nineteen years to work its way up through channels.

When Davis finally got the money for the project, he sent Major Henry C. Wayne and Lieutenant David D. Porter to the eastern Mediterranean in a Navy storeship, the Supply , to buy the first camels. An experienced horse trader, Wayne took plenty of time investigating camel lore and studying the offerings in the camel markets of Alexandria and Smyrna. It was time well spent. All but one of the thirty-three animals he bought at an average of $250 apiece survived the tough, three-month voyage to fndianola, Texas, and two colts (camel young were so called in the King James version of the Bible, and the Americans adopted the term) were born on the trip.

Wayne and Porter also hired six Arabs and a Turk, the former as camel drivers and tutors to the Army’s muleteers, and the latter as a veterinary. Their remarkably bad judgment in these hirings foreshadowed the ultimate fate of the experiment. Apparently they assumed that since camels abounded in the Levant, any Levantine must be a camel expert. The Arabs were about as familiar with camels as the average city boy today is with horses, and the Turkish veterinary’s treatment for a sick camel, whatever the ailment, consisted of tickling the animal’s nose with the tail of a chameleon.

In the course of the long voyage, however, Wayne learned so much about camels and became so thoroughly convinced that they were potentially of great value to the Army that he refused to allow such mistakes to discourage him. After landing at Indianola on May 14, 1856, he sent Porter back to the Near East for another load and drove his charges overland to the Army’s Camp Verde, sixty miles northwest of San Antonio. Along the way he encountered an unanticipated difficulty—nearly every horse and mule they met bolted in terror at the sight of the beasts in his care. Since the horsemen and teamsters were enraged by this and placed all blame on the camels, it was clear to Wayne by the time he reached Camp Verde that his first task was to make converts to his point of view about the animals.

He set up a neat demonstration to that end. Assembling several of the already-hostile muleteers assigned to the experiment, he led out one of his best camels, commanded it to kneel, and loaded it with two big bales of hay, either of which would have been about as much as a mule could carry. Wayne then stepped back and surveyed the load as if afraid he might have gone too far. The onlookers muttered derisively that no animal could lift such a weight. Wayne let them convince themselves that he had made a mistake, then proceeded to add two more bales to the load. The muleteers were incredulous, and when the camel got up and strolled off at Wayne’s command, they cheered. It was the sole recorded occasion on which a mule skinner expressed approval of a camel.

Wayne’s only real convert was Lieutenant Edward F. Beale, one of the West’s most colorful heroes. Beale’s original commission was, oddly for a man identified chiefly with the western deserts, in the U.S. Navy, in which he had enlisted in 1836 at the age of fourteen. In 1846 he and Kit Carson had rescued the U.S. troops besieged near San Diego by crawling through the Mexican lines to bring help. Another of his famous exploits had been carrying the first gold from Sutler’s Mill in California overland to Washington, D.C.