Skip to main content

1855: Humvees with Humps

1855: Humvees with Humps

150 Years Ago

On March 3 Congress appropriated $30,000 for the U.S. Army to import camels from the Levant and put them to work in the deserts 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 beasts 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 better 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.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Featured Articles

Famous writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts turned Sleepy Hollow Cemetery into our country’s first conservation project.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.

Roast pig, boiled rockfish, and apple pie were among the dishes George and Martha enjoyed during the holiday in 1797. Here are some actual recipes.

Born during Jim Crow, Belle da Costa Greene perfected the art of "passing" while working for one of the most powerful men in America.