Military Trivia: The United States Camel Corps. Part 1

About the United States Camel Corps. which were purchased from Egypt for use in the newly acquired American Southwest in the mid 1850s.


In 1848, before the 1st iron horse went West, the U.S. Army was desperately searching for a cheap, fast, efficient means of supplying its bases for the constant fight against the Indians. Also, spoils of the Mexican War had added 529,000 sq. mi. to the nation's Western wilderness and by the terms of the treaty the U.S. was responsible for the protection of settlers, towns, and travelers in what is now California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and the western portions of Colorado and New Mexico. About this time, Lieut. Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a friend of Kit Carson and superintendent of Indian affairs in California and Nevada, revived the idea of importing camels into the U.S. Five years later, Jefferson Davis, who was Secretary of War under President Pierce, advised the 33rd Congress, "For military purposes, for expresses, and for reconnaissances, and for transportation with troops rapidly moving across the country, the camel, it is believed, would remove an obstacle which now serves greatly to diminish the value and efficiency of our troops on the western frontier."

In 1855, through the pressure of Illinois Senator Shields, Congress voted an appropriation for $30,000 "to be expended under the War Dept. in the purchase and importation of camels."

Two men were assigned to carry through the strange experiment. One, Maj. Henry Wayne, hurried to Britain to study camels in the London Zoo. The other, David Porter, took a U.S. Navy ship, the Supply, to Italy. Major Wayne and Porter met in Pisa, Italy, to watch 250 camels, owned by the Duke of Tuscany, accomplish the work of 1,000 horses. The pair then went on to Malta, Tunis, Constantinople, observing camels. The Crimean War was on, and the British were proving a single camel could carry 600 lbs. about 30 mi. a day.

The Americans acquired 3 camels in Tunis, 9 in Egypt, and 21 in Smyrna, 33 in all. And they hired Arab and Turkish camel drivers--Elias Calles, George Caralambo ("Greek George"), and Hadji Ali ("Hi Jolly"), men who knew how to handle the beasts--to accompany the cargo to the U.S. When the Supply arrived in Egypt, a flat-bottomed boat was used to ferry the camels aboard. The loading took 16 hours. One camel, 7'5" tall, was too large to fit into the ship--a hole had to be cut in the deck to accommodate his hump.

The journey from Egypt to Texas took 3 months. The camels proved excellent sailors. During gales they were tied down, in kneeling positions, which they didn't seem to mind at all. On May 14, 1856, the ship arrived at Indianola, Tex., a port about 120 mi. south of Galveston. When the camels were taken on land they "became excited to an almost uncontrollable degree, rearing, kicking, crying out." They were camped 60 mi. northwest of San Antonio. When the citizens of San Antonio laughed at the camels, doubting their strength, Major Wayne took this as a challenge. He assembled a crow, brought forth one camel, made the animal kneel, hoisted 2 bales weighing together 613 lbs. on its back, and then, to convince even the worst skeptics, loaded on 2 more bales. The camel had a total of 1,256 lbs. on its back. At a signal from the major, it rose easily and walked off. The crowd went wild. The feat was considered a miracle, and the local press even ran poetry about it.

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