Military Trivia: The United States Camel Corps. Part 2

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


It is interesting to note that the total cost of the camel-buying spree up to 1856 was $7,331. The balance left, after the 1st draw upon the original $30,000 appropriation, was returned to Washington--setting a precedent that didn't catch on.

The arrival of a 2nd shipload of camels at Indianola on February 10, 1857, brought their number to 75.

In the months of semi-idleness at the Camp Verde caravansary before June 25, 1857, a great deal was learned about the camel. They require about as much food and water as a horse, but they drink 20 to 30 gallons at a time. They do not perspire, having a much higher body-heat tolerance than the horse or mule. When possible, they browse constantly on whatever food is available; this allows them to store energy in the form of fatty tissue. This is what their humps are composed of, and these serve as a commissary in time of famine. Ordinarily the camel will travel 3 to 4 days, covering a distance of perhaps 300 mi., under a heavy load, without food or water. Contrary to common belief, a camel's backbone is as straight as that of a horse. Their humps of pure fat will vary in size from relatively flat, after days without food, to pleasingly plump under regular feeding. The normally docile animals are capable of anger when abused and can expel their foul-smelling cuds with uncanny accuracy. On occasion 2 males will become angry enough to fight to the death. Their act of rising hind-part 1st from a kneeling position is not unique to the camel, but a characteristic of the entire ruminant (cud-chewing) family, including cattle, sheep, goats, deer, giraffes, and others.

In March, 1857, the Secretary of War ordered the formation of the 1st U.S. Army Camel Corps and appointed 35-year-old Lieut. Edward Beale, originator of the project, to command it. The animals were under fire now. Critics claimed the whole corps was a useless waste of money. Gossips whispered that Beale was using them for work on his own properties.

To answer the rumormongers, Beale decided to use the Camel Corps to open up a new supply route across the hot American desert between New Mexico and California. The journey was a minor epic, a battle against thirst, Indians, loneliness.

On the long march westward across uncharted territory the camels' surefootedness in rocky terrain, deserts, and mountains allowed them to set a pace difficult for the mules to follow. In fording rivers they were found to be strong swimmers. On seeing an approaching rider or wagon, an advance man would go forward from the caravan shouting: "The camels are coming, the camels are coming!" Invariably the encounter would be a repetition of previous near-calamities. The strange appearance of the camels, their tinkling bells and unfamiliar odor caused horses and mules to go berserk, thus adding further to the camels' unpopularity.

The camels covered the last lap, between San Bernardino and Los Angeles, 65 mi., in 8 hours. One camel, without water for 10 days, refused the drink offered him. Beale continued showing what the Camel Corps could do. At the end of the 1st year, he submitted his report to Congress. "I have tested the value of the camels, marked a new road to the Pacific, and traveled 4,000 mi. without an accident."

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