A History of Camels In the US Army

The True Story of How the U.S. Army Experimented With Camels In the 1850s

Illustration of US sailors loading a camel aboard a ship in 1856.
Sailors of USS Supply loading a camel aboard.

Public domain

A plan by the U.S. Army to import camels in the 1850s and use them to travel through vast stretches of the Southwest seems like some comical legend that never could have happened. Yet it did. Camels were imported from the Middle East by a U.S. Navy ship and used in expeditions in Texas and California.

And for a time the project was thought to hold enormous promise.

The project to acquire camels was masterminded by Jefferson Davis, a powerful political figure in 1850s Washington who would later become the president of the Confederate States of America. Davis, serving as secretary of war in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce, was not a stranger to scientific experiments, as he also served on the board of the Smithsonian Institution.

And the use of camels in America appealed to Davis because the War Department had a serious problem to solve. Following the end of the Mexican War, the United States acquired vast tracts of unexplored land in the Southwest. And there simply was no practical way to travel in the region.

In present day Arizona and New Mexico there were virtually no roads. And going off any existing trails meant venturing into country with forbidding terrain ranging from deserts to mountains. Water and pasturage options for horses, mules, or oxen were non-existent or, at best, hard to locate.

The camel, with its reputation for being able to survive in rough conditions, seemed to make scientific sense. And at least one officer in the U.S. Army had advocated for the use of camels during military campaigns against the Seminole tribe in Florida in the 1830s.

Perhaps what made camels seem like a serious military option were reports from the Crimean War. Some of the armies engaged used camels as pack animals, and they were reputed to be stronger and more reliable than horses or mules. As leaders of the American military often tried to learn from European counterparts, French and Russian armies deploying camels in a war zone must have given the idea an air of practicality.

Moving the Camel Project Through Congress

An officer in the U.S. Army's quartermaster corps, George H. Crosman, first proposed the use of camels in the 1830s. He thought the animals would be useful in supplying troops fighting in the rough conditions of Florida. Crosman's proposal went nowhere in the Army bureaucracy, though it apparently was talked about enough that others found it intriguing.

Jefferson Davis, a West Point graduate who spent a decade serving in frontier Army outposts, became interested in the use of camels. And when he joined the administration of Franklin Pierce he was able to advance the idea.

Secretary of War Davis submitted a lengthy report which took up more than an entire page of the New York Times of December 9, 1853. Buried in his various requests for Congressional funding are several paragraphs in which he made the case for appropriations for study the military use of camels.

The passage indicates that Davis had been learning about camels, and was familiar with two types, the one-humped dromedary (often called the Arabian camel) and the two-humped central Asian camel (often called the Bactrian camel):

"On the older continents, in regions reaching from the torrid to the frozen zones, embracing arid plains and precipitous mountains covered with snow, camels are used with the best results. They are the means of transportation and communication in the immense commercial intercourse with Central Asia. From the mountains of Circassia to the plains of India, they have been used for various military purposes, to transmit dispatches, to transport supplies, to draw ordnance, and as a substitute for dragoon horses.
"Napoleon, when in Egypt, used with marked success the dromedary, a fleet variety of the same animal, in subduing the Arabs, whose habits and country were very similar to those of the mounted Indians of our Western plain. I learn, from what is believed to be reliable authority, that France is about again to adopt the dromedary in Algeria, for a similar service to that in which they were so successfully used in Egypt.
"For like military purposes, for express and for reconnaissances, it is believed the dromedary would supply a want now seriously felt in our service; 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 out troops on the western frontier.
"For these considerations it is respectfully submitted that the necessary provision be made for the introduction of a sufficient number of both varieties of this animal to test its value and adaptation to our country and our service."

It took more than a year for the request to become a reality, but on March 3, 1855, Davis got his wish. A military appropriations bill included $30,000 to fund the purchase of camels and a program to test their usefulness in America's southwestern territories.

With any skepticism tossed aside, the camel project was suddenly given considerable priority within the military. A rising young naval officer, Lieutenant David Porter, was assigned to command the ship sent to bring back the camels from the Middle East. Porter would go on to play a critical role in the Union Navy in the Civil War, and as Admiral Porter he would become a revered figure in late 19th century America.

The U.S. Army officer assigned to learn about camels and acquire them, Major Henry C. Wayne, was a West Point graduate who had been decorated for valor in the Mexican War. He later served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

The Naval Voyage to Acquire Camels

Jefferson Davis moved quickly. He issued orders to Major Wayne, directing him to proceed to London and Paris and seek out experts on camels. Davis also secured the use of a U.S. Navy transport ship, USS Supply, which would sail to the Mediterranean under the command of Lt. Porter. The two officers would rendezvous and then sail to various Middle Eastern locations in search of camels to purchase.

On May 19, 1855, Major Wayne departed New York for England aboard a passenger ship. The USS Supply, which had been specially outfitted with stalls for camels and a supply of hay, left the Brooklyn Navy Yard the following week.

In England, Major Wayne was greeted by the American consul, future president James Buchanan. Wayne visited the London zoo and learned what he could about the care of camels. Moving on to Paris, he met with French military officers who had knowledge of using camels for military purposes. On July 4, 1855, Wayne wrote a lengthy letter to Secretary of War Davis detailing what he had learned during his crash course in camels.

By the end of July Wayne and Porter had met up. On July 30, aboard USS Supply, they sailed for Tunisia, where an American diplomat arranged a meeting with the country's leader, the Bey, Mohammad Pasha. The Tunisian leader, when hearing that Wayne had bought a camel, presented him with a gift of two more camels. On August 10, 1855, Wayne wrote to Jefferson Davis from about the Supply, anchored in the Gulf of Tunis, reporting that three camels were safely aboard the ship.

For the following seven months the two officers sailed from port to port in the Mediterranean, endeavoring to obtain camels. Every few weeks they would send highly detailed letters back to Jefferson Davis in Washington, detailing their latest adventures.

Making stops in Egypt, present day Syria, and the Crimea, Wayne and Porter became fairly proficient camel traders. At times they were sold camels which exhibited signs of ill-health. In Egypt a government official tried to give them camels which the Americans recognized as poor specimens. Two camels they wanted to dispose of were sold to a butcher in Cairo.

By the beginning of 1856 the hold of USS Supply was filling up with camels. Lieutenant Porter had designed a special small boat which contained a box, dubbed the "camel car," which was used to ferry camels from land to the ship. The camel car would be hoisted aboard, and lowered down to the deck used to house the camels.

By February 1856 the ship, carrying 31 camels and two calves, set sail for America. Also aboard and headed to Texas were three Arabs and two Turks, who had been hired to help tend to the camels. The trip across the Atlantic was plagued by bad weather, but the camels were finally landed in Texas in early May 1856.

As only a portion of the Congressional expenditure had been spent, Secretary of War Davis directed Lieutenant Porter to return to the Mediterranean aboard USS Supply and bring back another load of camels. Major Wayne would remain in Texas, testing the initial group.

Camels in Texas

During the summer of 1856 Major Wayne marched the camels from the port of Indianola to San Antonio. From there they proceeded to an army outpost, Camp Verde, about 60 miles southwest of San Antonio. Major Wayne began using the camels for routine jobs, such as shuttling supplies from San Antonio to the fort. He discovered the camels could carry much more weight than pack mules, and with the proper instruction soldiers had little problem handling them.

When Lieutenant Porter returned from his second voyage, bringing an additional 44 animals, the total herd was about 70 camels of various types. (Some calves had been born and were thriving, though some adult camels had died.)

The experiments with camels at Camp Verde were considered a success by Jefferson Davis, who prepared a comprehensive report on the project, which was published as a book in 1857. But when Franklin Pierce left office and James Buchanan became president in March 1857, Davis left the War Department.

The new secretary of war, John B. Floyd, was convinced the project was practical, and sought Congressional appropriations to purchase an additional 1,000 camels. But his idea received no support on Capitol Hill. The U.S. Army never imported camels beyond the two shiploads brought back by Lieutenant Porter.

Legacy of the Camel Corps

The late 1850s was not a good time for a military experiment. The Congress was becoming increasingly fixated on the nation's impending split over enslavement. The great patron of the camel experiment, Jefferson Davis, returned to the U.S. Senate, representing Mississippi. As the nation moved closer to Civil War, it's likely the last thing on his mind was the importation of camels.

In Texas, the "Camel Corps" remained, but the once promising project encountered problems. Some of the camels were sent to remote outposts, to be used as pack animals, but some soldiers disliked using them. And there were problems stabling the camels near horses, who became agitated by their presence.

In late 1857 an Army Lieutenant named Edward Beale was assigned to make a wagon road from a fort in New Mexico to California. Beale used about 20 camels, along with other pack animals, and reported that the camels performed very well.

For the next few years Lieutenant Beale used camels during exploratory expeditions in the Southwest. And as the Civil War began his contingent of camels was stationed in California.

Though the Civil War was known for some innovative experiments, such as the Balloon Corps, Lincoln's use of the telegraph, and inventions such as ironclads, no one revived the idea of using camels in the military.

The camels in Texas mostly fell into Confederate hands, and seemed to serve no military purpose during the Civil War. It is believed most of them were sold to traders and wound up in the hands of circuses in Mexico.

In 1864 the federal herd of camels in California was sold to a businessman who then sold them to zoos and traveling shows. Some camels were apparently released into the wild in the Southwest, and for years cavalry troops would occasionally report seeing small groups of wild camels.

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McNamara, Robert. "A History of Camels In the US Army." ThoughtCo, Nov. 14, 2020, thoughtco.com/camels-in-the-us-army-4018915. McNamara, Robert. (2020, November 14). A History of Camels In the US Army. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/camels-in-the-us-army-4018915 McNamara, Robert. "A History of Camels In the US Army." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/camels-in-the-us-army-4018915 (accessed March 29, 2023).