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Camelot

In the mid-1800's, "ships of the desert" reported for duty in the Southwest.

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The camel's name was Said. His destiny was to travel from the deserts of the Middle East to the American Southwest, where he would participate in a short-lived, 19th-century military experiment that came to be known as the U.S. Army Camel Corps. His fate was to be killed in 1861 by a camel known as "Old Touli," in a corral in Los Angeles, and to end up—his skeleton, anyway—in the National Museum of Natural History's Hall of Bones. Within months of Said's demise, Sylvester Mowry, a former artillery officer, had donated his remains. But that's the end of a story with a curious beginning.

The use of camels as cavalry pack animals in the harsh terrain of the Southwest must have seemed like a good idea at the time. For troopers who served there, the care and feeding of horses, mules and oxen posed many challenges, not the least of which was a constant need to find water for them. A creature adapted to desert conditions had obvious advantages.

Around 1836, two Army officers, Maj. George H. Crosman and Maj. Henry C. Wayne, began suggesting to the War Department that camels be brought from the Middle East and tested in the field. Meeting with little enthusiasm, the officers then lobbied Congress and found a champion for the idea in Jefferson Davis, than a senator from Mississippi. The plan languished, however, until 1853 when Davis—later, of course, president of the Confederacy—became Secretary of War. Stating that "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," Davis approached Congress and, in 1855, received $30,000 to buy and transport the animals.

Almost immediately, Davis ordered Wayne to "proceed without delay to the Levant." He and his team headed to Tunis, where he bought one camel and got two more as gifts. Wayne loaded them on a U.S. ship, then headed for Malta, Smyrna, Salonica, Istanbul and Alexandria. Because the British were using thousands of camels in their Crimean campaign, and Egypt had a ban on exporting the "ships of the desert," Wayne's ultimate acquisition of 33 camels required diplomacy as well as cash. No sooner had Wayne's ship docked in Indianola, Texas, than a delighted Secretary Davis sent it back for more.

Wayne remained with his herd of 33, traveling first to San Antonio and then to Val Verde, 60 miles away, where he set up camp. On an expedition to establish a new route from New Mexico to California, the camels validated the faith of their backers. Though soldiers and civilians alike complained about the creatures' foul odor and groaning brays, the beasts carried loads of more than 600 pounds, needed little water and devoured brush that horses and mules wouldn’t touch. "What are these camels the representation of?" one expedition member mused."“Not a high civilization exactly, but of the 'go-aheadness' of the American character, which subdues even nature by its energy and perseverance."

Yet a Camel Corps was not to be. Art Bergeron, a historian at the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, believes the project wasn't given sufficient time to succeed. Then too, he adds, "the Civil War came along at just the wrong time." Once it began, Camp Verde in Texas became a Confederate outpost, and as soldiers turned away from fighting Indians on the frontier, they neglected the camels. After the war, the Camel Corps was dispersed; some of the animals were sold to circuses, others set loose in the desert. For years, travelers in the Southwest told tales of camels looming up in the flickering light of campfires.

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About Owen Edwards
Owen Edwards

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer who previously wrote the "Object at Hand" column in Smithsonian magazine.

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