While the camels did the work well they were nasty and frightened horses, at least that’s the general explanation for why the program failed.
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (this was pre-Civil War, how INTERESTING that Jefferson Davis was then Secretary of War, huh? He was encouraged to import camels to supply Western wagon routes. It was a dry, hot , hostile region, not unlike the camel’s natural habitat.
Davis, sold the idea to Congress. “For military purposes, and for reconnaissance, it is believed the dromedary would supply a want now seriously felt in our service.”
Congress agreed and appropriated $30,000.
33 camels were imported from the Middle East. They were loaded onto a Navy ship—and yeah, that was as hard as it sounds—and transported to Texas. There Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale took over.
Along with the camels came Hadji Ali to train soldiers in camel wrangling. The Americans slurred Hadji Ali’s name into Hi Jolly and the man became very well known in the west.
Beale set out in June, 1857, with Hi Jolly along, for California. Camels carried 600 to 800 pounds each and traveled 25 to 30 miles a day. After reaching California the expedition returned to Texas, a success — at least to Beale.
Beale wrote. “They pack water for days under a hot sun and never get a drop; they pack heavy burdens of corn and oats for months and never get a grain; and on the bitter greasewood and other worthless shrubs, not only subsist, but keep fat.”
He concluded, “I look forward to the day when every mail route across the continent will be conducted and worked altogether with this economical and noble brute.”
But perhaps he was too optimistic. What he didn’t say was that the camels didn’t take to the West’s rocky soil. It actually became a huge problem because, unlike the smooth sand of the Arabian dessert, American sand was more rocky. It got stuck between the camel’s toes. They experimented with many ways to solve this problem. Hi Jolly for a time wrapped their hooves with burlap and eventually an iron horseshoes, made camel shaped, came along but the cloven hoof was a problem.
And prospectors’ burros and mules — and even Army mules — were afraid of the odd-looking creatures and would sometimes panic at their sight.
Still, in 1858, then-Secretary of War John Floyd told Congress, “The entire adaptation of camels to military operations on the Plains may now be taken as demonstrated.”
He urged Congress to authorize the purchase of 1,000 more camels.
Congress didn’t act, however, as it was preoccupied with trouble brewing between the North and South. The government ended the experiement and Hi Jolly was grieved but stayed in America and lived until 1902. His burial place is beneath a pyramid shaped marker…with a camel on top.
In the meantime these camels were also being used privately on ranches. It was while moving some of these camels that the nation’s first and only “camel cavalry charge” took place. In 1849 they were trying to cross the Colorado River into California with camels when a large war party of Mojaves showed up and looked ready to attack. The civilian laborers mounted the camels and charged, routing the Mojaves.
In 1860, experiments were made with racing camels. It was hoped the camels could be used to carry “camel express” mail. The racing experiments proved unsuccessful. Camels excelled at heavy loads carried slowly.
After 1860, Siberian camels were imported to San Franscisco, and ended up in Canadian mining operations. Eventually these were turned loose and became wild herds.
The camel corp was abandoned and the camels either sold or, if they didn’t sell, set free in the desert. Generations of them survived. In the mid-1870s one wandered into Fort Selden, New Mexico Territory. The young son of the post commander saw it and ran, terrified, to hide behind his mother. The post commandant was COL Arthur MacArthur. The terrified child grew up to be General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.
The last camel sighting was in 1941.
This look at American Military History is brought to you in honor of Veteran’s Day. Go hug a vet. If you don’t know him, thought, make sure he’s not armed first. And by the way, that goes for hugging ANY stranger. 🙂