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Congress Appropriates $30,000 Toward Creation of Camel Corps (March 3, 1855)

Beale's Camel CorpsToday in Odd History, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the creation of the US Camel Corps. The camels were to be used in the American Southwest, where the arid conditions and harsh terrain made the use of horses impractical. Although the Camel Corps did have some success, it was abandoned when the Civil War broke out in 1861.

The Camel Corps had been suggested several years before, by George Perkins Marsh, an early environmentalist who realized that camels would be well-suited to the desert environments of Texas, California, Nevada and Arizona, and by George H. Crosman, an Army lieutenant. Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War (and later the President of the Confederacy) had worked with Marsh at the Smithsonian in 1848, and had met Henry C. Wayne, an Army Major who was friends with Crosman. Davis was intrigued by the idea of a Doug Baum, Camel RiderCamel Corps, and in 1853, he presented it to Congress. He told them that "[f]or military purposes, and for reconnaissances, it is believed the dromedary would supply a want now seriously felt in our service." They were not prepared to listen, although they, and the press, debated the idea. In 1855, though, Marsh gave a lecture on camels at the Smithsonian, which tipped the balance in the Camel Corps' favor. The government gave Major Wayne $30,000 and charged him with finding camels for the US Army.

Wayne set sail on the ship Supply, bound for Tunisia. He knew almost nothing about camels. His first purchase, in fact, was a camel too ill to be of any use. But slowly, he learned. He discovered the tricksArabian Camel Bactrian Camelunscrupulous camel traders used to make sick animals appear healthy,and found out that the Arabian camels, which have one hump and are native to the Middle East, are best for riding, while the two-humped Bactrian, or Asian, camel is best for carrying loads. He had a great deal of difficulty finding healthy camels, though, even after he learned how to identify them. The Crimean War was raging, and camels were much in demand to carry loads for the war. He tried in Greece, Malta, and Turkey, before finally finding his camels in Egypt. Egyptian law forbade Egyptian camels from being removed from the country, but after paying a number of bribes, he succeeded in purchasing 33 camels, and hiring 5 camel drovers to care for them. Two months later, he arrived in Texas with 34 seasick camels--one more than they started out with.

Sketch of one of Beale's CamelsThe camels quickly recovered from the voyage, and astonished locals with their strength and stamina, while simultaneously frightening dogs and horses with their strong odor and strange appearance, and annoying the soldiers with their unpleasant dispositions. They were not put to any real use until 1857, when Colonel Edward Fitzgerald Beale took over the command. Beale took 25 camels, 44 soldiers, 2 camel drovers and a number of horses and mules out on a survey expedition. The camels performed brilliantly. Beale wrote, "The harder the test [the camels] are put to, the more fully they seem to justify all that can be said of them. 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 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." The expedition made it from El Paso, Texas to Los Angeles, California, then up the Grapevine to Fort Tejon, and back again. In 1858, Jefferson Davis's successor, Secretary of War John Floyd claimed that "The entire adaptation of camels to military operations on the Plains may now be taken as demonstrated."

 

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