In 1836, an Army lieutenant had a… unique idea.
The U.S. was in the midst of its expansion west, which was proving to be a difficult and oftentimes dangerous trek for pioneers who were attempting to make their way across harsh terrain. Enter Army Lt. George H. Crossman, who proposed a simple solution: Camels.
The idea of buying and importing camels to the American Southwest for “military purposes” would later be considered “the most unique experiment in U.S. Army history,” according to the National Museum of the U.S. Army. Unofficially called the “U.S. Army Camel Corps,” the experiment saw a series of successes before it was effectively ended with the beginning of the Civil War.
Some might say it was the first of many of the Army’s failed modernization attempts, but I digress.
However, Crossman’s bizarre idea didn’t actually come to fruition until almost two decades after he first proposed it. After Crossman came up with the idea in 1836, he put together a study on the advantages of using camels and sent a report to the War Department in Washington, D.C., proposing that they invest in camels because they were “unrivaled among animals” in their ability to endure labor, navigate difficult terrain, and go without water or much food “for six or eight days, or it is said even longer.”
The War Department rejected the idea and it wasn’t thought of again for almost a decade, until Crossman — now a major — met another major, Henry C. Wayne, who was also a “camel enthusiast,” the museum explained. Wayne sent another report to the War Department and to Congress suggesting that the government invest in camels.
This time, the effort caught the attention of then-Sen. Jefferson Davis, who was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs at the time. Davis tried to get the idea funded “for several years,” but couldn’t quite get it over the finish line.
That was, until Davis became the Secretary of War in 1853.
In his annual report in 1854, Davis urged Congress and President Franklin Pierce to take up the idea of buying camels.
“I again invite attention to the advantages to be anticipated from the use of camels and dromedaries for military and other purposes,” Davis wrote. “And for reasons set forth in my last annual report, recommend that an appropriation be made to introduce a small number of the several varieties of this animal, to test their adaptation to our country.”
Finally, in 1855, Congress gave Davis $30,000 to buy and import his camels. Davis appointed Maj. Wayne to oversee the camel expedition, and after two years and two “successful” trips to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the Army had imported 75 camels, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. They were kept at Camp Verde, an Army post in Texas established in 1855.
Wayne worked with soldiers and civilians tasked with caring for the camels for months, teaching them how to feed them, work with them, and “how to deal with the camel’s mannerisms and temperament.” Despite Wayne’s commitment to the camel experiment, he was later sent back to Washington after James Buchanan became president in March 1857 and Davis was replaced as Secretary of War by John B. Floyd.
With Wayne gone from Camp Verde, the camels were “unused” until months later when Congress approved a surveying expedition to build a permanent roadway between New Mexico and the Colorado River on the border of California and Arizona. Floyd demanded that the man carrying out the survey, Edward Fitzgerald Beale, take 25 camels with him.
Beale was pissed. Who wants to be stuck with 25 camels? But Floyd “was adamant,” the Army Museum says, because after all the effort it took to get the camels to the U.S., they hadn’t really had a chance to use them. Beale eventually agreed (though he still hated the idea) and in June he set out from Camp Verde with 25 camels, 12 wagons, dozens of horses, mules, and dogs, and 44 soldiers.
It didn’t take long for Beale to see the benefit of using the camels. According to the Army Museum, the camels began settling into the journey around the second week and “began outdistancing both horses and mules, packing a 700-pound load at a steady speed and traversing ground that caused the other animals to balk.”
Over the next several years, the camels were used on other expeditions, sent from one Army post to another, and ultimately proved useful in every situation but one: During a test to see if the camels could be “used as an express service,” several died from exhaustion.
Despite the apparent success of the Army’s “Camel Corps,” which Floyd presented to Congress three years straight in his annual reports, lawmakers refused to put any further funding into the program.
Then came the Civil War, which marked the beginning of the end of the camel experiment.
Rebel troops who occupied Camp Verde captured several of the camels still living there and used them to transport supplies around San Antonio, according to the Army Museum. “The camels suffered greatly at the hands of their captors, who had an intense dislike for the animals,” the Army Museum says. “They were badly mistreated, abused and a few of them were deliberately killed.”
Soon after, the camels started being sold at public auction or turned loose and left to wander.
The Smithsonian Magazine says that some were caught and used over the years by Union and Confederate troops; some ended up in circuses or private ranches; and others “found their way into Mexico.” An unfortunate few were sold to butchers. They became “a familiar sight in California, the Southwest, Northwest, and even as far away as British Columbia.”
Every once in a while there would be a rare reported sighting of a “feral” camel in the wild. Doug Baum, a former zookeeper and owner of Texas Camel Corps, told Smithsonian Magazine that there were an estimated six to ten camel sightings in the years after the Civil War. It’s even believed that a wild camel was the subject of an Arizona legend in the 1880s.
The so-called “Red Ghost” was “rumored to stand 30 feet tall,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. Some witnesses said the Red Ghost almost killed them, another said it “disappeared right before his eyes.” It was “a devilish looking creature strapped on the back of some strange-looking beast,” Arizona’s state historian told the magazine.
Baum said it was “very likely” that the legendary Red Ghost was actually one of the Army’s camels. The Red Ghost’s “reign of terror” eventually ended in the mid-1880s when a rancher spotted the camel grazing in his garden. The rancher shot and killed the animal, later finding “deep scars dug across its back and body.”
The last of the Army’s original camels, named Topsy, is believed to have died in April 1934 at 80 years old.
“Ignored and abandoned,” the Army Museum says, “it was an ignominious and unfortunate end for these noble ‘ships of the desert.’”
Featured photo: Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra/US Army photo