Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

The U.S. Army Camel Corps

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College

The story of the United States Army Camel Corps is not new, nor has it been forgotten. Both the academic community and the general public are aware of the late 1850s experiment to use camels for commerce and transportation in the drylands and deserts of West Texas and the American Southwest.

The subject of the Camel Corps, nonetheless, is lacking a state historical marker. The Texas Historical Commission's website Atlas notes that seventeen state markers mention camels. Prehistoric camels are included in six of them. The other eleven mention the camels of the Camel Corps, but only briefly or in passing. (A listing of these markers is included.) References to the camels are also found in various museums and historical sites, including Fort Lancaster State Historical Park and Del Rio's Whitehead Memorial Museum. The camels even have an entry in the Handbook of Texas.

The Beale Camel Corps Expedition traversed Val Verde County, and the lesser-known Echols Expeditions originated at Fort Hudson in Val Verde County. Therefore, the state should mark the Camel Corps with a state marker and place that marker in Val Verde County. The Val Verde County Historical Commission suggests placing the marker at the City of Del Rio's Moore Park on San Felipe Creek, a recorded camp on the trek and a location easily accessible to the public. "

The original idea for using camels in America is credited to West Point graduate George H. Crosman of Georgia. He advocated as early as the 1830s that camels be imported and tested in the Southwest. On occasion other people supported or promoted the idea, but no action was taken. Then the most famous supporter of the use of camels, Mississippi Senator and then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, promoted the idea in the 1850s. As a result of his position, orders were issued and the Camel Corps was instituted (Emmett, 3; Faulk, 18-19,25,28; Boyd, 9-10).

Congress passed the legislation for the project on May 10, 1855, and arrangements were made. Major Henry C. Wayne, a supporter of the idea of using camels, accepted the assignment of finding and bringing camels to the U.S. from the Middle East and North Africa. His inexperience led to overpayment for some of the livestock. Camel use during the ongoing Crimean War also drove up prices. Still, Major Wayne learned from other military men in the Middle East that camels were being used for practical military operations. The camels arrived on Texas soil in Indianola May 14, 1856 on board the U.S. Navy ship Supply. This first delivery contained thirty-four camels as well as a number of Arab handlers to teach American soldiers camel care and maintenance; a second shipment of forty-one arrived February 10, 1857 (Emmett, 9; Boyd, 26-31; Lammons, 28; Malsch, 101-102, 106).

The army had acquired both one-humped Arabians and two-humped Bactrians as well as a single camel cross-bred of the two. This hybrid "camel-mule of colossal proportions," called a "Booghdee" by some of the soldiers, packed 2,200 pounds, about twice the weight carried by the average camel. The camels were not long in Texas before the American handlers learned that camels are cranky and ill-tempered. The fact that horses, mules and cattle were all spooked by these strangers from the East did not help the handlers either. However, camels could travel across the driest terrain carrying loads up to 1,200 pounds or more. During normal operations, camels drank every second day, but they could travel for six or seven days without water. The " camels also had a serviceable lifetime from age four to age twenty-five (Bonsal, 206; Malsch, 103-105).

Major Wayne, commander of the "Camel Military Corps," initially took the animals to the headwaters of the San Pedro in San Antonio, property now known as San Pedro Park. The site proved unacceptable for military operations, so he took them further into the Hill Country to Camp Verde, northwest of the city. The camp was close enough to retrieve supplies but far enough from population to avoid camel complaints. He had hoped to establish a breeding population, but that goal was not fulfilled. He did have a group of soldiers trained by Middle Eastern camel handlers. For his camel work, Major Wayne was later awarded by the Societe Imperiale Zoologique d' Acclimation de Paris (Faulk, 24-27,36, 69, 77-83; Emmett, 214, 220).

At Camp Verde the camels were placed under the charge of Lt. Edward F. Beale. Beale had been interested in the possible use of camels in western America ever since he read Recollections of a Journey Through Tartary, Thibet, and China by Abbe Evariste R. Huc. After hearing of the project in Texas he requested and won approval to use the camels on an overland expedition through the American Southwest (Bonsal, 199-200; Faulk, 38; Lammons, 30-37).

The camels acquired a nasty reputation among the American handlers. They made of "medley" of unpleasant noises and had a smell that would sober a drunk. The camels had tempers; they spit, and they fought each other to the point of causing injury. And when they were struck, they struck back. Drivers often beat mules to make them move; beating a camel often brought retaliation (Faulk, 70-76, 86-87; Boyd, 56).

Nevertheless, the camels and the camel camp became something of a tourist site. Visitors had gawked while the camels were still near the coast; they gawked in San Antonio; they continued to gawk at Camp Verde. Someone even knitted camel hair into socks for Franklin Pierce, President of the United States (Emmett, 36-39, 94-96).

After working with the camels and becoming accustomed to their habits, Beale led the first Camel Corps caravan west corning through Val Verde County. The Nueces River was noted as being nothing more than a string of puddles. Entering the county's future boundaries on July 2, the caravan would spend Independence Day 1857 in Val Verde. They stopped at San Felipe Springs as most travelers did, describing the water as sweet and cool. Beale's journal notes that he was "very much encouraged to see how eagerly [the camels] seek the bushes for food instead of grass, which certainly indicates their ability to subsist much easier than horses or mules in countries where forage is scarce" (Lesley, 149). They even ate prickly pear. The camels' first khan, or corral, near Indianola had been built of prickly pear because wood was scarce. The camels ate the walls of the enclosure as if it were a salad buffet (Boyd, 47).

On July 3cd they geared up, made an early start, and reached the Devil's River. "At about eight we stopped at the river and crossed to the opposite shore where we encamped. The scenery round the ford of this river is certainly the wildest we have seen in Texas, and it would be an apt place for an Indian ambuscade. Large mountains are on each side of the river, and the road on either side winds among them, affording splendid opportunities for an enemy to attack to advantage." The Devil's River was at the time "a clear, broad, and shallow stream of infinite beauty and picturesqueness. The bottom through which it runs, about a quarter mile in width, is filled with a fine growth of cotton wood and mesquite. The stream itself is a hundred yards or so in width, three feet in depth and the bottom of hard rock. On either side the banks are steep and in many places entirely precipitous, having the appearance of ruins, fortifications and regular mason work" (Lesley, 27-50; 148-153; Bonsal, 215).

On July 5th the caravan passed the army post of Fort Hudson. "We also passed this evening the scenes of several Indians murders and the graves of the victims." Each day they passed more graves. While the Road was a dangerous one, Beale reported that the group made Fort Tejon, California without the loss of a camel (Lesley, 27-50; 148-153; Bonsal, 215).

Despite some difficulties, Beale reported favorably concerning the camels. His letter from El Paso (after traveling the Val Verde County area and the whole San Antonio-El Paso Road) to J.B. Floyd, the Secretary of War, reported "the entire success of the expedition with the camels" (Bonsal, 202). They willingly ate "greasewood, a small bitter bush, useless for any purpose I have been able to discover except as being a valuable food for the camels They are the most docile, patient and easily managed creatures in the world" (Bonsal, 203-204). They also proved more reliable by not stampeding and causing damage when other livestock did (Faulk, 112). Admittedly, Beale liked the camels, and it was said that he learned Syrian so he could talk to the camels in "their language" (Boyd, 158).

Beale led the Camel Corps to El Paso, then north to Albuquerque. From New Mexico the group traveled through Arizona and on to California, surveying a wagon road along the 35th parallel. This camel-surveyed path was later followed by the Santa Fe Railroad (Faulk, 106-110; Boyd, 68, 103).

Beale continued to use the Army's camels in California after the objective of his expedition had been accomplished. He discovered the camels could swim and were adaptable to cold weather. A camel train rescued some snowbound travelers. They hauled supplies to army outposts, carried the mail, and were used during a survey through California mountains, and they were reported favorably in the local press (Boyd, 98; Lesley, 119-122; Faulk, 130-133).

Two other camel expeditions, led by Lt. William E. Echols and Lt. Edward L. Hartz of the Topographical Engineers, followed Beale's. Echols moved his base camp west, leading his first train of twenty-four camels to the Val Verde area. The objectives were to explore the Big Bend area and the "Great Comanche War Trail," to locate sites for army posts and to continue testing the suitability of camels in the Southwest. The train arrived at Fort Hudson on the Devil's River on June 12, 1859 and rested for five days before setting out to Fort Stockton and points west. Instead of following the SA-EP Road as Beale had, Echols took his camels into the Pecos River Valley. He followed the "broken terrain, with high hills" to test the camels' durability. When forage proved non-existent at Fort Stockton, the camels ate mesquite and other brushy plants while the other livestock had to be fed from the fort's provisions. The party continued on to Fort Davis and the Big Bend country surviving dry camps, poor forage, snake bites and the West Texas summer (Lammons, 40-42). Hartz reported that much of his route could not be traveled by wagons, but the camels handled it quite well (Boyd, 110-18; Faulk, 142-148).

The second Echols-Hartz expedition began in 1860 using Val Verde County's Fort Hudson as the base camp. From there they led the camels directly west and south into the roughest terrain of the Big Bend. (The SA-EP Road veers north from Fort Hudson and only turned westward where the water was more easily found and the Pecos River valley became very shallow). Echols left camp on June 24. He struck out towards the southwest, passing out of Val Verde to the west. This second trip through the Big Bend was apparently more difficult, and terrain and forage were particularly bad (Boyd, 122). "The mules will not fare well, the camels have performed most admirably today. No such march as this could have been made with any security without them. It is with difficulty that the mules can be kept from the water barrels" (Lammons, 44). The train continued on cross-country to Presidio del Norte where they rested and dined with Ben Leaton, before returning to Fort Hudson with continued favorable reports (Lammons, 42-48; Boyd, 125).

Back at Camp Verde Echols and Hartz wrote their report, generally favorable towards the use of camels. Colonel Robert E. Lee wrote a preface letter dated October 18, 1860 praising the men (and indirectly the camels). This date suggests that his submission was one of the last official acts before his secession from the U.S. Army (Emmett, 141-43; Boyd, 126-7).

The camel experiment came to an end when the American Civil War began. When the Confederate troops occupied Fort Hudson, they found some of the camels but had no idea what to do with them. They could not handle them, and the camels made the other livestock unmanageable. Some camels were driven back to Camp Verde. Some of them carried salt in the area around Brownsville (Faulk, 155). Others were turned loose to scare any Indians remaining in the area. Some camels survived, and after the Civil War the then wild camels were known to be in the Val Verde area (Landers, 10).

Stories about surviving camels around Texas and beyond are legion. They appeared in Jim Wells County in Deep South Texas; during the war they appeared as far north as Arkansas and Missouri. The Confederacy tried to use camels to carry mail. At least one high-ranking officer used a camel to carry his baggage during the Civil War. Camels found at other posts were also released or sold at auction. Some were even sold, after the war, to Ringling Brothers Circus, and more ended up in zoos and traveling shows. Others were part of a plan to carry mail and freight between Laredo and Mexico City. Still others packed miners' wares in Nevada and in Sonora, Mexico, carried a surveying crew through California's Death Valley, and more appeared were exhibited in Chicago in 1895. Future general Douglas MacArthur encountered camels while living at a post with his father in New Mexico. Bones from two camels also found their way to the Smithsonian. Reports of camel sightings were verified in the 1940s and once in 1956 (Bonsal, 207; Faulk, 155-162; Lammons, 48-49; Emmett, 167, 193,200-2,223; Boyd, 141-2 includes a picture of the display, 144-7, 184-92).

Despite all of the positive reporting, this test project ended with the advent of that Civil War. The "horse-and-mule men" of the Army did not want to deal with camels and did not want to learn how. Also, the taint of Jefferson Davis, an early supporter of camels and later of the Confederacy, discouraged their continued use. "Few people seemed willing to accept the camel as anything other than a curiosity" (Lammons, 49; Boyd, 111; Faulk, 158, 174). While they were not exactly forgotten, but there simply was no time for camels.

 

BibliographyŚ(This application text is based on the handful of key references on the Camel Corps. Communities all across Texas have their own local stories.)

Stephen Bonsal, Edward Fitzgerald Beale: A Pioneer in the Path of Empire, New York: G.P. Putman's Sons, 1912.
Eva Jolene Boyd, Noble Brutes: Camels on the American Frontier, Piano: Republic of Texas Press, 1995
Chris Emmett, Texas Camel Tales, Austin: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1969 (reprint).
Odie B. Faulk, The US. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Frank Bishop Lammons, "Operation Camel: An Experiment in Animal Transportation in Texas, 1857-1860," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 1957.
F.A. Landers, "Camp Hudson, Texas, June 1857-April 1868," Vertical File, Val Verde County Library.
Lewis Burt Lesley, Uncle Sam's Camels: The Journal of May Humphreys Stacey Supplemented by the Report of Edward Fitzgerald Beale (1857-1858), Glorieta, New Mexico: Rio Grande Press, 1970 (reprint).
Brownson Malsch, lndianola: The Mother of Western Texas, Austin: State House Press, 1988.