Camel Cavalry - Civil War History

by Lindsey Williams - Date: 2007-01-29 - Word Count: 1725 Share This!

The dash of American soldiers overcoming Iraq desert sand in the triumphant march to Baghdad recalls a colorful experiment in 1855-60 using camels to militarily conquer the great American desert dividing the east and west coasts.

Discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in Dec. 1848 set off a rush for California. Eager miners had to choose from three difficult and dangerous routes to get there.

The fastest, but expensive, was a sea journey to Panama, a portage to the Pacific and another trip by ship to San Francisco. A mid-continent route required arduous climbing through the Rocky Mountains. A southern route through desert country -- newly won as spoils in the Mexican War -- had to contend with lack of water and animal forage.

Jefferson Davis, a senator for Mississippi --- later president of the Confederacy --- suggested that camels be imported to carry supplies across the southwestern desert to the miners --- and gold on the return trip. His proposal was greeted with jeers and laughter in Congress.

In 1853, Davis was appointed Secretary of War and in a position to pursue his camel venture. Two years later, Congress appropriated $30,000 to buy camels for military purposes.

Major Henry C. Wayne was given the task of acquiring the camels. U.S. Navy Lt. David Porter, commander of the cargo ship Supply was directed to transport the exotic animals. Neither man had ever seen a camel except, perhaps, in a circus.

At Tunis, Wayne purchased the first camel he laid eyes on, paying the asking price by an astonished camel herder. In short order, Wayne and Porter had bought four broken down camels that soon died. One good camel was given to them by the Bey of Tunis.

Fortunately an American named Gwinn Heap, who had lived in Tunis many years, joined the expedition. He took the two neophytes to Egypt were nine camels were purchased at greatly inflated prices.

With this, Heap went on alone to Smyrna where his connection with the American government was unknown. There he purchased 23 healthy animals by the time Wayne and Porter arrived.

Included in the motley herd of 33 camels were "21 Arabian beasts of burden (one hump), two Bactrians (two humps), nine Dromedaries (bred for fast riding) and one Tuili (an enormous offspring of an Arabian female and a Bactrian male)."

Three native handlers were taken along to manage the camels during the three-month Atlantic crossing. The camel drivers were Hadji Ali (shortened to Hi Jolly by the sailors), George Caralambo (Greek George) and Elias Calles.

The camels were quartered below deck in straw-padded stalls. A hole was cut in the deck to accommodate the Tuili's hump. In rough weather, the animals were tied down in a kneeling position so they would not break their legs.

One camel died on the voyage. However, six colts were born; and two of these survived. Thus, the expedition landed at Indianola, Texas, with one more animals than it started with. Upon reaching shore, the camels went berserk --- breaking their harness, bellowing, kicking, and romping about.

The camels were a great curiosity. Newspapers front-paged the arrival. Folks at San Antonio laughed at the camels and doubted their strength. Whereupon, Wayne arranged a demonstration of their prowess.

He asked the crowd to point out a camel. That one kneeled and was loaded with two bales of hay weighing altogether 613 pounds - a heavy load for a mule. Then, two more bales were placed on the camel's back. Upon command, the camel arose easily and strode away - to cheers from the crowd.

Total cost of the expedition was $7,331. The balance of the $30,000 appropriation was returned to the government -- a precedent that never caught on.

Maj. Wayne set out in caravan for Camp Verde, an Army post 60 miles northwest of San Antonio. Heap and Porter returned immediately to Asia Minor where they purchased 42 more camels. This brought to 75 the total number of animals imported.

En route to Camp Verde, the caravan stopped for rest at Victoria. There Mrs. Mary Shirkey was allowed to clip enough camel hair to knit a pair of socks. She mailed them to Wayne, and he sent them to President Franklin Pierce. The president sent Mrs. Shirkey a silver goblet.

The 1st U.S.A. Camel Corps was designated in March 1857. Edward Beale was placed in command. He was promoted and assigned duties in Washington, D.C., where a Civil War was brewing.

Beale's appointment to the camel cavalry was a quirk of fate. He had been graduated from the Naval Academy but resigned when President Millard Fillmore appointed him Superintendent for Indian Affairs at California.

When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in 1849, Beale and an Army courier were selected to carry the news to Washington, D.C. They were ordered to take different routes so the news would get through even if one of them perished in the attempt.

Beale chose a dangerous route. He shipped south to San Blas then struck out overland by horseback to Vera Cruz through bandit country. On the Gulf coast he caught a ship to Washington. He was the first to arrive at the Capital, proudly carrying an eight-pound gold nugget.

The government in 1885 was still seeking an acceptable, all-weather route through the vast American continent to California. Beale was ordered to take his camels and survey a possible route along the 35th parallel from Fort Defiance, Arizona, to a Colorado River crossing.

The party left Camp Verde in June, 1857, with 25 camels, mules, sheep, dogs, supply wagons and regular Army cavalry.

The camels at first fell behind with sore humps due to inaction of the sea voyage.

By the time they reached El Paso, however, Wayne reported to Secretary of War Floyd:

"Laboring under all the disadvantages arising out of the fact that we have not one man who knows anything whatever of camels, or how to pack them, we have nevertheless arrived here without an accident.

"Although we have used the camels every day with heavy packs, they have fewer sore backs and disabilities by far than would have been the case traveling with pack mules.

"The camels live and keep on food which the mules reject and which grows in the greatest luxuriance in the most barren of our American deserts --- namely, the greasewood, a small, bitter bush useless for any purpose.

"I was told by the highest authority on leaving San Antonio, that not one of them would ever see El Paso; that they would give out on the way. This prediction has not been verified by fact."

In another report, just before reaching a water hole, Beale wrote:

"Our horses were now beginning to suffer very much, having been almost constantly at work for 36 hours without water. One of the most painful sights I have ever witnessed was a group of them standing over a small barrel of water and trying to drink from the bung-hole, frantic with distress and eagerness to get at it!

"Our camels seemed to view this proceeding with great contempt and kept quietly browsing on the grass and bushes."

Upon arriving at the Colorado, the regular cavalry viewed the wide crossing warily. It was supposed the camels had a horror of rivers and would balk, or would be unable to swim. However, they waded in unperturbed, and all reached the other side safely. Ten mules and two horses drowned.

Beale and Hi Jolly, decked out in Arabian garb and bells, rode triumphantly astride their two Bactrians into the village of Los Angeles. The mission was a complete success.

The route they charted one day became the famous highway Route 66, now Interstate 40.

Wishing to test the endurance of camels in winter, Beale followed the same route back in early 1858. The camels were indifferent to cold weather.

Secretary Floyd was impressed with the camels' performance and ordered the purchase of 1,000 additional animals. However, Congress was more concerned with the possibility of civil war at home. All monies were spent on conventional defenses.

Camp Verde and its camels fell to Confederate forces in February 1861. Without any experience in managing camels, the confederates killed many "ships of the desert" as nuisances.

When Union forces regained Camp Verde, the remaining camels were scattered to various owners. Beale gave 28 of them to Los Angeles. They were housed on main street to transport mail and baggage from San Pedro.

The last 33 animals were auctioned off by the government to a rancher named Sam McLeneghan. He sold three to a circus, and used the others for freight service for many years.

The camels performed able and cheaply. Yet, as the caravans approached a town, a driver would have to go ahead on a horse and shout, "Camels coming, camels coming!"

This was a warning to horse riders whose mounts usually spooked at the strange looking, foul smelling camels. Nevada passed a law levying a $100 fine for using a camel on a public highway.

McLeneghan finally turned his camels loose. They and their few descendants wandered about the wastelands of Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona for many years.

Historian Robert Froman confirms by contemporary newspaper articles that a huge, wild camel with the skeleton of a man strapped to its back roamed Arizona and trampled to death a woman when surprised at a spring.

Thereafter the enraged camel was called the Red Ghost. It was shot to death in 1893 -- some human bones still strapped to its hump.

The Middle East drivers who came with the original shipment of camels scattered also. Calles ended up in Mexico where his son, Plutarco, became president of Mexico in the early 1920's. Greek George served a long term with the U.S. Army and died in Montebello, California, in 1913.

Hi Jolly became a living legend in the west. Once -- insulted because he had not been invited to a picnic at Los Angeles -- Hi Jolly broke up the gathering by driving into it with a cart pulled by his two pet camels.

The Syrian camel driver, and U.S. Army scout, is said to have died in 1903 with his camel out on the Arizona desert, his arms around the neck of his faithful steed. A monument marking Hi Jolly's "last camp" was erected at Quartzsite, Ariz.

In April 1934, the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune reported: "Topsy, the last American camel that trekked across the desert of Arizona and California died today at Griffith Park -- destroyed by attendants when she became crippled with paralysis of old age." Her ashes were interred in Hi Jolly's monument at Quartzsite.

April 20, 2003

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Related Tags: civil war, baghdad, military, camels, desert warfare, confederate, confederacy, cavalry, dromedaries

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Website: with over a thousand of Lin's Editorial & At Large articles written over 40 years.

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