Camel Corps of the US Army: bringing a bit of the Middle East to the Southwest
August 23, 2012 4:05 PM   Subscribe

The U.S. Camel Corps was a short-lived experiment run by the U.S. Army before the Civil War, the result of two decades of support for importing and utilizing the foreign pack animal by George H. Crosman and some of his friends and colleagues. More than 70 camels were brought from the Middle East and southern Europe, along with 5 camel drovers from Greece and Turkey, arriving in Texas in 1856. A select few of that bunch made the trek across "unexplored territory" from El Paso to the Colorado River, with camels faring the best among the group of men, horses, and mules. When James Buchanan became president in 1857, there were numerous changes in command, including the commander of the Army in Texas, who "was outraged when he discovered a herd of camels under his command." By the time the Civil War started, the Camel Corps was dissolved and forgotten, but both the animals and the drovers would leave their mark in the West.

Though there are a number of players in the introduction of camels to the US Army, most agree that thoughts of using camels originated in 1836 with West Point graduate George Hampton Crosman (Google books preview), during the Seminole War in Florida. Crosman would research the topic for the next 15 years. Some credit the origins of this thought to the story of travel through the Middle East, Recollections of a journey through Tartary, Thibet, and China, during the years 1844, 1845, and 1846 (, specifically the glowing review of the camel:
This want of good pastures and fresh streams is very unfavourable to cattle, but the camel makes amends to the Tartars of the Ortous for the absence of the rest. This is the real treasure of the desert (Google books); it can remain fifteen days or even a month without eating or drinking, and however miserable the country, it always finds something to satisfy it, especially if the soil is impregnated with salt or nitrate; plants that other animals will not touch, brambles or even dry wood, serve it for food. Yet little as it costs to keep, the camel is more useful than can be imagined out of countries where Providence has placed it. Its ordinary burden is seven or eight hundred weight, and thus laden it can go forty miles a day.
Crosman befriended Maj. Henry C. Wayne, who had served as assistant quartermaster-general during the Mexican-American War, which greatly expanded US territory. Wayne suggested the use of camels in the Army to the War Department and to members of Congress as early as 1848. Wayne collaborated with Senator Jefferson Davis, and they extensive studies in regard to the different breeds of the animal, its habitat, the proper care of it, and its adaptability to the arid plains of Texas, New Mexico and California. In March, 1851, Davis proposed to insert in the army appropriation bill an amendment providing the sum of $30,000 for the purchase of fifty camels, the hire of ten Arabs, and other expenses. The amendment failed, but a bill carrying a $20,000 appropriation for the purchase of camels was raised the following year in the House, where it passed, but failed to garner sufficient support in the Senate.

Subsequently, there was a growing public discussion regarding the importation of camels for travel in the Great American Desert, as the arid region of the southwest was known. American diplomat George Perkins Marsh, who was the appointed United States minister resident in the Ottoman Empire, even wrote a book on the subject, titled The Camel, his Organization, Habits and Uses, considered with reference to his Introduction into the United States ( In 1853, Davis returned to Washington, now as the Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, and Davis returned to his quest for acquiring camels to test in the west, into arid lands that lacked good roads, navigable streams, or much water at all, for that matter. The high cost of traveling through this area, in terms of feed and care for pack animals, and of losses due to marauding natives who could escape into the inhospitable terrain.

The funds for camels finally came in the spring of 1855, and the mission to secure camels was first offered to Crosman, who declined. Davis sent a joint Army/Navy mission to the Levant, headed by Major Wayne and Lieutenant David D. Porter of the Navy. The trip started with a visit to military men in England and France for insight into use of camels in military operations, and even visited the 200 camels kept by the Duke of Tuscany near Pisa (Google books). Traveling south, the expedition found that many valuable camels had already been purchased and taken for use in the Crimean War. After a variety of adventures and a great deal of learning the ways of camels, 33 animals were gathered and finally loaded onto the store ship Supply on February 15, 1856. The ship was modified with a "camel deck" to accommodate the camels and allow them access to fresh air even in the worst storms.

Most of the camels survived the 89 days at sea, with two of the six birthed on the trip surviving, and one cow dying in birthing, bringing the number up to 34. The ship arrived in Indianola, Texas on May 14. The camels moved to San Antonio on June 18, with the warning "The camels are coming! The camels are coming!" and the jangling of bells. In September, six camels were tested against three 6-mule wagon team. The camels were able to travel a shorter distance, as the mules were kept to the available road. Each camel carried 3,648 pounds of oats and returned in two and a half days, while the wagons brought 1,800 pounds each, and took nearly five days in performing the journey.

The first trip to purchase camels used less than a third of the allocated funds, and a return trip was planned in June, 1856. Mr. Gwynn (or Gwinn) Harris Heap, an American diplomat who had resided in Tunis, helped with the first foray into purchasing camels, who was also was related to David D. Porter, the Navy lieutenant who had taken part in the first trip to the Middle East. Porter returned on the Supply, and he arrived in November, following Heap, who had already collected six young camels. Lt. Porter returned to Indianola on February 10, 1857, turning over 41 animals to Major Wayne, having lost only 3 on the rough return journey. These new animals joined the rest at Camp Verde, where the total camel population increased to 70, due to 5 of the original group dying due to various causes. Wayne furnished a report to Jefferson Davis in February 1857 (, providing information on the purchases and experiences with the camels to date. At this same time, President Buchanan's administration came into power, and Buchanan named John B. Floyd as Secretary of War. Major Wayne was called back to Washington, and though he would no longer work with camels in the west, he would be awarded the First Class Gold Medal of Mammal Division by the Société impériale zoologique d'acclimatation of France in 1858 for his introduction of the camel into the United States. Floyd directed 20 of the camels from the Camel Corps to be used in surveying a wagon route from western New Mexico (an area which would become part of Arizona) to California. Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale was tasked with creating that route from Fort Defiance to the Colorado River. This expedition took place in the summer of 1857, and Beale spoke highly of the camels after this forty-eight day journey, writing that one camel was worth four good mules, as the camels were able to traverse any surface, even learning to swim across rivers. Beale's wagon road roughly followed Lt. Amiel Whipple's trail that was surveyed four summers prior. Following this trek, Beale and his camels were directed to undertake "national explorations" that ranged over a large part of the Southwest, continuing for four years.

In this same time period, Major David H. Vinton directed Lt. Edward L. Hartz to perform additional experiments with 24 camels (Google books). Hartz wasn't as enthusiastic as Wayne and Beale, noting that mules were better on slippery and sloping surfaces, but over-all camels were superior to mules for their ability to carry great weight and travel quickly over level, rocky or sandy ground. Given these successes, Secretary Floyd recommended to Congress that 1,000 additional camels be purchased in his December, 1858 report. This recommendation was repeated in 1859 and in 1860, but no Congress paid no attention to the matter.

When the civil war began, the government camels were scattered from Texas to California. Due to general misunderstanding of the animals, they were often mis-handled in various tasks such as delivering mail, and the foreign animals scared both people and horses. The animals were sold to private individuals, circuses and zoos, or let loose.

One camel, Old Douglas, came to be a Confederate mascot for the 43rd Mississippi Infantry. He was killed by a Union sharpshooter, and Douglas is remembered with his own memorial marker.

Of the roaming camels, one is remembered in the stories of the Red Ghost of Yuma. Rumors of other feral camels persisted until 1941 in Texas, and into the 1950s in Arizona (Google books preview).

The Texas Camel Corps is current-day educational organization with camels available for historic re-enactments, tours of the area once roamed by the original Camel Corps, and other camel-related activities.

But what of the camel drovers? Those men who came with the camels to train and handle the foreign animals? Most records of the Camel Corps are silent or speak little on this aspect of the history of importing camels to the United States. Philip Tedro: A Greek Legend of the American West is a record of eight Greek camel drovers, Yiorgos Caralambo (Greek George), Philip Tedro/Hadji Ali (Hi Jolly), Mimico Teodora (Mico), Hadjiatis Yannaco (Long Tom), Anastasio Coralli (Short Tom), Michelo Georgios, Yanni IIIato and Giorgios Costi, though it focuses on Tedro/Ali. Hadji Ali was born Philip Tedro, but changed his name when he converted to Islam and had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. He earned the nickname Hi Jolly from the English-speaking compatriots who couldn't pronounce his name. Ali and Caralambo (Greek George) were the two drovers who accompanied Beale on the survey to California, and on to other surveys of the west. Most of the drovers returned to their homelands, but Hi Jolly stayed, first trying to continue hauling freight with camels he bought from the Army, and when that business failed, he released the camels into the desert and worked for the military, delivered mail for a while, and prospected for gold. At the age of 52, Hadji Ali became a citizen of the US, using the name Philip Tedro. That same year, 1880, he married Gertrudis Serna in Tuscon, and the couple had two daughters. He abandoned his family to return to prospecting and/or to gather up feral camels 9 years later. A decade more, and he was ill and returned to his family, though his wife only visited him briefly and refused his bid for a reconciliation. He spent his last years in Quartzsite, where his story telling and collection of feral camels was well-known, and he was well-liked. In 1902, he headed into the desert, searching for a wild camel. He died in that search, and his body was returned to Quartzsite, where he was buried under a special pyramid tomb, topped with a metal camel silhouette. Hi Jolly is also remembered in song, heard here performed by New Christy Minstrels in 1963. It's still performed by some bands, keeping Quartzsite on the map.

Yiorgos Caralambo also stayed in the western US, where he was employed for a period as a camel mail carrier, then as caretaker for horses and cattle in Rancho La Brea (present day Los Angeles). He built a home there, and became a naturalized citizen in 1867 under the name George Allen. Later, he moved to Whittier and died near Mission Vieja San Gabriel on September 2, 1913. His grave is California Historical Landmark #646.

Further information:

The Harpers Magazine dated October 1857 has an extensive article on camels, "The Ships of the Desert," include details of the Camel Corps that was available to date. But more interesting, the article details the various types of camels, the culture of desert people who raise and use camels, the wrestling Pehlevan camels, and even the meat, milk, hair and skin of the camel.

Camel Whisperers (Google quickview, original 6.6mb PDF) is a scan of a 21 page article, primarily on Hi Jolly and the other drovers who accompanied the camels.

There were at least two movies based on the Camel Corps adventures. The first, Southwest Passage (1954), is a b-grade western that was a fairly straight in its telling of the Camel Corps. In 1976, Disney released a more comedic take on the tale, with Hawmps!, featuring a number of veteran western actors.
posted by filthy light thief (20 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
For some reason, the Air Force thought it would be fitting and proper to name one of their bases after Beale. Is there a Flying Camel Squadron out there?
posted by Longtime Listener at 4:26 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

In memory of Harry Harrison, and in salutation of this astonishing post, Space Rats of the CCC:

It was a creature three metres high at the shoulders, four metres high at the ugly, drooling, tooth-clashing head, a whirlwinded, spacewarped storm that rushed forward on four piston-like legs, great-clawed feet tearing grooves in the untearable surface of the impervitium flooring, a monster born of madness and nightmares that reared up before them and bellowed in a soul-destroying screech.

‘There!’ Colonel von Thorax bellowed in answer, blood-specked spittle mottling his lips. ‘ There is your faithful companion, the mutacamel, mutation of the noble beast of Good Old Earth, symbol and pride of the C.C.C. - the Combat Camel Corps ! Corpsman meet your camel!’ The selected Corpsman stepped forward and raised his arm in greeting to this noble beast, which promptly bit the arm off.

‘That is your first lesson on combat camels,’ the Colonel cried huskily. ‘Never raise your arms to them. Your companion with a newly grafted arm will, I am certain, ha-ha!, remember this little lesson. Next man, next companion!’

posted by Sebmojo at 4:29 PM on August 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

+1 for including "Hawmps!"
posted by briank at 4:30 PM on August 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

As if camels weren't odd enough, the Army moved on to experiment with the US Army 25th Bicycle Corp.
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:33 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow! This post is amazing. And the Red Ghost would be a great subject for a movie. What happened to his rider, and where were they going? Did the camel ever get there?
posted by Kevin Street at 5:00 PM on August 23, 2012

I nominate this post for some kind of an award.

Now I will spend the rest of the night on the links.
posted by notreally at 5:01 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Postwar, some number of these camels ended up shipped to the town of Benicia, California, to be auctioned off. Benicia's a sleepy little burg where I happen to make my home. The camels are kind of a significant part of local history, to the point that I often forget other people might be interested in this odd military footnote.

The old Camel Barn has been turned into a local history museum and rental hall. After my grandparents' death, we held their memorial there.

Right up the road at the Clocktower, my little brother was arrested for domestic terrorism.

Every year I buy my Christmas tree out in front of the Camel Barn.

Life is weird.
posted by Myca at 5:14 PM on August 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Burhanistan and Myca, I didn't know about those stories. Thanks for sharing the links!

Kevin Street, one story I read included this: The Navajos, it is said, once tied a Mexican shepherd to a camel's back and turned the animal loose. There was no mention of when this story took place, so the two stories might be connected, or they could both be tall tales.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:21 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was a teenager, my family took a vacation to D.C. and spent an awful lot of time at the Smithsonian museums. (I'm the child of two teachers, so every family vacation involved an awful lot of museums.) I remember a whole wing of the natural history museum just filled with skeletons of every animal imaginable. The dinosaurs and the whales got top billing, of course, but then there were a bunch of sad, dusty rooms painted in pastel colors to house all the less interesting skeletons. We wandered through the rooms trying to find our way out to get ice cream and maybe go to a more interesting museum while we were at it, because you can only look at so many skeletons before they are meaningless and boring.

Then we came to the camel specimen.

There was a sign next to it, noting that the skeleton was from a camel that served in the US Army Camel Corps, and I remember thinking... why isn't this whole wing of the museum about THAT? I want a whole display about the US Army Camel Corps! And then I wondered pretty hard about those camels and what purpose they might have served and what hilarious events might have made the US Army rethink its Camel Corps, seeing how we don't have one now. But I was a lazy teenager who didn't know about the internet yet, so I never found out.

posted by adiabat at 5:24 PM on August 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

I keep telling myself I am going to cut down on my web browsing. It keeps happening that I'm a damn liar, and you sir, are not helping.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:46 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Aha! I see that camel treks are offered at the local Monahans Sandhills, which are the closest I'll ever willingly get to the Sahara.
posted by nicebookrack at 6:08 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would be out of line if I did not mention that these same camels receive passing mention in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day. We now return to our regularly scheduled program
posted by Roger_Mexico at 9:20 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Fascinating to read the sad fate of the camels here in the US. Very different to Australia, which imported camels for a similar purpose and now has three million feral camels.
posted by rednikki at 9:40 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Harpers Magazine article cited was in the possession of my family, as we owned two bound volumes ...

So I read the article years ago.

My step-father in his youth camped in the Mohave and in Death Valley with a rather unpleasant troop of boy-scouts.

He heard an awful ruckus of gurgling and braying, and very quietly got up. In the dark he saw a white she-camel and her young calf.

He said absolutely NOTHING about this to any of the troop or the scout-master, since one of the desert camping past times of the scout-master and some of the other boys was finding lizards and staking them out in the sun.

He quit the scouts as fast as he could.

I often wished we could go look for well, the off-spring of this camel.

Camels are making a come-back in the States, but mostly as a dairy animal. About the only transportation they are used for now is camel trekking.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:40 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have to say, as far as a comprehensive approach to the topic, this post is awesome. I now know everything I needed to know about the US camel corps.

Now I just have to use it in a game, sometime.
posted by happyroach at 10:13 PM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Excellent post.

I first read about the Camel Corps in a Lucky Luke story, which really was a treasure trove for all kinds of weird western stuff.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:41 PM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you've ever wondered why the north-south rail link between Adelaide in South Australia and Darwin in the Northern Territory is called the Ghan.... well because camels. Specifically because of the Afghani camel drivers that preceded the trains as the key land transport link.

If you've never wondered why the north-south rail link between Adelaide in South Australia and Darwin in the Northern Territory is called the Ghan.... well now you know anyway.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 1:06 AM on August 24, 2012

Except, the Afghans were not actual Afghans. Mostly they came from Rajastan, which is an area that produces excellent camels. BTW, camels don't need to be taught to swim. They like to swim, they just don't often have a chance to go.
I forgot to mention that William Randolph Hearst owned many camels which he kept at his castle in San Simeon.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:00 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is freaking amazing.
posted by batmonkey at 2:40 PM on August 24, 2012

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