Myths of US Camel Experiment
This article is courtesy of Doug Baum
Perhaps no episode in American history is less understood and poorly interpreted than the U.S. Army Camel Experiment of the mid-19th century. It’s even been written that it “failed.” Reasons our country has no vestigial camel populations from the colorful period preceding the Civil War are many, but this author will attempt to lay out the facts by citing the officers, themselves, in charge of the camels.
Myth #1: The camels’ feet couldn’t handle the rocks of the U.S. Southwest.
One need only look at the August 1860 journal of Lt. William H. Echols of the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers to find the singular instance of camels’ feet becoming sore to find the source of this myth.
The “camels have several sore feet, their soles have actually been abraded off to the quick by the sharp craggy rocks,” Echols wrote of their time exploring what’s now known as the Big Bend region of Texas, but goes on to mention that all but one of their fifteen mules was abandoned on the trail after the mules slipped their shoes. And what of the twenty camels? All but one returned to Camp Hudson, from where their expedition had begun.
In no great number did the camels’ feet suffer, nor in any great number of instances. In fact, the report Echols sent to Robert E. Lee, then in temporary command of the Department of Texas, prompted the future Confederate General to write to Washington: The expedition was provided with a train of camels, whose endurance, docility, and sagacity will not fail to attract the attention of the Secretary
of War, and but for whose reliable services the reconnaissance would have failed. Additionally, only thirty percent of the world’s deserts are sandy. The other seventy percent look just like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. There is nothing inherently rougher about our U.S. deserts than those of North Africa or the Middle East where the army camels had been purchased.
Myth #2: Horses couldn’t stand the camels.
It might be enough to point out Arabian horses have lived with camels for the better part of 4,500 years, since camels were first domesticated, but again we can go to the journals of men like Edward F. Beale, who led an expedition from San Antonio, Texas to Los Angeles, California in the summer of 1857 lasting four months and covering two thousand miles. Along with his two dozen camels were horses and mules and not once does Beale devote any space in his journal to the various species not getting along. What’s not in the journals, in this case, is as important as what is.
On June 28, 1857, Beale wrote, “They are exceedingly docile, easily managed, and I see, so far, no reason to doubt the success of the experiment.” If the camels and horses weren’t getting along, surely this would have been noted. Less than two weeks later, Beale would go on to say, “…my only regret at present is that I have not double the number.” There were certainly horses in the public sector that spooked at first sight (or possibly smell) of the camels, but with time that would have been rectified. This author’s own experiences as a reenactor show that cavalry mounts can and do get over their fear of camels.
Myth #3: At the end of the Civil War the Army turned the camels loose to fend for themselves.
History tells us what happened to the camels. In 1863 a gentleman named Samuel McLaughlin bought Beale’s camels. He would go on to pack salt on the camels, working for the newly established silver mines in Nevada, while the remaining sixty-six camels in Texas at war’s end were bought by Bethel Coopwood. Coopwood started a freight line from Laredo, Texas to Mexico City, which he operated for three years.
There were commercial importations of camels numbering almost three hundred, an example of private business following the military’s lead, and owners of those camels did later purchase some of the former army camels, combining parts of the two groups. As the camels worked themselves out of a job (some helped build the railroad in Arizona), some were released, but not in any great numbers. Imagine the mustang and burro populations the Western U.S. currently has and one can realize we simply didn’t have enough camels (nor were significant enough numbers running feral) to create and sustain a population. Were there some camels running loose across the West? Yes. Did the Army release them? No.
What’s to fail? When the American military made their admittedly unique purchases in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey, ours was the last army on Earth to work with camels. Bedouin, Berbers, Kazakhs, Mongols, Tuaregs, Romans, Assyrians, and Persians, just to name a few, all had employed this desert creature for its military might.
The real truth is much more simple. Prior to the Civil War, Jefferson Davis served as Secretary of War and it was he who pushed the camel appropriation through Congress in 1855. Post-war, Davis was a most divisive figure and his connection to the camels doomed the successful experiment. If there’s any “failure” it should be squarely laid at the feet of the body politic, not on the back of the camel.
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