The U.S. Army Camel Corps

A Novel Experiment

Inscriptions reading "Beale" and "Breckinridge" recall a novel 1850s experiment by the U.S. Army. Major Henry C. Wayne and Edward F. Beale, the superintendent of Indian Affairs in California, had long tried to solve the water problem on the route from the Mississippi River to California through the Southwest desert. In 1855, some men went to Europe and Africa to study the habits of camels in captivity. Buying 33 camels in Egypt and Turkey, they took on three Arab handlers, sailed back to Texas,and began training. People living near Camp Verde, Texas admired the camels; a woman sent President Franklin Pierce a pair of socks knitted "from the pile of one of our camels".

When the westward expeditions started in 1856, the officers reported their camels superior to horses and mules. Another 41 camels were added to the corps in 1857. P. Gilmer Breckinridge of Virginia, tasked with wrangling 25 camels on the Beale expedition, inscribed his name as his caravan passed El Morro that year.

"The camels are coming", read a newspaper headline when these exotic beasts pulled an express wagon into Los Angeles in December 1857. "Their approach made quite a stir among the native population, most of whom had never seen the like." The article told how camels were content to forage on cactus, could "live well where domestic animals would die", and could pull a load over a mountain where mules balked.

Camp Verde fell into Confederate hands at the beginning of the Civil War, and the camels fell into disuse. After the war, most of the animals were sold at auction, and some ended up in zoos, and circuses. Some simply escaped; as late as the early 1900s sightings of feral camels might still be reported from Mexico to Arkansas.

Last updated: May 4, 2020

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