Weird Texas history: The U.S. Army’s camel corps experiment at Camp Verde

1857: Members of the US Camel Corps in the southwestern desert. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images) (MPI, Getty)

Ladies and gents of the Lone Star State, gather ‘round as we recount the brief and bizarre tale of the U.S. Army’s strangest division: the camel corps.

Yes, you read that right. The camel corps. Once upon a time in Texas, an army-sanctioned herd of camels roamed the Hill Country.

In the 1830s, America’s westward expansion was being curtailed by the inhospitable terrain of the Southwest, where vast deserts, scorching heat and towering mountain ranges were proving an almost insurmountable obstacle to people and pack animals alike.

In 1836, U.S. Army Lt. George H. Crosman and his friend devised an unusual solution to the problem at hand: Camels. Vince Hawkins wrote in a scholarly article titled, “The U.S. Army’s ‘Camel Corps’ Experiment,” that the pair were so taken with their idea, they penned a report and sent it to the United States Department of War, which disregarded it.

“For strength in carrying burdens, for patient endurance of labor, and privation of food, water (and) rest, and in some respects speed also, the camel and dromedary (as the Arabian camel is called) are unrivaled among animals,” the report reads. “The ordinary loads for camels are from 700 to 900 pounds each, and with these they can travel from 30 to 40 miles a day, for many days in succession. They will go without water, and with but little food, for six or eight days, or it is said even longer. Their feet are alike well suited for traversing grassy or sandy plains, or rough, rocky hills and paths, and they require no shoeing…”

The dromedary idea remained dormant until 1847 when Jefferson Davis, then a Mississippi Senator, learned of it. He was so taken with the camel concept he proposed it to Congress in 1851 and 1852. Apparently, the proposal was “literally laughed out of committee on both occasions,” John Shapard wrote in a 1975 article published in the Military Review.

When Davis was appointed Secretary of War several years later in 1853, he again presented the idea to Congress. In an annual report in 1854, Davis told Congress, “I again invite attention to the advantages to be anticipated from the use of camels and dromedaries for military and other purposes, and for reasons set forth in my last annual report, recommend that an appropriation be made to introduce a small number of the several varieties of this animal, to test their adaptation to our country…”

And in 1855, at long last, Davis secured a $30,000 appropriation for the acquisition of a small camel herd.

To Brevet Major Henry C. Wayne, Davis penned what Shapard described as “one of the most unusual orders in the US Army’s history.”

“Sir: (You are) assigned to special duty in connection with the appropriation for importing camels for Army transportation and for other military purposes,” Davis wrote.

In a joint Army-Navy operation led by Wayne and naval officer David Dixon Porter, 33 camels were purchased in Turkey and Egypt and transported to the United States. Upon their return to the states, Porter was ordered back to the Mediterranean to procure even more camels. Six months later, he came back with 41 more.

In all, the camel corps was 75 animals strong and its home base was ultimately established at Camp Verde, Texas, 60 miles north of San Antonio.

There, Wayne tested the military usefulness of the camels. In one exercise, he pitted three wagons, each equipped with a six-mule team, against six camels. The parties were tasked with retrieving a supply of oats from San Antonio. In a report to Davis, Wayne said the camels won easily.

“From this trial it will be seen that the six camels transported over the same ground and distance, the weight of two six mule wagons, and gained on them 42 1/2 hours in time,” Wayne wrote.

In another test, a camel caravan traveled through the under-explored Big Bend. Though the soldiers nearly died of dehydration, the camels did remarkably well, the National Park Service wrote of the journey.

With these promising results, a much more extensive experiment was ultimately proposed and undertaken in 1857-- an expedition to Fort Defiance, New Mexico, and then on to Fort Tejon, California. When the journey began, the camels moved more slowly than the horses and mules and were often late reaching camp. However, by the second week of the journey they were outperforming the other pack animals. The camels’ slow start was later attributed “to their months of idleness and ease at Camp Verde,” Hawkins wrote.

When the caravan came to the Colorado River, officers were concerned the camels could not swim. They were pleasantly surprised when the largest camel plunged right into the water and swam across without difficulty. The remaining camels also crossed without incident, but several horses and mules drowned while attempting to navigate the water, Hawkins wrote.

Four months and 1,200 miles later, the group reached Fort Tejon in California.

Fast forward to 1861, and many of the camels became Confederate property when Camp Verde was captured during the Civil War.

During this period of turmoil, the camel herd was widely scattered. Some were returned to Camp Verde; some were used to pack cotton bales to Brownsville; some left in California escaped into the dessert; and one “found its way to the infantry command of Confederate Army Capt. Sterling Price, who used it throughout the war to carry the whole company’s baggage,” the “Handbook of Texas” reads. Curious to know more about the camels’ fate? Peruse this piece by the Smithsonian.

With its attention focused on reconstruction, the U.S. Army sold the remaining camels at auction in 1866.

Though the fort at Camp Verde was deactivated in 1869 the general store remains open. Fittingly, many camel-adorned products are on offer there.

Information from the article comes from the “The U.S. Army’s ‘Camel Corps’ Experiment,” by Vince Hawkins and “The United States Army Camel Corps 1856-66″ by John Shapard, “Camels at Fort Davis,” by the National Park Service and “Camels” from the “Handbook of Texas Online.”

About the Author:

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team in 2019. When she’s not hard at work in the KPRC 2 newsroom, you can find Bri drinking away her hard earned wages at JuiceLand, running around Hermann Park, listening to crime podcasts or ransacking the magazine stand at Barnes & Noble.