California State Military Department
The California Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
Early California
The Camel Experiment
by Colonel Herbert M. Hart, USMC (Retired)
Executive Director, Council on America's Military Past
 

"And be it further enacted, that the sum of $50,000 be, and the same is hereby appropriated under the direction of the War Department in the purchase and importation of camels and dromedaries to be employed for military purposes."

Passed by the 33rd Congress and signed by the President, March 3, 1855.

If camels can work in the deserts of Africa, why can they not do as well in the American West? That was the question, more or less paraphrased, posed during the Seminole Indian War of Florida by Army Major George H. Grossman and presented ultimately to Secretary of War Jefferson
Davis.

From that thought came about one of the strange tales of the Western Army, the Camel Experiment that seemed to have everything in its favor, yet went nowhere. When these humped-back creatures arrived in Texas. the reaction was akin to the arrival of the first gas buggy many years later. Horses bolted, Indians disappeared into the brush, and strong men rushed to the nearest bar for a liquid bracer.

Tales are told that the camel business failed because the soft pads on their feet could not take the rough rocks and foliage of the American West. Not so. They could march cross-country with the best the Army had to offer, and leave them behind. They could go days without water and tote
a load that would have foundered a mule. Their swaying gait presented a smoother platform than a horse's from which to fire a rifle. And in every impartial test patrol they made, they passed with flying colors, and usually, a few riders.
 
Camels served in California, mostly at Fort Tejon.

But it all came to naught, Jefferson Davis was the man behind the scheme and in post-Civil War America anything with his tag was hopeless. The camels were sold (mostly at
Drum Barracks or the Benicia Arsenal) or permitted to "escape." Some wound up in circuses, some in ill-fated private transportation schemes.
 
To find out more about the U.S. Camel Corps, we suggest the following websites:


This page was reprinted with permission from Old Forts of the Southwest, published in 1965
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