Camel, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman (Screenshot: Ishtar)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: United States Camel Corps

What it’s about: While long used for transportation in their native North Africa and the Middle East, camels are a rarity outside of zoos in the United States (there was a variety of camel native to North America, but it was wiped out along with many other animals after humans arrived on the continent). But that didn’t stop enterprising military officials from considering the hardy animals for combat duty in the Southwest in the mid-1800s. The Civil War ended up putting an end to the Camel Corps, but we can consider what might have been…

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Strangest fact: One of the government’s biggest proponents of camel-based warfare was none other than Jefferson Davis. Before he was president of the Confederacy, Davis was a senator from Mississippi, and then secretary of war. As a senator, Davis supported a plan presented by Major Henry C. Wayne that recommended importing camels for Army use, but it wasn’t until he was put in charge of Franklin Pierce’s war department that Davis was in a position to do something about it. Transportation across the Southwest was a legitimate problem, and Davis convinced Congress to release $30,000 (nearly $800,000 in 2016 dollars) so Wayne could begin his program.

Biggest controversy: Once Davis became the leader of a rebellion against the United States, the camel program was tarnished by association. (By coincidence, the Army’s last camel-based expedition was led by then-Union officer Robert E. Lee.) Davis never attempted to use camels for Confederate purposes, as the American desert was beyond the Confederacy’s reach, and the Union seemed to consider the Camel Corps a quaint experiment that had no place in a serious time of war. Besides, the Army had no experience with camels and had to hire Arabic and Turkish camel drivers to run the program. One of those drivers spent the rest of his life in the U.S. and ran a camel freight business after being discharged from the Army.

Thing we were happiest to learn: The camels did well. Major Wayne bought 74 camels, with saddles, and hired experienced drivers, basing his operation out of Camp Verde in central Texas. Their first mission involved surveying land between Texas and California for a new road that would connect the West Coast to the rest of the country. Twenty-five camels accompanied mule-drawn wagons, and the group’s commander noted, “The superiority of the camel for military purposes in the badly watered sections of the country seems to be well-established.”

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Modern-day U.N. soldiers in Eritrea (Photo: Dawit Rezene, http://goo.gl/C4mRFi)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Civil War brought an end to the camel experiment. The Southwest’s involvement in the war was minimal, and the Army had bigger worries than incorporating animals that few soldiers were trained to handle and that didn’t always get along with the military’s existing mules and horses. The Confederates captured the camp in Texas where the camels were based in 1861, and while they may have been used for transportation, not much effort was made to incorporate them into the Confederate military, despite Davis’ earlier interest. After the war, the U.S. government sold the 66 remaining camels and never looked back.

Also noteworthy: While no camel went into battle for Uncle Sam, there’s a long history of camel cavalry, beginning with the Arab king Gindibu, who used them in battle as early as 853 B.C. Persian king Cyrus The Great turned his baggage camels into warriors upon learning that they scared horses, and his eventual successor, Xerxes I, used camel-mounted archers to invade Greece in 480 B.C. In modern times, Napoleon used camels in a failed effort to conquer Egypt and Syria; the Ottoman Army used camel-mounted soldiers during World War I; and India’s Bikaner Camel Corps fought in both World Wars and were active until 1975.

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Ottoman camel corps in WWI
Photo: Natalie Maynor, http://goo.gl/m0I5Df

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Earlier we said the Confederacy didn’t make much effort to use camels in their army. But they didn’t make no effort. Old Douglas, a veteran of the U.S. Camel Corps, ended up fighting against his adopted country as part of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry (it’s unknown how he made it to Mississippi). He was mostly used as a mascot, carrying instruments for the regimental band, but he stood out enough from the other animals that he was killed by Union sharpshooters. Six of his unit’s best snipers teamed up to retaliate against the culprit. Douglas was buried in a Confederate cemetery, though there were rumors he was actually eaten and that Union soldiers kept his bones as souvenirs.

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Further down the Wormhole: The United States Army was at least able to use camels to explore part of what would become Colorado. As it does for most states, Wikipedia has a timeline of Colorado history, ranging from Ice Age humans migrating east of the Rocky Mountains 16,000 years ago to the Denver Broncos winning Super Bowl 50. It also includes the most important event in Colorado history, the bizarre story of Mike The Headless Chicken, which we’ll delve into next week.