My Humps, My Humps: The Short But Spectacular Life of the U.S. Camel Corps

In like a lion, out like a lamb: this month, we’re bringing you posts all about animal life and history. Welcome to March of the Wild.

When you’re a kid, you spend a lot of time learning about things that have virtually no bearing on your adult life. I don’t just mean long division and the Periodic table, which are all part of the general toughening up process that today’s kids know nothing about. (iPads! What will they think of next?)

Think about how much time you spent as a child learning about fire stations. Not fire safety…fire stations. The uniforms they wore, the poles they slid down, the Dalmations that hung around — so much of my brain space as a child was taken up by largely irrelevant information about a public works department.

And it’s not just fire stations. Every once in awhile, I’ll find myself spouting off some factoid, likely derived from a children’s book, that I had no idea I retained.

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For example: why do I know so much about camels? I’ve never seen a camel outside of a zoo, and yet, I know that they can go without water for months at a time, because they store it in their humps!

Turns out, none of that is true. They can go without water for days, thanks in part to the fact that all of their fat is stored in their humps, rather than distributed along their body.

And there was a time, briefly, where camels were more than just children’s book characters and zoo creatures. They were once brave fighting machines, a secret weapon of the United States Army.

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To begin with, there’s something to understand about America. The country started on the East Coast, which is on the ocean, and expanded along rivers. By the time the nascent country made it to the Southwest, everyone was pretty used to sending stuff via waterways.

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Transporting things to and through the arid Southwest proved problematic. Mountains and deserts threatened to stall expansion. Mules, horses and oxen required so much water they could barely carry anything else on a long, dry trip. Railroad infrastructure hadn’t quite caught up to the country’s new territories yet.

It was time for a big idea — a big hump of an idea. In 1854, the newly-appointed Secretary of War went to Congress to pitch a novel concept that had caught his ear years before. President Franklin Pierce and Congress were skeptical, but he left with $30,000 to bring a fleet of camels to the United States for military use.

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Jefferson Davis – yes, that Jefferson Davis – wasn’t much for taking no for an answer.

Davis took his Congressional appropriation and sent Naval officers around the Middle East and Africa picking up camels in a specially designed ship. The first recruitment effort brought 34 camels to Texas, where they were housed in Egyptian-style accomodations to make them feel at home.

At first, the Army had no idea what to do with the camels. They seemed well-adapted to the hot climate, but they smelled pretty bad and tended to spit gelatinous globs at their caretakers. Based on this rousing success, the Army quickly added an additional 41 camels to the giant question mark that was this experiment. (#bureaucracy)

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Finally, the camels got some work. They were sent out on a difficult surveying trip that involved traversing mountains and deserts. The report back was astoundingly positive:

Certainly there never was anything so patient or enduring and so little troublesome as this noble animal. They pack their heavy load of corn, of which they never taste a grain; put up with any food offered them without complaint, and are always up with the wagons.”

Noble, never tasting a grain, put up with food without complaint — never realized how much I have in common with camels.

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The camels could travel further than a mule or horse, go for days without water and thrived in oppressive climates. They could also divine water sources, which saved multiple expeditions across the West.

The camels even began reproducing in captivity, a great source of concern for the handlers. Everything was going wonderfully.

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And then, of course, Jefferson Davis’ Confederacy ambitions bit his camel ambitions in the butt. When the Civil War started, the camel experiment was put on the back burner. No new camels were brought in and the camels already in the country were fur-loughed.

When rebel troops occupied the military base in San Antonio, they actually took some of the camels hostage. (Okay, they just took them, since they’re animals and not people. But I wonder how Jefferson Davis felt about it!) The camels were used to transport goods around San Antonio and “suffered greatly at the hands of their captors, who had an intense dislike for the animals,” according to the National Museum of the United States Army.

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The camels that survived the Confederate occupation were never again used for military expeditions. In 1864, before the war was even over, the expense of feeding and caring for the animals became too much. They were sold at public auction for about $52 a head.

They ended up in circuses and zoos and some private menageries. The great United States Camel Corps experiment came to an end, having never seen combat or much action at all. Camels, once destined to become a national symbol of war and domination, returned to children’s books and zoo pens.

This post has been updated. 

Sources: http://www.texasbob.com/txdoc/texdoc4.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Camel_Corps

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