Wednesday, August 9, 2017

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: The US Camel Corps Part 3

   March 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis got $30,000 from Congress to import camels for exploration of the western frontier of the United States.  Two men, Henry Wayne and David Porter (Hank and Dave), traveled abroad and brought back with them about 35 of the beasts, landing in Indianola, Texas in May of 1856. The US Camel Corps was born.
   Or should've been. Almost was, let's say.
   The Texans were damn impressed with the exotic creatures and proposed feats to test the animals' supposed strength and endurance. For the three weeks that Hank and Dave and the herd was there, the boys obliged the town, having the camels lift and parade and kneel on command. Indianola was so taken, a man wrote a poem for the Indianola Bulletin (damned if I can find it) and a woman named Mary Shirkey knitted a pair of socks out of camel hair for President Pierce. It's even said Hank sent those kickers on to his old pal Jefferson Davis, who sent them to the Man himself.
   Then came time to march the camels to Camp Verde, nearly 200 miles off. It was there the Army would begin their experiments in earnest, to discover just how well the camel might serve to fully claim the unknown frontier.
   But here was the thing: Why not get more camels, while the getting was good? Things were still fresh, Hank and Dave were excited, the locals were excited and they'd spent less than $10,000 of their 30K. In reply to the boys' letters of jubilation at their own progress, ol' Jefferson dashed off a word:


Sounds like it's going gangbusters. I say we go get more o' them sumbitches. I mean, camel socks and poems? That's fantastic news! Strike while the iron's hot, I say. We got the dough, we got the drive. Let's get it done.


   For whatever reason, someone reached out to Captain Crosman to come with (remember now, ol' George's original report had set all this off over a decade before) but again, probably still pissy, he said no. They asked the boys, obviously, but Hank was eager to show off the herd, so they sent Dave instead. Dave and a man named G.H. Heap, who'd been on the original voyage, but in the background, so we didn't pay him any mind. We still won't.
   Besides which, there ain't much to say for that second trip, anyway. It went fine. They departed late summer '56, landed in the Levant November '56, got their camels and turned around. Arrived home to Texas February of '57 with 40-odd camels in tow. They ran up to Camp Verde to join the others and now, the US Camel Corps was over 70 monsters strong.
   Now, while Mr. Heap and Dave had been away the last five, six months, Hank had been experimenting the hell out of the animals. He'd been marching them all over the area, short trips and long, measuring their loads and training the camp's personnel to tie the loads and manage the creatures. But he was worried.
   He didn't have all the authority he wanted (he was just a staff officer, basically an administrator) so he couldn't boss the other soldiers proper, plus, (the politics of the time being what they were) he was thinking ol' Jefferson Davis wasn't long as Secretary of War. He expressed his concerns December of '56 and by February '57, had been called back to Washington.
   He was then relieved of his duties as unofficial head of the unofficial US Camel Corps. It was, after all, still 'an experiment.' Man named Captain Innis Palmer then took Hank's place and would stay in charge there, until the South invaded the camp in '61, during the Civil War.
   And Hank called it for friend Jefferson. March of '57, he was out as Secretary of War and Johnny Floyd was in. Floyd was a big fan of the experiment though, and end of '58, '59 and '60 he proposed to Congress that 1,000 camels be imported for use as service animals in the US Army. He was promptly and consistently ignored.
   Meanwhile, the camels were there and they were damned useful. The Army split the herd and moved them around between '57 and '61 or so, base to base, camp to camp. And these groups bred and grew. But it was hard going. Horses hated 'em, their Arab handlers were scorned and the soldiers and locals just didn't take to the animals.
   Sometimes, hostlers in a given camp just turned them loose to get rid of 'em. Still other times, folks come around and paid up nice to get their hands on a few. It wasn't what the government expected or even wanted but, little by little, the real 'experiment' was underway.
   Camels were ending up all over the place and - as camels do - adapting like hell to it.

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