If Jefferson Davis had had his way, the U.S. Cavalry would have pursued Comanches on camelback. The Indians, riding mustangs that initially would have widely outdistanced the camels, would have galloped confidently northward into the empty plains. But their sense of security would've been short-lived. Camels, lurching steadily at a constant speed, can travel much farther in a day than horses can. Tireless, relentless and ridden by resolute though slightly seasick soldiers, they would have overtaken the Indians every time.
No such chase ever took place in the Old West. But it was supposed to have happened, back before the Civil War, when Davis was Secretary of War under President Pierce. For years various people had been advocating camels as the solution to the Army's transport problems in the Southwestern deserts, where horses and mules tended to die of thirst between water holes and there was very little grass for grazing.
So under Davis' aegis an experiment was begun in 1855. Two shiploads of camels—75 in all—were brought from Egypt and Turkey to Indianola, Texas and marched inland to Camp Verde near Kerrville. There a khan—a kind of corral for camels, with walls 16 feet high—was built. Quarters went up for officers and enlisted men, as well as huts for a handful of Turks and Arabs who came along to teach camel-handling to the Americans.
The man in charge of the experiment was Major Henry Wayne, a conscientious officer who faced some curious problems. Camels were not universally popular in Texas. Wherever they appeared, they caused panic among other animals. Horses and mules ran away, dragging buggies and wagons behind them. Cattle stampeded. Dogs barked hysterically.
And while gawking at camels became something of an entertainment for the general public, what the animals did on roads and city streets wasn't funny. They ejected spital from one end and excrement from the other explosively and without warning on anyone who happened to be near. Their frequent sneezes all but made the earth shake. They showed alarm by blowing a bloody bladderlike mass out of their mouths. Only regular washing and currying kept their body odor from becoming a stench. In the mating season the males bellowed and tried to kill each other.
If these characteristics were unpleasant to civilians, they were downright loathsome to the enlisted men who had been taken away from their beloved mules and put to currying, feeding, loading and driving camels. Major Wayne, as a staff officer, had no direct authority over the soldiers who worked with the animals. Only their commanding officer was empowered to give them orders, and he was a rigid Army type whose warmest feeling for the camels was contempt. Sometimes Major Wayne's wishes got transmitted and carried out, and sometimes they didn't, which added to the general confusion.
The Turks and Arabs were troublesome, too. All of them had claimed a thorough knowledge of camels, but few possessed it. They had been seasick and useless on the voyage to Texas, and some of them were often drunk and useless after getting there. In addition, they treated the camels' ailments with bizarre and ineffective folk remedies.
Still, considerable progress was made. The thing that worked best about the camel experiment was the camels. They smelled bad all right, but they could carry huge loads, and they were as tough as jerky. On 60-mile supply runs between Camp Verde and San Antonio they proved cheaper, faster and more efficient than mule-drawn wagon trains. They could travel easily through mud that bogged the wagons down, and they had not yet been taken into desert country, where their advantages over mules would be even greater.
At the camp, when a camel knelt and was loaded with four bales of hay, any one of which would have been too much for a mule, bystanders—there were always plenty of these—hooted and swore that the beast couldn't get to its feet under such weight. But it rose, and marched away at Wayne's command. Performances of this kind won respect from Texans, expecially once their livestock gradually ceased to stampede at the sight of a camel. A woman in Victoria, Texas knitted a pair of socks from camel-pile and sent it to President Pierce. He acknowledged the gift with a silver mug bearing his name.
In the first big test 25 camels were sent across the Southwestern deserts to California. It was a five-month trip also involving mules, wagons, horses, 44 men and several dogs. Its leader was Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a sailor, rancher, explorer, friend of Kit Carson and holder of many government offices.