Jefferson Davis, later destined to lead the Confederacy, reluctantly accepted a place in the Cabinet of President Pierce in 1852, serving as US Secretary of War. On taking up the position, he must have been surprised to find that one outstanding matter awaiting his attention was a report by the deputy quartermaster of the US Army, Major Henry C. Wayne advocating the importation of camels as a means of freight for divisions serving on the US desert frontiers. Nevertheless, Secretary Davis took up the Quartermaster's camel request with vigour and lobbied the Senate and House for the $30,000 necessary to make it happen.
Resistance in the House meant it took a few years to get the money, but eventually Major Wayne sailed on a camel-buying expedition on 19 May 1855 and returned almost exactly a year later on 14 May 1856 with thirty four camels, one more than he left with; a calf successfully delivered during the voyage. More camel shipments followed and the ships of the desert were employed by the US Army around San Antonio and other far flung outreaches in Texas and Arizona.
The camels never proved popular with soldiers or the mule and horse handlers of the times. Their haughty manner was resented and they tended to spook the horses and mules and attract crowds in townships. But they saw some service during the Civil War, mainly for the Confederate Post Office. Post-war, the camels were out-of-fashion partly due to their association with Jefferson Davis but mainly due to the massive expansion of the "iron horses" as railways spread across the US. Camels ended up turned loose, as happened later in Australia but they failed to flourish as they did in the Australian Outback. The presence of people with guns protecting their livestock was probably the main difference.
One particular camel did become a local legend. At Eagle Creek in Arizona in 1883, a "monster" of some type stomped a housewife to death as she went to the spring for water. Reported by another woman and children who heard screams and then observed a red monster with the form of a man on it, officials did see large prints and red hair at the scene. Over the next few years the "Red Ghost" panicked horses and terrified residents and his exploits became the stuff of legend. Finally Mizoo Hastings saw the beast from his ranch house and shot it through the window, the Red Ghost dropping in the turnip patch.
Hastings discovered that the remains of a man were strapped tightly to the back of the camel, so tightly that the rawhide thongs dug into the flesh of the animal, perhaps accounting for its aggressiveness. Apparently a story circulating at the time was that the Navajos had once lashed a Mexican herder to a camel's back and chased it into the desert.
Slowly the US feral camels died out just as the Australian ones were beginning to be released. Maybe there's hope that we can reduce the million desert camels of Australia to simply a footnote of history at some stage.
This post relies heavily on a story in "The Alien Animals, the story of imported wildlife" by George Laycock published by Ballantine Books in 1966. If you ever see it in a garage sale, grab it!
Posted by Tony Peacock, founder of 'Feral Thoughts'