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Camels at Fort Davis

SECRETARY OF WAR JEFFERSON DAVIS believed that the vexing problem of supply and transportation on the western deserts might be solved by the use of camels. At his urging, Congress in 1855 appropriated $30,000 to conduct experiments. By early 1856, 74 camels had been brought from the Levant and corralled at Camp Verde north of San Antonio. The first camels passed by Fort Davis in July 1857 under charge of a naval officer, Lt. Edward F. Beale, who had been assigned to survey a wagon road across Arizona. The lieutenant already had high praise for the efficiency and endurance of the animals. Two years later, Davis' successor, Secretary of War John B. Floyd, ordered additional tests. Lt. William B. Echols was to use camels in searching out a shorter route from San Antonio to Fort Davis. Lt. Edward L. Hartz and an infantry detachment from Fort Davis Served as escort. For comparison, 24 camels and 24 mules carried the supplies. Throughout the summer of 1859, the command scoured the desert between Forts Stockton and Davis and the Big Bend, and the officers emerged from the trials convinced of the superiority of camels over mules.

The following year, 1860, Secretary Floyd ordered more experiments in still rougher terrain. Again attempting to pioneer a new route from the Pecos to Fort Davis, Lieutenant Echols with 25 camels and 20 mules nearly perished in the desert. For 5 days, 120 miles, they found no water. But the camels, carrying much water and consuming none, saw the party through to Fort Davis. But for their "endurance, docility, and sagacity," wrote the acting department commander, Bvt. Col. Robert E. Lee, "the reconnaissance would have failed."

Despite their demonstrated value, camels were not again used. Those at Camp Verde fell into the hands of Confederates in 1861. After the war, any project associated with the name of Jefferson Davis was discredited, and no one ever attempted to revive the idea. The camels were sold at auction, and the army mule continued to enjoy its customary supremacy.


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