The Story of U.S. Army Camels in Our Southwest
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Review by Geoffrey Wawro
Driving across the Mojave Desert some years ago, the author noticed a faded historical marker and stopped to read it. The result of that chance encounter is this entertaining new book, for the marker commemorated the halt at that spot by the U.S. Army’s short-lived Camel Corps on its way to the Colorado River.
The Last Camel Charge is an atmospheric portrait of life on America’s Southwest frontier in the years between the Mexican War and the Civil War. After the 1848 annexations, the U.S. looked for a draught animal that could survive and flourish in the waterless new deserts of the Southwest: the Chihuahan, Mojave and Sonoran, as well as the Utah badlands. Mules and horses required too much fodder and water. The Army wanted a mounted force that could separate warring abolitionists and slavers, disarm the cantankerous Mormons and protect inflowing European immigrants from hostile Native Americans. Camels—amazingly efficient in the way they hold and recycle water internally while lugging 600-pound loads—commended themselves as a smart option. Accordingly, a Navy ship was dispatched to the Ottoman Empire—first Egypt and then Smyrna (today’s Izmir)—to purchase camels in 1855. The 70 beasts acquired in the Middle East—all with a life expectancy of 40 to 70 years—were shipped home and deployed from Texas to California.
At least as interesting as the camel story is Johnson’s vivid picture of America in the late 1850s under the Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan presidencies. The range of threats was impressive: Mormons who had been armed by Polk during the Mexican War and now resolved to defend Utah against the encroachment of federal troops and other infidels, pro-slave ruffians and, of course, raids by the Comanches, Apaches, Mojaves and Paiutes. All of these threats had to be eliminated to knit together the expanding nation. Johnson notes the complicity of the Mormons in many of the hostile Indian attacks in Utah; the Church of the Latter Day Saints would arm and even assist tribes like the Paiutes in wiping out would-be settlers. Witnesses described Mormons dressed in Indian buckskins and feathered headdresses gunning down travelers—men, women and children—on the old Spanish trail across Utah.
The camels themselves lived up to expectations. They were durable—loping 50 miles or more under a scorching sun without water—but also patient and quiet, which made them perfect four-legged soldiers. But their very exoticism seemed to militate against any long-term commitment. The Army tried them at all manner of tasks. Camels helped build the army road that became Route 66. Camels tried out for the 1,900-mile Pony Express from Missouri to California; one was ridden at maximum speed across the desert for 130 miles without rest to prove its mettle. It died in harness. The Civil War killed off the rest of the Camel Corps. Most of the animals fell into Confederate hands and were used as blockade-runners—running cotton exports into Mexico, for example—and when the war finally ended, scarcely anyone even remembered that the Army had ever used camels. Like their biggest pre-war advocate—Pierce’s Secretary of War Jefferson Davis—the camels faded from view, as gently and quietly as they had appeared.
Hardcover Book : 384 pages
Publisher: New American Library ( April 01, 2012 )
Item #: 13-473715
Product Dimensions: 6.0 x 9.0 x 0.96inches
Product Weight: 19.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)