JEFFERSON DAVIS'S CAMEL EXPERIMENT
|JEFFERSON DAVIS'S CAMEL EXPERIMENT|
By Professor WALTER L. FLEMING
LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY
When Jefferson Davis was secretary of war he inaugurated an interesting and important experiment for the purpose of determining whether camels could be used for transportation purposes in the United States. Never before or since that decade preceding the Civil War has the government been confronted with such serious problems as were caused by the territorial expansion of the late forties, and of these not the least serious were the difficulties of communication and of transportation on the far western frontiers. Even before the annexation of Texas, New Mexico and California it had been a difficult task to administer government on the outer frontier; after the Mexican war the troubles were multiplied. Immense territories had been added, the frontier was more than doubled in length and was more exposed and dangerous; much of the unsettled region was mountainous, or was dry and without grass and water for pack animals and cavalry horses. The settlements on the Pacific coast also had a frontier—an eastern frontier which had to be guarded as well as the western frontier on the other side of the mountains. And for political and military reasons it was necessary that communications between California and the rest of the United States be made shorter and safer. The experiences of the army officers, especially those of the Quartermaster's Department, during the Mexican war caused them to turn serious attention to the question of transportation. On account of the rough or desert character of much of the country it was not possible to make much use of horses and packmules. Railroads, it was thought, would not for years traverse any of this country, and would never open up all of it. A formidable danger to frontier settlements, to small army garrisons and camps, and to communication of any kind, lay in the attacks of the hostile Indians of this region who, on their swift ponies, could make sudden raids and escape capture by the foot soldiers or the small bodies of cavalry.
That the camel would suit such conditions was the belief of several army officers and particularly of Jefferson Davis, who when a young man had served in the army on the western frontier and later had commanded a regiment in the war with Mexico. The camel could travel faster than a horse and carry heavier loads over rougher ground, could go without water for days at a time and could live upon the poorest
- See Reports of Secretary of War, 1853-7.