For Use by the American Military
There is a scene in the classic movie The King and I where the king dictates a letter to Anna of his desire to send a herd of elephants to president Lincoln. I decided to conduct some research to learn whether this "fact" was true or not. With one minor exception, this IS true.
In 1856 president James Buchanan sent King Mongkut of Siam a gift of 192 books printed by the United States Government. In return, the king sent Buchanan a gift of a sword in a gold scabbard inlaid with silver, a daguerreotype portrait of himself with the future King Chulalongkorn, and a pair of elephant tusks as presents for the American president.
In May 1859, King Mongkut sent another letter to Buchanan. The king had just been informed that elephants were not native to North America. He wrote in his letter:
Having heard this it has occurred to us that, if on the continent of America there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests where there was abundance of water and grass in any region under the Sun's declinations both North and South called by the English the Torrid Zone- and all were forbidden to molest them; to attempt to raise them would be well and if the climate there should prove favourable (sic) to elephants, we are of opinion that after a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are on the Continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them benefit to the country.
The king had not realized that 1860 was a presidential election year in America and that there was a new president. This president, of course, was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, not wanting the elephants, wrote a letter of master of diplomacy. Lincoln’s letter, in part, was:
Great and Good Friend: I have received Your Majesty's two letters of the date of February 14th., 1861. I appreciate most highly Your Majesty's tender of…a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States. Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favour the multiplication of the elephant, and steam…has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.
For some strange reason, the contents of the original letter have been distorted to the extent there has arisen a belief King Mongkut did indeed send a herd of elephants which were received and kept by James Buchanan as pets, while others are under the impression Mongkut's offer was made direct to Abraham Lincoln suggesting elephants could be used to help the Union in its struggle with the Confederacy following the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Both original letters still exist today in archives.
The first attempt to import camels for use by the American military was in 1855. George H. Crosman, a second lieutenant in the United States Army, wrote a letter to Washington City in 1848. The letter, in part, states:
For strength in carrying burdens, for patient endurance of labor, and privation of food, water & rest, and in some respects for speed also, the camel and dromedary (as the Arabian camel is called) are unrivaled among animals. The ordinary loads for camels are from seven to nine to ten hundred pounds each, and with these they can travel from thirty to forty miles per day, for many days in succession. They will go without water, and with but little food, for six or eight days, or it is said even longer. Their feet are alike well suited for traversing grassy or sandy plains, or rough, rocky & hilly paths, and they require no shoeing...
No one, except, senator Jefferson Davis, took him seriously. However, he failed at trying to convince congress to appropriate funding to test the camels out. In 1853 Davis was appointed Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. It took him 2 years to convince congress for appropriations to fund the camel experiment.
A delegation was sent to Egypt to purchase 33 camels. After the purchase, the ship USS Supply took the camels to Texas. The ship arrived on April 29, 1856 at the port of Indianola, Texas.
At first, the camels were more trouble than they were worth. Although the camels could carry twice the weight of horses or mules, they traveled much slower. However, after the camels had several days to acclimate to the southwestern United States climate and topography, they proved more efficient for carrying supplies.
When Buchanan took office in 1857 he appointed a new Secretary of War. Both Buchanan and John B. Floyd, his Secretary of War, opposed the use of camels for the military. By 1860, the Camel Corps was not used at all. Soon congress voted that the Camel Corps funding be cut off, and the camels set loose. In 1935, a monument to the Camel Corps was erected in Quartzsite, Arizona.
In Vicksburg, Mississippi there is a cemetery that is a Confederate soldier burial site. Confederate soldiers were not allowed to be buried in the national cemeteries. Most of those buried here are unidentified. A unique headstone marks where the bones of Old Douglas, a camel, are buried. Old Douglas has an interesting story. Suffice it to say, he was the mascot of a Confederate regiment. After he was killed, he was eaten by starving soldiers. His bones were honored, though, and a headstone erected.