The Dark Underbelly of Jefferson Davis’s Camels

The Dark Underbelly of Jefferson Davis’s Camels

Aside from his truncated term as Confederate president, Jefferson Davis might best be known for his camel experiment: the importation of some seventy-five camels for military testing in Texas and the southwest in the late 1850s. He launched the offbeat operation while serving as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, an exceptionally creative period in Davis’s life. Among other efforts, Secretary Davis ordered surveys for a transcontinental railroad, organized new cavalry regiments, and purchased the camels. The Army’s camel trials, which included surveying expeditions in Texas’s Big Bend region and along the 35th parallel to California, went well until the Civil War cut them short. By 1866, the surviving animals had been sold to circuses and mining companies or simply turned loose to fend for themselves.

Standing portrait of Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis (c. 1858-1860), a few years after completing his term as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The camels marched into western folklore. Camel sightings persisted into the twentieth century, nourishing hopes that descendants of Davis’s camels might remain. Army camel handlers, including “Hi Jolly,” a Greek-Syrian Muslim, became local legends. Hollywood dramatized the trials in Southwestern Passage (1954) and Hawmps! (1976). As a colorful southwestern tale, or proof of Davis’s innovative leadership, the camel experiment seems like a whimsical prologue to a cataclysmic war.

But the camel story has a dark underbelly which underscores the breadth and significance of antebellum slaveholders’ tremendous political power. Through a series of twists and turns, the experiment became entangled with the illicit African slave trade. Davis did not foresee this development, but neither did he condemn it. Texas, where the Old South met the Wild West, was the crucible in which camel research melded with human trafficking.

Henry C. Wayne (undated). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

There were actually multiple camel experiments because the Army’s public trials inspired several private spinoffs, particularly in the South. The link between public and private sector camel research was Major Henry Constantine Wayne. Born in Savannah, Georgia, Wayne was, like Davis, a West Point graduate and veteran of the U.S.-Mexican War. While serving in the Quartermaster Corps, Wayne studied the military uses of camels and was a logical choice to lead the Army’s camel purchasing expedition to the eastern Mediterranean in 1855. He also oversaw the early trials in Texas.[1] But he made his deepest mark as a publicist. In November 1858, Wayne wrote to the influential National Intelligencer, extolling camels’ potential in private enterprises. Self-identifying as “a Southern man, from a cotton, corn, and rice growing section,” Wayne envisioned camels performing varied plantation chores; compared them favorably to horses and mules in terms of strength, cost effectiveness, and hardiness; and speculated that enslaved laborers could manage them successfully.[2]

Widely reprinted in Southern periodicals, Wayne’s letter ignited a camel craze. Southern journalists had monitored the Army experiment, offering tantalizing anecdotes about camels’ capacity to haul cotton and corn.[3] After Wayne went public, interest in camels soared. Within two months, a Georgia planter had written to the Southern Cultivator asking how he could purchase a camel.[4] By spring 1859, camel trials were afoot in Alabama and camel exhibitions drew crowds at the state fair in November.[5] Dallas County planter Benjamin C. Woolsey wrote glowingly of his own camel experiment: the animals pulled plows and carried massive burdens with ease, at a fraction of the expense required for mules.[6]

This exuberance veiled a sinister connection to the African slave trade. The importation of slaves from overseas had been banned since 1808 but illicit trading never ended; indeed, it increased in the late 1850s as cotton prices skyrocketed. Some southern leaders demanded the repeal of the slave trade prohibition, forging a new rallying point for proslavery extremists.[7] Conceptually, the link between camel and slave imports was clear. As one letter to the Southern Cultivator crudely put it, cotton planters needed cheap labor and cheap work animals, and West Africa offered both: “Let ‘Cuffy’ come and his appropriate co-laborers the Camel…. [L]et us have the Camels right off, and then defy the world to prevent our getting as many of the wool bearing bipids [sic] as we may need.”[8] At the zenith of their power, cotton growers moved easily from camel tests to brazen demands for African captives.

The camel/slave connection was more than theoretical. Established slave smugglers had both means and motive to enter the camel business. After all, they had contacts with West African merchants and the ability to transport living beings across the Atlantic. They also needed alibis. British warships patrolling the African coast identified slave ships by tell-tale characteristics like large water tanks, overabundant food supplies, and the stench of excrement. Slavers tried to hide or justify these giveaways by posing as palm oil merchants or whalers (hence the large casks of liquid), concealing food stores below false decks, and using chloride of lime or controlled burns to eliminate foul odors. Some carried legitimate wares, such as palm oil, alongside human cargoes.[9]

“Arabian Dromedary.” From “The Ship of the Desert,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 89, vol. 15 (October 1857), 583.

Camels offered the perfect cover for slaving operations: they were available in West Africa, consumed large quantities of food and water and produced copious waste, and could be sold through familiar channels to southern buyers. This often meant using entry points along the Texas coast. Texas was, of course, closely associated with the Army’s camel experiment. The Army’s first camel cohort disembarked in Indianola, marched through San Antonio, and operated out of Camp Verde and, later, Fort Davis. The state’s vast coastline had also long sheltered slave traders. In the 1810s, the pirate Jean Laffite had sold slaves into Galveston. The booming demand for slave labor that accompanied Anglo-American settlement tempted speculators like Jim Bowie to follow suit.[10] By the 1850s, Texas planters scrambled to acquire slave labor. With domestic slave prices running to $1500, enslaved Africans who sold for $150-300 were a bargain.[11] Predictably, Texans were among the most outspoken advocates of repealing the 1808 ban. “If you agree to slavery,” thundered the Galveston Weekly News, “you must agree to the trade, for they are one…. Those who deny slavery and the slave-trade are enemies of the South.”[12] Jefferson Davis, now back in the Senate, deemed African imports unnecessary for Mississippi but a potential boon for Texas.[13]

By 1858, Texas was where the burgeoning cotton kingdom met the West’s pioneering military-ungulate complex. On October 16, the schooner Thomas Watson, escorting a smaller ship named Lucerne, docked in Galveston and unloaded eighty-nine camels.[14] The British consul smelled foul play in the ship’s nauseating stench. Convinced that the Thomas Watson was a slaver which had used the Lucerne to ferry human captives to shore before reaching port, he urged US officials to investigate. Federal authorities admitted that the Thomas Watson was probably a slave ship, but claimed they could do nothing without direct evidence. Meanwhile, the camels, turned loose in the city streets, had become a nuisance. Some were slaughtered and eaten; Lieutenant Governor Francis Lubbock, an advocate of the Atlantic slave trade, gave the others sanctuary on his ranch. The Thomas Watson departed, leaving Galvestonians with colorful anecdotes engrained in living memory into the 1930s.

“The Africans of the slave bark ‘Wildfire’ – The slave deck of the bark ‘Wildfire,’ brought into Key West on April 30, 1860.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In fact, they had glimpsed a sliver of a scheme to smuggle human captives under the cover of camels. The Thomas Watson was owned by John A. Machado, a Portuguese-American slave trader. From his New York City headquarters, Machado orchestrated licit and illicit commerce between West Africa and the Americas, dealing in palm oil as well as slaves. (Only a Lincoln administration crackdown brought Machado under serious scrutiny. After repeated arrests in 1861 and 1862, he was indicted in early 1863 and released on bail; there is no further record.)[15] Among his agents was Mary Jane Watson, who operated the Thomas Watson (a converted whaler ostensibly named for her husband) and legally owned the eighty-nine camels. An elegant, mysterious woman, Watson was likely the widow of a New York publisher, and may have been romantically involved with Machado, though she often claimed to be an English lady or the widow of a sea captain. She later met a dismal end, reputedly drinking herself to death in Spain in 1862. But after recovering the surviving camels from Lubbock, Watson charmed her way through New Orleans and Mobile – and introduced camels into Alabama, including those sold to Benjamin Woolsey.[16] At least one eyewitness later recalled that Watson had secretly unloaded human cargo before arriving in Galveston, though the captives’ fate is unknown.[17] But contemporary newspapers took the bait, eagerly tracing the camels from Texas to Alabama.[18]

Davis and Wayne did not envision this scheme when they commenced the camel experiment. But it illustrates the power of unintended consequences and the potent influence of antebellum slaveholders. Davis triggered a chain of events that linked Army officers, planters, and slave traders in unexpected ways. The camel caper therefore offers a fresh perspective on the “Slave Power”–the slaveholding cabal which, according to many antebellum northerners, dominated the federal government.[19] Rather than a finely-tuned conspiracy, the Slave Power was a network of public officials and private citizens who shared a stake in slavery’s preservation and profitability. It was therefore less monolithic, but perhaps more insidious, than sometimes imagined. Davis did not collude with Machado and Watson, but his pet project promoted the extension and intensification of plantation slavery.

 

[1] Odie B. Faulk, The U.S. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 24-25.

[2] Henry C. Wayne to the Editors of the National Intelligencer, reprinted as “The Camel – His Nature, Habits, and Uses,” Southern Cultivator 17, vol. 1 (January 1859), 29.

[3] For a typical example, see “Frosts and Famine in Texas,” (Raleigh) Weekly North Carolina Standard, April 29, 1857.

[4] G.W.T., “Who’s Got a Camel for Sale?” Southern Cultivator 17, 3 (March 1859), 81.

[5] “A Novel Sight,” (Okalona, MS) Prairie News, May 12, 1859; Ripley (MS) Advertiser, January 18, 1860; Linda Derry, “Camels in Cahawba,” Alabama Heritage 112 (Spring 2014): 28-35.

[6] “Camels in Alabama,” Ohio Cultivator 15 (1859), 215; “Camels in Dallas County,” Yazoo (MS) Democrat, May 28, 1859.

[7] Ernest Obadele-Starks, Freebooters and Smugglers: The Foreign Slave Trade in the United States after 1808 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007); Ronald T. Takaki, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade (New York: The Free Press, 1971).

[8] R.G.J., “The Camel and ‘Cuffy,’” Southern Cultivator 17, no. 3 (March 1859), 81.

[9] Edward Manning, Six Months on a Slaver: A True Narrative (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1879), 21-24, 40, 125-126; Warren S. Howard, American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837-1862 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 2-3; Leonardo Marques, The United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776-1867 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 196-197; Sylviane A. Diouf, Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 31, 42, 51.

[10] Eugene C. Barker, “The African Slave Trade in Texas,” Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 6, no. 2 (October 1902): 145-158; Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 12; Sean Kelley, “Blackbirders and Bozales: African-Born Slaves on the Lower Brazos River of Texas in the Nineteenth Century,” Civil War History 54, no. 4 (December 2008): 406-423; Fred Lee McGhee, “The Black Crop: Slavery and Slave Trading in Nineteenth Century Texas” (PhD diss., University of Texas, 2000); Andrew J. Torget, Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 42-45.

[11] Earl Wesley Fornell, The Galveston Era: The Texas Crescent on the Eve of Secession (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), viii-ix.

[12] Galveston Weekly News, March 3, 1857, quoted in Takaki, Pro-Slavery Crusade, 79.

[13] “Speech of Jefferson Davis before the Democratic State Convention at Jackson, Miss., July 6, 1859,” in Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, ed. Dunbar Rowland, 10 vols. (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), IV, 69-70.

[14] My account of this infamous episode relies primarily on three excellent studies: Fornell, Galveston Era, 251-259; McGhee, “Black Crop,” 228-231; and Derry, “Camels in Cahawba,” 33-35.

[15] Howard, American Slavers and the Federal Law, 50-51, 234.

[16] Derry, “Camels in Cahawba,” 33-35; Marques, United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 253; “The Slave-Trade in New York: Rearrest of John A. Machado,” New York Times, September 21, 1862.

[17] Chris Emmett, Texas Camel Tales: Incidents Growing up around an Attempt by the War Department of the United States to Foster an Uninterrupted Flow of Commerce Through Texas by the Use of Camels (San Antonio: Naylor Printing Company, 1932), 129-130.

[18] See, for instance: Washington Union, January 7, 1859; “Curious Enterprise of a Pretty Widow,” Yazoo (MS) Democrat, November 19, 1859.

[19] Leonard L. Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. He is currently at work on a book entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy.

One Reply to “The Dark Underbelly of Jefferson Davis’s Camels”

  1. I was just saying a few days ago about how the headstone for “Old Douglas” at Vicksburg calls him a “faithful, patient” camel. One has to wonder if their wouldn’t have been more parallels to slavery and the slave trade had the camel program been more successful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *