The US Army Camel Corps and the Mameluke Sword

Hiatus in Delaware over, I return to the wide world of blogging, armed with a list of translation projects and a brand-new Stanley thermos (as well as the handsomest briefcase you’ve ever seen). Seems like things are beginning to perk up on the home front.

"Hi Jolly" is the late 19th-century American mispronunciation of "Hajj Ali." Seems some things never change.

Through SI, the most surprising bit of Americana popped up, and the story ends in Arizona. According to Dr. Grumpy, the US Army was once in possession of a semi-regular Camel Corps; apparently, following the Mexican-American War, we ‘Mericans suddenly found ourselves in possession of a very large desert. Someone (Jefferson Davis, then-Secretary of War) had the bright idea of importing camels from Turkey to better rustle over those rolling dunes. The result was the US Camel Corps, led by the now-forgotten Hadji Ali (“Hi Jolly”), a Syrian who was recruited abroad to drive the now sizeable herd of camels (something like eighty) in 1856.

Hi Jolly seems to have gained a bit of notoriety in the herding business:

Hi Jolly, one of the camel handlers, tried running a freighting business with some of the camels, but that sadly failed and he also eventually released his camels into the wild. He eventually died at age 73 in December 1902 in Arizona. A pyramid shaped monument was erected for him in Quartzsite, Arizona. One account has him dying a year later chasing after the Red Ghost. This story has Hi Jolly’s withered body found, arms wrapped around the neck of the corpse of the great red camel.

An exhibit / museum at Fort Irwin out near Barstow discusses Hi Jolly and the Camel Corps. The exhibit features a real stuffed camel, although not one of Hi Jolly’s original camels. The exhibit explains how Hi Jolly once saved five Americans from an Indian attack by charging them on his camel, cloak billowing out behind him, waving his scimitar yelling out ‘Bismiallah’ or “God is Great”.

The best part? Apparently, supervising officer Lieutenant Beale seemed to think that they would be handy combating the Mormons, thought they ended up routing the Mojaves instead:

The camel corps first and really only use was by Lieutenant Beale who led many of the camels across the country to California. Although Beale pronounced the camel experiment a success, many had their doubts. The camels bit, spit, and kicked their American handlers and disrupted the local livestock with their smell. After their trial run, Beale put the camels up on his friend’s ranch, claiming that they should stay in California for future use if a war with the Mormons of Utah ever occurred. His friend, Samuel Bishop utilized the camels to haul frieght on his own ranch and back and forth to Fort Tejon. The route taken to Fort Tejon passed through lands controlled by the Mojave Indians who often attacked civilian transports, but avoided any military soldiers. As Bishop was a civillian and the camel experiment currently officially a civilian experiment, no soldiers were with the camel caravans traveling from Bishop’s ranch to Fort Tejon. A large force of Mojave Indians threatened Bishop’s teamsters, forcing Bishop to order them to mount the camels and charge the attackers. The surprise charge of the teamsters on such strange beasts did in fact rout the Mojave Indians and also went down in history as probably the only camel charge in the west, which ironically was performed by civilians as opposed to the military.

This is the kind of history you just can’t make up.

The Mameluke Sword. First awarded to Marine 1LT Presley O'Bannon by Prince Hamet Bey in recognition of the USMC role in the Battle of Derne during the Tripoli Wars. Officers have carried replicas of it since 1825.

What I find especially intriguing about this is how unnoticed such history goes considering our current involvement in the Middle East. TANGENT: Only recently, I discovered the history of the Mameluke sword — the ceremonial weapon carried by Marine officers in full dress blues that very closely resembles a scimitar.

The hidden Middle Eastern gems of American history. I am determined to ferret others out.

Hi Jolly married Gertrude Serna shortly after becoming a citizen in 1880. He died in Tucson, Arizona in 1902.

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2 Responses to The US Army Camel Corps and the Mameluke Sword

  1. Chris says:

    Look into reading Power, Faith and Fantasy by Michael Oren. He describes in length and great detail the long and protracted relationship between the United States and the Middle East, including such anecdotes as the camel corps and the style of the marine sword.

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