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The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America's Desert Military Experiment Hardcover – 11 Jul 2012

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Publishing Corporation,U.S.; 1 edition (11 July 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0425245691
  • ISBN-13: 978-0425245699
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 3.5 x 23.6 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,103,545 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The Last Camel Charge 14 Jun. 2012
By Lance Zedric - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America's Desert Military Experiment by Forrest Bryant Johnson (Berkley, 2012#, is everything you wanted to know about American history from 1820 to the Civil War wrapped around the U.S. Army Camel Corps like a pig in a blanket. That's right--Camel Corps! Born from the need to explore and traverse the wild, dangerous and unforgiving deserts of the American Southwest and the Utah Territory in the mid-1800's, the U.S. military undertook a bold and radical experiment and purchased camels to bear the burden of transporting men and materiel across the Mojave, and other inhospitable areas, and to serve in battle when needed, which they did into the Civil War #tiny spoiler alert#. These exotic #and dirty) beasts were better suited to desert travel than horses or mules and were virtually sun resistant. The trick was getting a horse-loving military establishment to buy into the idea. Forrest Johnson, noted author of Hour of Redemption and Phantom Warrior, among others, sinks the hook into the reader from the first page with a masterful twist, and seasons each chapter with a lively blend of American heroes and infamous villains that create an eye-popping page turner that every American will learn from and enjoy. Camel Charge is history at its finest--not a staid retelling of dry facts, but an historical oasis teeming with interesting characters and an amazing central story that quenches and satisfies to the last drop. After reading the book, the reader will have a new appreciation, and perhaps a grudging respect, of the role camels played in the taming of America. The Last Camel Charge is a great read, and without reservation, is a literary horse of a different color. Get the book!
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Fantastic Book 7 May 2012
By Virginia G. Vassallo - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Every so often an author creates a solid book chock full of excitement, suspense and an almost romantic view of history. Books that come to mind are The Killer Angels and The Red Badge of Courage. What makes them classics is that they approach history from the personal touch, not from the historical. It would be wrong to classify The Last Camel Charge as mesmerizing, suspenseful, catastrophic or a page-turner, a can't-put-it-down book. Better to let the reader immerse himself in something special, the love of men for camels, their entrance into the Southwest, their superiority over horses and mules, and their moment of greatness.

Read The Last Camel Charge and all of these terms will present themselves. There will be but one sadness as you read it. That will come when the book is ended and there is finally no more to enjoy. Your adventure into history will have ended and there will be sorrow the Charge is done. And that is when you will again lift Forrest Johnson's monumental work and read it again, for it is that kind of book.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By Yankee Papa - Published on
Format: Hardcover
...This reads like an "alternate history" novel... with connections to all kinds of important people and events of the day. As one reviewer here said... I too was very sorry to reach the end of the book.

...Turns out that much of what I thought that I knew about the "failed" experiment was false. The camels *could* be managed. While horses and mules first exposed to camels often panicked... in short order the strangeness (especially the odor) and size (seemed like maybe giant predators) wore off. After a brief period the animals could all be kept together without the slightest problem and they could be pastured together as "friends" (except for male camels with other males during the "rut...")

...Camels could carry two to four times the load of a mule (males being larger). Camels not prone to "bad nerves or hysteria" unlike horses and mules. In the entire Southwest there was only one plant that the camels would not eat... otherwise the nastiest, thorniest bushes were not only consumed... but much preferred to tall green grass.

...Contrary to previous accounts, camels could handle stones on the terrain... A leather "shoe" handled the problem. Camels did very well on snow... (though on severe ice on a slope they might travel the worst of it on their knees) Where previous accounts did not get it wrong was the smell... (The camels in Lawrence of Arabia might look a touch strange to a Bedouin because they had been washed by the production crew...)

...American Naval officers came up with a way to safely transport camels on sailing ships, even in the worst storms. Other American officers came up with much better packs and saddles.

...The Arabs say that the camel was specifically designed by Allah... A study of their biology and abilities certainly reinforces the notion... Their bodies squeeze almost every last drop out of their food... little is wasted as urine... it is normal for camel urine to have the consistancy of syrup... Their red blood cells survive happily in conditions that would kill other mammals.

...Camels can travel at speeds up to 45 mph... and run at 30 for hours... Unlike horses they are not "fragile." In mixed commands the horses died, the mules sickened, and the camels prospered. Very little seemed to phase them (including, in one documented incident, a rattlesnake bite...) When the first team arrived at the Colorado river, nobody knew if the camels could swim... not even their imported chief handler. Turns out that they are powerful swimmers.

...Camels are not stupid. They often "pause for a second" to consider something. They are certainly not "unmanageable" if treated with respect by well trained handlers. But (like elephants) they never forget being badly treated by a specific handler.

...One virtue came to light in the very nastiest desert terrain... If the handlers allowed the camels their "head..." the camels could always locate quality water within 20 miles... this saved the lives of a couple of expeditions. Most handlers (military and civilian) came to be quite fond of their camels.

...Camels had little role to play in the American Civil War (though one was killed by a Union sniper at Vickburg...) By the time that the war was over the railroad took over the role of conquering distance...

...It was thought that the last of the feral decendents of the Camel Corps died out in the early 1900s but the last confirmed sighting was in some gawdawful remote desert area by a railroad repair crew in 2003 who took photos....

...More than half the experiment was done by civilians who had the camels on loan... or by a mostly civilian survey expedition headed up by a Navy officer... As to the truly amazing charge of the title... Well I won't give that away...

...The human actors in this story are larger than life... and there is a follow-up on their lives as well. Buy this book... Buy this book...
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Most History Books Get It Wrong 26 Oct. 2013
By fredtownward - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you've ever studied any history mentioning the US government's experiment in using camels just prior to the Civil War, chances are you were told it was a failure, but as this fast moving, draws you right in, reads like a novel history amply demonstrates, the camel experiment was a complete and total success, exceeding even proponents' wildest hopes.

The Problem was the acquisition of a vast unwatered desert region as part of the settlement ending the Mexican-American War, territory that the Army would need to be able to control. The new national border would need to be patrolled, forts would need to be built and kept supplied, wild places would need to be explored and mapped, roads would need to be surveyed and built, and a watch at the very least would need to be kept on two restive populations: the various Indian tribes and the Mormons, especially as large numbers of settlers began to head west through this region to California, and for this task the horses, donkeys, and mules that served quite well in other parts of the country were not entirely up to the task. To take one example it took two additional mule-drawn wagons just to haul the food and water necessary to get one mule-drawn wagon full of supplies through to Camp later Fort Yuma on the Colorado River.

It is not known who deserves the most credit for suggesting the use of camels (several people seem to have come up with the idea independently), but it wasn't until March 3, 1855, that Congress finally authorized $30,000.00 for the purchase and importation of camels, and thanks to good bargaining and future Admiral David Dixon Porter's brilliantly designed system for protecting them in transit, America successfully imported two shiploads of camels, having 70 healthy camels to test by the time the second shipload arrived on February 10, 1857.

Now the experiments could begin, and the results were overwhelming.

Camels could carry 2 to 4 times as much as any horse, mule, or donkey.

Food did not need to be hauled for camels, since they actually preferred the native desert plants to grass. (About the only plant camels were known to refuse to eat was soap weed, a plant dangerous for infantry and animals to walk through because of its thorns, but since camels reacted to it by stomping it flat, they made a safe path for men and horses to follow.)

Water did not need to be hauled for camels, since they carried their own internal supply, which they used very sparingly, and when water ran short, camels could (if allowed to) find unknown water sources if there were any within twenty miles or so, and they always knew whether the water was safe to drink or not. (When the Owens Survey Expedition, sent out to fix the position of the Nevada-California borderline, wandered into Death Valley and got lost, it was the camels who prevented the human expedition members from sharing the fate of the expedition mules and so many other previous visitors by continually finding water safe enough to drink.)

Hauling wagon loads of supplies on their backs, camels could go where no wagons could, over almost any terrain (sand, mud, snow, rock) while maintaining a steady pace. Only sharp rocks and extremely slippery footing fazed them at all, and leather "shoes" tied around their feet solved the former while giving camels their heads solved the latter (when camels considered the footing too slippery, unprompted they'd get down on their "knees" and crawl fully loaded until the footing improved).

Though obviously unused to it, when confronted with crossing swift and dangerous rivers, the camels ruminated a bit, seeming to consider, then proved themselves stronger and better swimmers than horses, mules, or donkeys.

Contrary to rumor, camels proved quite docile and easy to control IF treated well. If not treated well, camels are quick to retaliate: spitting, biting, removing fingers. Fortunately, the camel drivers hired and imported along with the camels already knew this, and the Americans listened and learned quickly.

Camels proved quite calm and steady under fire, content either to charge right at an enemy or to wait out a battle tied to a bush, though if left too long they tended to eat the bush they were tied to.

In practice the panicked reaction some horses, mules, and donkeys had upon first meeting and/or smelling camels quickly subsided as they realized that camels were not predators, and they were soon all happily herded together.

Finally, when unburdened, camels could run much faster than horses, up to around 45 mph, and safely hold it for about 70 miles, something that proved to be critical during the titular charge.

Virtually every man who ever served with camels came to admire them and were effusive in their praise so why did the experiment come to an end?

Primarily because of the Civil War, which rather obviously occupied the Army's attention with other things for quite a while. The experiment could have and should have continued afterwards, but with the transcontinental railroad going through and so many of the camels' advocates having served the Confederacy, the enthusiasm was gone. Camels would continue to be imported into the US in small numbers from time to time for various reasons, but unlike in Australia, which today is the home of a massive feral camel population, "wild" camels never reached a critical mass here like "wild" horses did. "Wild" camels were spotted from time to time into the middle of the 20th Century, but the small numbers of "wild" camels people still run across today might well be descended from later imports. In any case camels are still with us in America, living examples of the quintessentially perfect desert mount or beast of burden down to this very day.

Author Forrest Bryant Johnson seamlessly interweaves the story of the camel experiments with the historical events of the time that justified, influenced, or interfered with them, and proves himself a masterful storyteller of the critical events from the abject horror of the Mormon perpetrated Mountain Meadows Massacre, arguably the worst wagon train massacre in all of western history, including treatment of women more in keeping with the practices of the Imperial Japanese Army in Nanjing than with a religious group that could rightly point to a history of being persecuted, to the thrilling camel charge of the title, against odds upwards of 50 to 1. It ought to be a movie or at least a docudrama.

Defects? Really just the one. How could the Berkley Publishing Group POSSIBLY publish a book chock full of interesting historical tidbits and strange historical bedfellows like this one and not include an index? Hopefully, this will be fixed in some future edition.

Note: An excellent recent middle grader provides a fictionalized account of this grand experiment from the POV of one of the camels: Exiled: Memoirs Of A Camel.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The story of the U.S. Army Camel Corps. And Mormons in Utah. And weapons of the OLD WEST. And the Bishop and Beale Company... 3 Oct. 2013
By James D. Crabtree - Published on
Verified Purchase
While this book has some good information the narrative wanders off on so many tangents that it is very difficult to keep track of everything and everyone brought into the story, especially when so many of the topics have so little to do with the camel experiment. And the author frequently uses the term "news media" several times. What news media? There were certainly newspapers. I don't think anyone got their info directly from the telegraph.

A good book but not a great one.
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