In 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, responding to Congress’ request that camels be introduced “upon this [North American] Continent, as an animal of burden and for military purposes,” asked Secretary of the Navy James C. Dobbin for the services of 42-year old Lieutenant David Dixon Porter, son of the War of 1812 hero Captain David Porter. The younger Porter had distinguished himself in the war with Mexico and had become known as an able captain, earning distinction in the merchant marine during an extended leave from the Navy.
Returning to the service in 1855, Porter brought “acknowledged professional ability and energy, and his knowledge of the east from residence there,” in addition to an “appreciation for [the expedition’s] value and a conviction of its practicability.” Porter had his command, the storeship Supply, fitted out at the New York Navy Yard for the mission. “A trunk 60 feet long was raised upon the spardeck . . .12 feet wide, with a large hatch, 11 feet 3 inches by 6 feet 8 inches and amid-ships to let the camels down on the lower deck.” He also had special harnesses made of “strong canvas . . . so arranged that when the vessel rolls the camel is kept perfectly steady.”
Supply sailed for the Mediterranean on 5 June 1855, and over the next few months fulfilled her assigned mission. She brought back “thirty-four camels and dromedaries . . . in better condition than they were when they came on board” due to a regimen of good food and good grooming. Supply transferred the animals to the steamer Fashion in the southwest pass of the Mississippi River on 10 May 1856. Supply subsequently conducted a second camel-gathering mission, and ultimately the experiment proved that the camel could be adapted to service in the U.S. southwest.
The expedition to transport those “ships of the desert” on board Supply showed the Navy’s versatility. It also showed that the Navy’s people, such as Commander Porter and his men, could carry out any mission—however unique—that was entrusted to them.