The camel is designed on a simple formula, C equals 3 mules squared, but the average American soldier dealing with camels never got the hang of it.

The American Camel Corps failed and the animals were auctioned off in San Francisco in 1864. One wonders why.

After all, the camel can navigate steep terrain impossible for mules and readily goes two days without water (and up to a week). The camel barely sweats and adapts to 11-degree variations in body temperature, whereas humans feel queasy at a half-degree rise.

Although the useful camels were extravagantly praised by some Americans who best knew their labor, the Camel Corps collapsed mainly because what the camel did best no longer needed to be done at all. Very much as the best maker of fringe for surreys would be less useful than even an indifferent auto body repairman.

Besides, the Camel Corps was an enthusiasm of Jefferson Davis when he was secretary of war, before he left the Union to head the Confederacy. His projects tended to fare ill. Camels were never used in warfare in America though the French used them in Egypt and Algeria. Out west the camels were used in road surveys and they carried water for the more delicate mules among other chores.

After the Civil War the Western population increased and the railroads came. Besides all that, the camel requires sensible handling, a severe handicap. Unlike the mule the camel fights effectively when tormented. The camel's spit is massive, green and foul, exploded from both mouth and nose. Its accuracy suggests it was prototype for the Patriot. It delivers vicious kicks with its forefeet too, but its greatest weapon is its teeth.

One American muleteer at Camp Verde, Tex., overloaded a camel who, as usual, groaned and muttered and refused to rise. The soldier kicked it in the belly and the camel spat in his face. The soldier then took a club and swung, but the camel dodged and with its great incisors laid open the man's arm, right to the bone.

Again, a teamster lost his temper at a camel who had managed to shake off much of its burden. The man seized the halter and beat the camel but it trampled him to death. Thus Mother Nature instructs and guides us.

There were a few men who admired and loved the camel, including Edward Fitzgerald "Ned" Beale, one of the remarkable men of Washington in the last century. Born here in 1822, he attended the naval school, and became a lieutenant. (Later he was surveyor general of California and much of the West, returning to buy Decatur House on Lafayette Square, occupied by him and his descendants for 84 years.)

He left the Navy as a young man with an impressive combat record, and moved to California where he managed various properties. He had important posts in Indian affairs, in the militia and as surveyor general of vast Western territories. In 1857 he headed an expedition to survey a wagon road from Fort Defiance, N.M., to the Colorado River. He had recommended camels to the government and it was on this trip that he saw how right he was.

"My admiration for the camels increases daily," he said. He found them "so perfectly docile and so admirably contented with whatever fate befalls them that no one could do justice to their merits or value... ."

Like some others involved with the camels Beale did remarkable things even by adventurous standards of his day. In 1847 he brought to Washington the news that California had joined the Union, via a hazardous trip through the West with a handful of men including Kit Carson. The next year he brought to Washington the first gold dust from California, giving part of it to the Patent Office and using the rest for a wedding ring.

After he bought Decatur House he made changes in the Latrobe structure, including a floor inlaid with 22 rare woods of California and a central seal with the motto "Eureka." The series of camel paintings there dates from his day, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which now owns the house, keeps fascinating records of the camel project.

Like most grand ideas, the notion of using camels in America was nothing new. The Spanish imported them to Peru in the 16th century, and it is said a slave trader brought some camels to Virginia in 1701. As early as 1836 Maj. Gen. George H. Crossman raised the question of using camels militarily but nothing came of it. The Senate made merry with the idea when it was presented to them.

Still, a Navy ship brought 33 camels from the Near East in 1857 and 44 more on a second trip. A deck was fitted for them, the camel barn 60 feet long, 12 feet wide and 7 1/2 feet high with facilities for strapping the animals down in rough weather. A hole in the deck above had to be cut for one giant camel who weighed a ton and didn't fit. The beasts were daily rubbed and given salt. Only one died on the long trip and two were born. When they were unloaded on the Texas coast they responded with such enthusiasm -- breaking halters and making a great deal of noise -- that the locals thought it was a free circus. The project was by no means casual. Books were studied and visits made to camel authorities in London and Paris. The duke of Tuscan's camel herd was studied -- they had flourished 200 years. The bey of Tunis donated a camel but the poor creature had an incurable itch.

There were few economic or industrial results of the camel venture. A lady of Victoria, Tex., knitted a pair of socks from camel fur for President Buchanan and got a nice note in reply. The socks were said to be rather smelly as the art of processing camel fur was imperfectly known in Victoria. Even after the corps was dissolved the camels remained, some of them loose in the desert. Gen. Douglas MacArthur saw a wild one in 1885 near his father's station in New Mexico. The Oakland Tribune announced in 1934 that the last descendant of the camels died, but as in the case of Elvis Presley, some people undoubtedly still see them.