He left his mark on the cliff

He left his mark on the cliff

As I toured the Inscription Rock of the El Morro National Monument in New Mexico, I found an interesting inscription on the cliff, showing as follow:

P. Gilmer Breckinridge
1859 VA

After a little research, I discovered the person's nickname was Peachy, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. He passed by El Morro in 1859 and left his mark on the cliff. Arriving back in Virginia, Breckinridge enlisted to the Confederate Army and fought in the War between the States.

What's fascinating about him is that he was connected to the Camel Corps, a novel experiment of the U.S. Army.

In around 1850s, Major Henry C. Wayne and Edward F. Beale, Superintendent of the Indian Affairs in California, sought to solve the water problem on the route from the Mississippi river to California through the southwest desert. The team won funding in 1855 from the approval of Jefferson Davis, then, Secretary of War in President Franklin Pierce's Administration. Wayne and Beale traveled to Europe and Africa and studied the habits of camels. They bought 33 camels, hired 3 Arab handlers and sailed back to Texas to begin training.

Headquartered at Camp Verde, Texas, the Camel Corps started their westward expedition in 1856. Reports were very favorable as the Army found camels traveled better than horses and mules in the desert. Another 41 camels were added to the corps in 1857. Breckinridge commanded 25 soldiers / camels.

"The camels are coming. Their approach made quite a stir among the native population, most of whom had never seen the like" a newspaper said. Another article described how camels could pull a load over the mountain where mules brayed, ate cactus and could "live where our domestic animals would die."

El Morro has a water spring where travelers would stop and drew water. A trail cut through it westward to California or bearing northwest to Oregon. Breckenridge's caravan passed through there and he carved his name on the Inscription Rock.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the Confederates captured Camp Verde, putting an abrupt end to the camel corps. Most of the camels were sold at auction to zoos and circuses. Some escaped and survived in the wilderness. Camels were occasionally spotted in that Southwest region in 1900s.

Unfortunately, P. Breckinridge was killed in 1863, during a skirmish at Kennon's Landing, Virginia, but he left his name on that cliff permanently.

(Source came from on site observation and notes taking, plus using some material from the NPS brochures and books.)(1997)

Subj: Breckinridge inscription at El Morro
Date: 6/5/2002 11:43:04 AM Eastern Daylight Time
To: gordonkwok@aol.com
I photographed Breckinridge's inscription in April with a high-resolution digital camera. When zoomed-in, the image suggests that the letters following Breckinridge's name are VM, rather than VA--possibly acknowledging Virginia Military Institute, rather than the state of Virginia. I took particular interest in the inscription, since the inscription below it reads "D. Morrow MICH U," which together with Breckinridge's conjures images of a basketball rivalry. FYI, the town of Breckenridge, CO, was named for Breckinridge's family, but Colorado was decidedly pro-Union and the town changed the spelling of its name to distance itself from the Breckinridge family's CSA connection.
Harry Frank, Ann Arbor, MI

Subj: Re: Breckinridge inscription at El Morro
Date: 6/5/2002 9:23:12 PM Eastern Daylight Time
From: Gordonkwok
Hello Harry, What a pleasant surprise! I never expect anyone would respond to such an obscure piece of Civil War history. I also took a picture of that inscripture on the wall. Thank you for writing. Regards, Gordon Kwok

Subj: Re: Breckinridge inscription at El Morro
Date: 6/6/2002 10:58:06 AM Eastern Daylight Time
To: Gordonkwok@aol.com
Sometimes the most obscure detail or side-matter can grab one's attention. In April, my wife and I spent three weeks photographing frontier forts. On our way to Ft. Apache, we decided to make a side-trip to El Morro. While editing my El Morro photos for the "forts" CD I'm making, I needed some historical background and went to El Morro websites (which is how I stumbled onto yours). In the course of browsing the El Morro websites, I noticed that the Breckinridge inscription was very popular (it is arguably the most precise--almost looking as if stamped) but that the D. Morrow inscription just below it is often cropped out; the possibility that both Breckinridge and Morrow might have included their educational affiliations (VMI and U.Mich, respectively) on the cliff, much like college students 150 years later, amused me. I enlarged Morrow's inscription and was forced to conclude that what appeared to be MICH U was more likely to be MICH 66. I called El Morro and asked the National Park folks to check the catalog of inscriptions they keep at the desk. I learned that Jesse D. Morrow from Michigan stopped at El Morro on his way to California in 1866 but evidently acquired a fondness for the area, because he returned and became one of Rama's major ranchers and landowners. We encountered two other places where living history is written in sandstone--Register Cliff (Guernsey, WY) along the Oregon Trail and Ft. Larned, KS. Larned is probably the best preserved of all Indian Wars-era forts (it was bought by a single owner and used continuously as a working farm until the park service bought it), and in its last year of service 1877, the officers evidently let the men carve their names in the sandstone blocks of the infantry barracks.
Harry Frank

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Author and Webmaster, Gordon Kwok

First posted on March 2, 2001
Uploaded on current server: March 19, 2009