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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Fishing Soldier

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

When a wagon full of soldiers rolled out of old Fort Belknap early one spring morning in 1867 flanked by horseback troopers, while doubtless armed, they were not starting out on a scout for Indians.

During the early years of Reconstruction, despite the Army’s presence at a string of forts from Jacksboro on the north to Eagle Pass on the Rio Grande hostile, Comanches and Kiowa still held sway along the long frontier dividing the state. And even in the settled areas in the eastern half of Texas, most men and boys toted pistols in the near absence of civil law enforcement.

Bad as times were, however, the fishing was good. The state’s creeks and streams teamed with fish, particularly catfish, carp and drum. On this particular day, a party of bluecoats gladly gambled their scalps in hopes of adding a little variety to their diet.

In “Five Years a Cavalryman,” his classic memoir of Army life in Texas during the years immediately following the Civil War, H.E. McConnell writes of a fishing expedition he and some of his fellow soldiers enjoyed in Young County’s Elm Creek.

McConnell, who had served as a volunteer during the Civil War, had joined the regular Army and gone through cavalry school at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania. With the rank of sergeant, he and several hundred other shavetails assigned to shore up the Sixth Cavalry traveled by train to Baltimore where they embarked on a repurposed former blockade runner to Galveston.

From Galveston, McConnell and a portion of the soldiers went in another vessel to Indianola on Matagorda Bay and from there to Port Lavaca in yet another boat. At Port Lavaca they boarded one of only three railroad lines operating in Texas at the time for the 30-mile trip to Victoria. The rest of their journey to Austin, then the Sixth’s Texas headquarters, was by foot. Finally supplied with horses in the Capital City, McConnell and his unit rode to Fort Richardson at Jacksboro.

But that hadn’t been there long when the Army decided to abandon the post. McConnell liked being on the frontier and managed to wrangle orders to proceed to old Fort Belknap in Young County to prepare a report on the advisability of re-occupying that post.

The fort had been vacant since 1861 and stood in sorry shape when McConnell and his survey detail arrived. McConnell dutifully proceeded with the preparation of his report, but like any good government employee, he managed to work in a little free time.

At dawn one day in early May, McConnell and a party of his men left Fort Belknap in a converted ambulance. (Back then, an ambulance was a type of wagon, not a vehicle for carrying injured people to a hospital.) They followed the road to Camp Cooper for a couple of miles before cutting across the wildflower-covered prairie, finally stopping at a scenic spot on Elm Creek about 10 miles from the fort and two miles from the point where the stream emptied into the Brazos River.

Anyone imagining that the soldiers broke out fishing poles and started digging for worms would be wrong. Though some folks back then did fish with hook and line, a desire to get the most fish in the most efficient way possible often trumped sportsmanship. McConnell and his party busied themselves unloading a large seine belonging to one of the soldiers.

Then the soldiers peeled off their blue jackets, shucked their heavy boots, rolled up their yellow-striped trouser legs and waded into the creek with their net.

“We proceeded to fish and with fine success,” McConnell wrote more than two decades later. The first sweep of the seine brought up a variety of sizable fish from the murky green waters of the creek.

But on their next drag, suddenly the water swirled as something big and mean tangled in their net. It took the combined strength of the tough horse soldiers to land their catch—a long-nosed, thick-scaled alligator gar. The big fish, a throwback to prehistoric times, tore their net in several places before the soldiers could dislodge it.

The soldiers threw it back, but every time they dragged the net, the gar ended up in it. Knowing the gar was too tough to eat, at the suggestion of one of several reservation Tonkawas who had joined them on the fishing trip, they broke off its nose in the sand before throwing it back in the creek. That, as McConnell put it, prevented “further mischief.”

By the time they stopped for lunch, the cavalrymen had not only filled two barrels with carp (which they called “buffalo fish”), catfish and turtles, they’d covered the floor of their wagon with flopping fish. Their prize catch was a 46-pound yellow cat measuring more than four feet long. In all, McConnell said their seining netted some 500 pounds of fish.

Their creaking wagon sagging under the load, the tired soldiers made their way back to Fort Belknap that afternoon. The normally detailed-minded McConnell did not elaborate in his book, but surely skillets soon sizzled.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
November 12 , 2009 column

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