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
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.
“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
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.
McConnell and a portion of the soldiers went in another vessel to
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
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
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.
dawn one day in early May, McConnell and a party of his men left
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
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