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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

How One Old Rebel Coped with the Memories of War
Rebel Fisherman

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

It would be nearly a century before the term "post traumatic stress disorder" entered the medical texts, but it's a safe bet that many of the men who lived in Austin's Confederate Men's Home never fully recovered from having been shot at during the Civil War. The mental condition just didn't have a name.

Fortunately, Texas men who fought for the South did at least have a place to go if they had no one to care for them. Located at 1600 W. Sixth St., the facility for old soldiers opened in 1886. Funding came through contributions from Confederate veteran and descendant organizations until 1891, when the state took over the home.

As with any facility for the elderly, then or now, some residents were invalids or suffering from dementia while others were old but in reasonable health. The state provided medical care for the men, but no treatment existed for those mentally traumatized by the nation's bloody five-year fraternal conflict.

While meaningful psychological treatment lay years in the future, men who fought for the South or North and survived found various ways to cope with the haunting memories of their combat experiences. That or they spent the rest of their lives as psychologically crippled as many of their comrade in arms with missing limbs.

At least one resident of the old soldiers home in the capital city found solace outdoors. More specifically, in fishing on the Colorado River. He did so in a distinctive way, as related by a former Texas Ranger and traveling salesman who told a group of his fellow drummers about the fellow over drinks in San Antonio's Menger Hotel bar.

"He loves to fish," Joe Booth said of his friend, "and having nothing else to do, indulges his hobby to such an extent as to have acquired the title of 'official fisherman' for the camp [home]."

Booth did not say whether the ex-soldier shared his catch with his fellow residents, but that seems likely. The notion of catch and release was as alien back then as owning up to having been emotionally scarred by the war.

The Rebel veteran-Booth didn't offer his name or any identifier other than mentioning that they had served in the same outfit-did his angling in a leisurely manner.

"He has a one-man flat boat down on the Colorado...near the home, in the bow of which is fastened a 10-inch pine plank, that slopes at an angle of about 15 degrees toward the stern," Booth explained. "On this plank is tacked a padding of cotton and this serves as our friend's snoozing place while fishing."

Of course, sleeping while fishing requires preparation, especially given that the old soldier had lost a leg at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

Accordingly, the old soldier had added to the stern of his boat a Y-shaped post on which to rest his wooden leg while reclining on his "snoozing place." He tied his fishing line to the thin end of his peg leg, figuring it made as good a fishing pole as any.

At the upper end of his prosthesis he attached a small cowbell. That way, when a fish took the bait and began pulling on the line, the agitation would ring the bell and awaken the slumbering angler. At that point, all he had to do was jerk up his wooden leg to set his hook.

The only other requisite for a pleasant day afloat was having something upon which to sip between naps.

"The old fellow is quite fond of his liquor," Booth continued, "and a flask may always be found under his resting place on the boat."

Once he secured his libation and bait, the veteran rowed out into the river channel, dropped anchor and tossed his hook into the water. Then he took a drink and settled down to relax and await developments.

The story of the fishing Confederate was told by Booth to Howard Peak, a fellow drummer. Peak retold it in his memoir, "A Ranger of Commerce," published in 1929. The son of a pioneer Fort Worth doctor, Peak hit the sales trail as a young man in the 1870s and continued his trade through the early automobile era.

Over the years, some 2,000 Confederate veterans had their last bivouac at the old soldiers home. As late as 1929, 55 years after the end of the war, the home still had 312 residents. By 1936 it was down to 80. The last veteran at the home died in 1954 at 108 but the facility remained in operation to accommodate senile mental patients from the state hospital system as well as Spanish American War and World War One veterans. The state finally shut it down in 1970. Not long after it was torn down to make room for University of Texas married student housing.

Since Booth didn't offer a name for the fishing Confederate who had lived at the home, his identity probably will never be known. And maybe that's just as well. Just think of him as the Unknown Rebel Fisherman.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" May 16, 2018

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