Texas Ranger Leander McNelly was born on March 12, 1844 in Brook
County, Virginia. His family moved to Missouri in 1855, and then
on to Texas in the fall of 1860. During the Civil War, McNelly served
as a private in Company F of the Fifth Texas Cavalry and was later
promoted to the rank of Captain for his "gallantry" and given command
of the brigade scouts. The South may well have lost the war, but
the blame could not be placed on McNelly. The young officer and
his scouts distinguished themselves many times during the fighting
that ebbed and flowed across Louisiana and Mississippi, much of
it far behind enemy lines.
One such incident
occurred in the summer of 1864, when McNelly and his scouts were
ordered to capture Brashear, Louisiana (now Morgan City), defended
by nearly 400 Federal troops. McNelly had less than forty men, but
after dark, he marched them back and forth across a small bridge
that stood just outside town. To make the ruse more effective, the
confederates shouted commands into the dark from unseen colonels
and generals, as the troops marched back and forth. At sunup, McNelly
raised a flag of truce and led his small force into Brashear, demanding
unconditional surrender. Believing that the noise they had heard
during the night represented a large Confederate force ready to
attack, the Union officers immediately surrendered the 380 soldiers
defending the town.
At the conclusion of the war, the twenty-one year-old McNelly returned
to Texas a hero. He had survived four
years of brutal fighting with only one minor wound, but his health
was continually threatened by a severe case of consumption contracted
from the primitive living conditions he was forced to endure during
the war. After settling down on a farm near Brenham,
Leander married Carey Cheek and had two children. McNelly was a
religious man, and for a time settled into the life of a gentleman
cotton farmer in Washington County. He later worked for the General
Land Office before he was appointed by Governor Edmund G. Davis
as one of the four captains of the new State Police. He served in
this position from July 1, 1870, until the force was disbanded on
April 22, 1873.
In July 1874, thirty-four volunteers from the Washington County
militia were mustered into government service as the seventh company
of the Frontier Battalion. Leander McNelly was appointed the company
commander, and the company was assigned duty in DeWitt County to
deal with the bloody Sutton-Taylor feud. The feud had begun in March
1874, when a member of the Taylor family killed a member of the
Sutton family. Captain McNelly and his men arrived on August 1 and
spent four months attempting to suppress the civil violence and
ensure that Taylor and the witnesses against him lived to participate
in the trial. They were moderately successful, but following the
trial, McNelly again took sick with consumption and was forced to
return to his farm to recuperate. In his after action report, the
veteran Ranger stated that the presence of his men had acted as
a damper on the violence, but he was sure the unrest would eventually
flair up again now that the company was withdrawn.
April of 1875, Governor Richard Coke commissioned Captain McNelly
to organize a Special Force of Texas Rangers to deal with the bloodshed
and crime that was ongoing throughout the Nueces Strip, the narrow
strip of land that ran between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande.
McNelly carefully, but quickly, handpicked the forty men for his new
Special Force and rode for Nueces County. Upon his arrival, he learned
that a gang of Mexican bandits had recently robbed a local store and
made off with eighteen expensive saddles adorned with silver conchos.
A new shipment of fancy saddles was expected any day, but McNelly
instructed the merchant not to sell any for awhile. He then told his
first sergeant, John B. Armstrong, to describe the saddles to the
Rangers and order them to empty any such saddles on sight. “Leave
the men where you drop them and bring the saddles to camp.” After
listening to McNelly’s instructions, the merchant was sure Governor
Coke had picked the right man to clean up the mess in the Nueces Strip.
John B. Armstrong
and ranchers in South Texas
all chipped in to outfit the Rangers with single-shot, .50-caliber
Sharps rifles, the long arm preferred by many buffalo hunters. Most
Mexican bandits were armed with more modern repeating rifles like
the Henry and the Winchester, but the Sharps rifle was a reliable
weapon and deadly accurate at long range. The Rangers were also
provided with a wagon load of ammunition. Now that his men were
adequately armed, McNelly’s next problem was to see that they were
properly mounted. Many of the men were riding farm horses, more
fit for plowing than chasing Mexican bandits. The Rangers needed
well-bred and high-spirited animals like those of their adversaries.
Richard C. King, owner of the famous King Ranch was losing a lot
of stock to rustlers, so he was more than happy to provide the required
horses. Of course, McNelly received the best mount, a tall, wide-chested
bay named “Segal.”
From his experience as an officer during the war, Captain McNelly
was well aware of the importance of intelligence. In this case,
the intelligence came from a rare prisoner captured while riding
one of the fancy saddles that had been stolen earlier. As usual,
McNelly was willing to play rough, and the prisoner soon provided
the information the Rangers needed. A large gang of Mexican bandits
were herding nearly 300 head of stolen cattle along the coast toward
Mexico. After spending the night in a dry camp, the Rangers caught
up with the bandits at sunup. The Mexicans were nearing the Rio
Grande when they spotted the Texans closing in and began to push
their stolen stock much harder. Reaching a swamp short of the river,
the bandits circled the stock on a small island in the middle of
a shallow lake and took cover. McNelly’s orders to his Rangers were
to ride five paces apart, not to fire until he did, and to fire
only straight ahead.
big bay straight into the shallow water, McNelly headed toward the
bandits, his Rangers strung out to either side. The Mexicans began
to fire, but the Rangers kept moving forward as if they were bullet-proof.
Some of the bandits panicked and fled from the determined advance,
but others stayed put and kept on shooting. A horse was hit and
screamed in pain, as the Ranger leaped from the saddle. The volume
of Mexican fire increased, and a few other Ranger horses went down,
but McNelly continued to hold his fire until he was only thirty
paces from the bandits. Drawing his big Colt, he aimed and fired,
knocking an outlaw off his feet, and the Rangers opened fire in
concert with their leader. The Mexicans scrambled for their horses,
but it was too late. Following Captain McNelly’s orders, the Rangers
continued to stay on line, calmly firing straight ahead. The effect
of their fusillade was devastating. By the time the echo of gunfire
ceased, bodies of dead bandits lay scattered across the island.
McNelly ordered the bodies displayed in the town square as a warning
to others who might choose to follow the outlaw path.
The most daring exploit of Leander McNelly and his Special Force
was a mid-November 1875 invasion of Mexican soil at Las Cuevas,
some ten miles below Rio
Grande City on the Mexican side of the river. The incident began
when the U. S. Army chased a gang of Mexican cattle thieves to the
north bank of the Rio Grande but refused to go any further. McNelly’s
plan was simple. If he launched an incursion across the border to
retrieve the cattle, the U. S. Army would be forced to come to his
assistance. He believed public opinion would not allow the army
to stand by while the more than 3,000 Mexican troops and vaqueros
in the area slaughtered his Rangers. McNelly gathered thirty Rangers
at midnight and spoke to them. “… if any of you do not want to go
over with me, step aside … You understand there is to be no surrender.
We ask no quarter nor give any.” All thirty Rangers stepped forward
and cheered in their eagerness to go, and McNelly issued his final
orders. They were clear, concise, and simple instructions as always.
“Kill all you see except old men, women, and children. These are
my orders and I want them obeyed to the letter.”
The crossing of the Rio Grande was made without incident, but the
Rangers were ignorant of the fact that rancho Las Cucharas stood
between them and Las Cuevas. They attacked Las Cucharas by mistake
and gunned down a surprised group of Mexicans chopping wood for
breakfast before McNelly could call for a cease fire. “Well, you
have given my surprise away,” McNelly complained to their Mexican
guide. “Take me to Las Cuevas as fast as you can.” Unfortunately,
the element of surprise had been lost, and the Rangers found 250
soldiers under the command of Juan Flores waiting for them when
they finally reached Las Cuevas. Heavily outnumbered, Captain McNelly
led his Rangers back to the river, but they did not cross to the
American side. Instead, McNelly put out a line of pickets and the
Rangers began to fortify a position along the Mexican side of the
river where they could use their rifles. Arriving in hot pursuit
from Las Cuevas, the Mexicans made the mistake of thinking the Texans
were crossing the river. Juan Flores led some twenty-five of his
horsemen in a galloping charge, hoping to catch the Texans in the
middle of the river. The attack was met with a blistering volley
from the Rangers’ rifles. Flores was killed and the Mexicans quickly
retreated in confusion.
During the negotiations that followed the attack, McNelly was at
his audacious best. When asked to depart Mexican territory immediately,
he stated that he would never go back without the cattle and bandits
who rustled them. The Mexicans were shocked and asked for a temporary
truce. McNelly refused the truce unless his demands were met, but
he stated that he would give an hour’s notice before launching his
own attack. The Mexican leaders were badly rattled. McNelly may
well have had only a few Rangers, but U. S. Army troops were poised
just across the river to lend assistance. Meanwhile, the U. S. Army
was ordered not to support McNelly and the Mexicans were so told.
Ignoring the odds stacked against him, McNelly’s reply was to threaten
an immediate attack on the 400 Mexicans in front of his position
unless the cattle were returned and the thieves turned over to him.
Unbelievably, the Mexicans agreed to the demands, but then in typical
fashion, they waffled when it came time to deliver the cattle. McNelly
calmly informed the Mexican officials that if the cattle were not
delivered across the river in five minutes, they would all be killed.
The cattle were herded to the American side of the river without
During the years 1875 and 1876, the forty-man Special Force saw
nearly two years of continuous service throughout the Nueces Strip,
before Captain McNelly was removed from his command for making one
too many border incursions. McNelly retired to his farm at Burton,
where he died of tuberculosis on September 4, 1877. Leander McNelly
and his Special Force of Texas Rangers were spectacularly successful
by most measures in dealing with the lawlessness of the Nueces Strip.
Unfortunately, many of the methods they used were questionable at
best; the least of which were the illegal border crossings in violation
of Mexico’s territorial sovereignty. Under McNelly’s personal direction,
the Rangers also participated in many forced confessions and illegal
executions; tactics that still remain a controversy along the border
today. Nevertheless, the majority of citizens of South
Texas showed their appreciation by erecting a monument to Leander
McNelly’s memory, paid for by public funds.
March 1, 2014 Column
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The Texas Rangers: Men of Action and Valor, (Austin: Eakin
Taming the Nueces Strip: The Story of McNelly’s Rangers,
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962).
T. R., Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, (New
York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1968)
The Sutton-Taylor Feud: The Deadliest Blood Feud in Texas,
(Denton, University of North Texas Press, 2009).
Prescott, The Texas Rangers, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Press,
1935; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982).
Cutrer, “MCNELLY, LEANDER H.,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fmag),
accessed, January 20, 2014. Published by the Texas State Historical