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Books by
Jeffery Robenalt

"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Leander H. McNelly
and the Special Force

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

Legendary 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.

Leander McNelly
Wikimedia Commons
In 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.
Ranger John B. Armstrong
Wikimedia Commons
The merchants 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.

Trotting his 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 further debate.

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.

© Jeffery Robenalt, March 1, 2014 Column
Sources for "Leander H. McNelly and the Special Force" >

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Sources for "Leander H. McNelly and the Special Force"

  • Cox, Mike, The Texas Rangers: Men of Action and Valor, (Austin: Eakin Press, 1991).
  • Durham, George, Taming the Nueces Strip: The Story of McNelly’s Rangers, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962).
  • Fehrenbach, T. R., Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1968)
  • Parsons, Chuck, The Sutton-Taylor Feud: The Deadliest Blood Feud in Texas, (Denton, University of North Texas Press, 2009).
  • Webb, Walter Prescott, The Texas Rangers, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Press, 1935; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982).
  • Thomas w. 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 Association.





















































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