Lee McNelly

The post-Civil War period in America was a dangerous time to be alive; this is especially true in the American Southwest, where a massive increase in human migration triggered conflict and profane behavior among those who were disenfranchised by the destruction of a bloody war.  Settlers heading to the American west could not have known what awaited them there. They only knew what they’d been told … and what they heard sounded much better than what they had back east.

The settlers did know that it would take hard work and many years to carve out a small place where they could sustain their families; they probably also realized that if anyone were to achieve success on these small plots of land, it would more than likely be their heirs rather than themselves.  What they may not have expected were threats imposed against their safety by native tribes, villainous behavior of renegade whites, and/or terrorism imposed by bandits from Mexico.

Banditry existed on both sides of the US-Mexico border.  In the minds of the American outlaws who routinely raided Mexican ranches murdering vaqueros and their families, and rustle their cattle and horses, border raids were simply a matter of “easy pickings.”  In the minds of Mexican bandits, Texas and other border states and territories were lands wrongfully taken from Mexico; border raids were vendettas against intruders.  The men who perpetrated these crimes were of the worst sort; they were killers, rapists, and thieves … it would take men who were equally capable of violence to reign them in.

One such man was Leander (Lee) H. McNelly (1844-1877).

Lee was born in Follansbee, Brooke County, Virginia (now, West Virginia) the son of P. J. McNelly and Mary Downey.  In 1860, the McNelly’s left their home in Virginia and headed for Texas which was popularly regarded as a land of opportunity.  In Texas, the McNelly’s engaged in raising and herding sheep. With the outbreak of the Civil War, on September 13, 1861, Lee enlisted as a private in Company F of the Fifth Texas Cavalry.

In 1863, McNelly participated in the Battle of Galveston[1]under Captain George Campbell and Colonel Thomas Green.  After Green’s promotion to brigadier general and his assumption of command over the Texas Cavalry Brigade, McNelly was assigned as Green’s aide-de-camp.  Then, in recognition of McNelly’s daring gallantry during the Battle of Valverde, Arizona Territory[2], Green commissioned McNelly a captain in the Texas Cavalry and appointed him to command the brigade scouts.  During Green’s southern Louisiana campaign of 1864, Captain McNelly fulfilled a major role in the Battle of Brashear City[3]and Lafourche Crossing.  During the Battle of Mansfield in April 1864, McNelly received serious wounds and was relieved of his duties.

After recovering from his wounds, McNelly returned to his command in May 1864 where he took part in the battle of Yellow Bayou.  He was then ordered into the Bayou Lafourche country of southern Louisiana to scout and harass the enemy.  On July 1, 1864, after Green’s death at the battle of Blair’s Landing, Louisiana, McNelly was transferred to General John A. Wharton’s[4]cavalry corps.

On July 6, 1864, Captain McNelly was ordered to employ his company east of the Atchafalaya River to gather information about enemy movements.  McNelly continued to harass his enemy throughout the swamps and canebrakes of Louisiana.  It was typical of his exploits to overwhelm superior enemy forces with a strength of only one-hundred scouts[5].  After a period of tracking down Jayhawkers[6]on the Calcasieu, Captain McNelly was transferred to the command of Major General John G. Walker where he was detailed to ferret out and arrest deserters near Hempstead, Texas.

At the end of the war, McNelly returned to his Texas home and resumed farming near Brenham, Texas.  It was there that he met and married Miss Carey Cheek.

In July, 1870 Texas Republican Governor Edmund J. Davis organized the Texas State Police (TSP), its purpose to combat crime during the Reconstruction Era.  Despite its initial success, the TSP remained unpopular among some Texans, particularly the former slave-owners, because the police force included black police officers. In September 1870, citizens of Hill County, Texas blocked the TSP from arresting members of the Kinch West gang. Later that year, Hill County citizens refused to allow the arrest of those accused of murdering former slaves.

Nevertheless, Leander McNelly was one of four men commissioned as captains of the Texas State Police (which included John Jackson Helm, murdered by John Wesley Hardin in 1873).  McNelly was assigned command of the TSP in Walker County.  Not long after his assignment there, McNelly investigated the murder of a Negro named Sam Jenkins.  Four men were arrested, one being at once released from pre-trial confinement.  The remaining three men received smuggled guns while attending a hearing the courthouse and at a time when McNelly was returning them to jail, opened fire. McNelly was wounded.

In a later newspaper interview, McNelly chastised the local sheriff for not knowing these men were armed.  Captain McNelly was also unhappy with Governor Davis, who had promptly declared martial law in Hill County.

The Texas Legislature abolished the Texas State Police on April 22, 1873, about 9 months before the Democratic Party regained control of Texas.  In 1874, lawlessness was rampant in Texas so newly elected governor Richard Coke created the Texas Rangers divided into two branches: A Frontier Battalion under command of Major John B. Jones, and a Special Force commanded by Leander McNelly (largely funded by South Texas cattle ranchers).

Captain McNelly’s first assignment was to travel to DeWitt County to resolve the Sutton-Taylor Feud[7].  In 1874, a member of the Taylor family killed a member of the Sutton family; McNelly and 40 Texas Rangers arrived in Clinton, Texas to ensure that Taylor and the witnesses against him lived through the trial.  During this assignment, McNelly became ill and returned home to recuperate. In his absence from duty, members of the Texas Rangers engaged in a gunfight with unknown parties outside of Clinton.  Of the Texas Rangers, one man was wounded, one was missing in action, and two horses were killed.

After his return to duty in April 1875, Governor Coke ordered McNelly to take his special force into the Nueces Strip; the governor assigned him the specific task of bringing order to this region of Texas[8], a hotbed of cattle rustling and banditry organized and directed by General Juan Cortina[9].  Cortina commanded the Mexican military region of the Rio Grande frontier and orchestrated guerrilla operations against Texas ranchers.

Within two days, Captain McNelly recruited 40 men to serve as Texas Rangers.  He rejected most native Texan applicants so that they would not have to face the possibility of confronting their own relatives and friends.  McNelly’s rangers became very loyal to him; they called themselves “Little McNellys.”

Captain McNelly was an aggressive leader who, in the performance of his duty, reminds me somewhat of the modern U. S. Marine: one does not hand a mission to an American Marine and then moan about how he went about achieving that assignment.  In our present day, scholars who have never placed themselves in harm’s way for any reason question McNelly’s methods, but at a dangerously violent period in American history, when faced with armed and ruthless men, individuals who would have killed McNelly without hesitation, Captain McNelly did carry out his mission —which was solving the problem of lawlessness on the Mexican-American border. Any bandit who drew his weapon against a Texas Ranger was dealt with severely, permanently, and at once.  McNelly also did not hesitate to extract information from captured outlaws —information that was vital to the completion of his mission and the safety of his men.

There was another aspect of Lee McNelly that has made him famous: he willfully disobeyed orders about pursuing outlaws across the Mexican border.  Captain McNelly reasoned that if an outlaw realized that crossing into Mexico was no guarantee for his personal safety, the outlaw might decide that thievery, murder, and mayhem may not be worth the risk.

In 1875, McNelly was faced with how to eliminate several Mexican bandit gangs. The first and worst of these was Juan Cortina. For years Cortina had raided settlements in the area of Brownsville, Texas, always retreating across the Rio Grande to avoid Texas law enforcement.  Cortina was from a wealthy family that owned more than 260,000 acres (about 680 square miles) of land in South Texas, which had once included the location of the town of Brownsville.  Cortina commanded a force of more than 2,000 armed Mexican outlaws and gunmen.

The first major gunfight between the Rangers and Mexican bandits occurred in June 1875.  McNelly’s Rangers surprised a group of sixteen Mexican cattle thieves and one American man, driving about 300 head of cattle toward the Rio Grande River (and toward Juan Cortina and a steamer headed for Cuba).  These were Cortina’s hand-picked men, who had boasted they could cope with any Rangers or vigilantes. Captain McNelly issued his orders. “Don’t shoot to the left or the right.  Shoot straight ahead.  And don’t shoot till you’ve got your target good in your sights.  Don’t walk up on a wounded man.  Pay no attention to a white flag. That’s a mean trick that bandits use on green-hands.  Don’t touch a dead man, except to identify him.”

Sighting the approach of the Rangers, the Mexican bandits took flight, driving the herd before them at a frenzied pace until they reached a spit of land inside a salt marsh.  The Mexicans then turned and waited for the Rangers, who were right on their heels, to cross the shallow, muddy lagoon.  Lee McNelly anticipated an ambush and stopped to issue his pep talk, “Boys, across this Resaca[10] are some outlaws that claim they’re bigger than the law — bigger than Washington law, bigger than Texas law. This won’t be a standoff or a dog fall.  We’ll either win completely, or we’ll lose completely.”

The battle is often referred to as either the Red Raid or the Second Battle of Palo Alto.  It was waged nearly all day in a succession of single hand-fights, which left dead Mexicans and horses covering a swath through the prairie about two miles wide and six miles long.  All the Mexican drovers were killed, as well as the gringo named Jack Ellis, who had beaten and mistreated a shopkeeper’s wife at Nueces.  Two hundred and sixty-five head of stolen livestock were rounded up and eventually returned to their rightful owners near the King Ranch.  Nine of the fourteen saddles recovered turned out to be Dick Heyes’ saddles stolen in the raid at Nueces town three months earlier.

One Ranger, seventeen-year-old L. Berry Smith, who wanted to be in on the action, also died in the fighting.  He was the son of camp cook, D. R. Smith and the youngest Texas Ranger ever to die in the line of duty.  Smith was apparently too inexperienced to fully appreciate McNelly’s terse orders because he got too close to a wounded Mexican bandit; the bandit killed the boy before Smith even knew what was happening.  Berry Smith was buried in the northwest corner of the Brownsville cemetery on June 16, 1875 with full military honors.

Further north and west along the Rio Grande River, McNelly was confronted by a band of outlaws led by General Juan Flores Salinas. This gang did not have the manpower of the Cortina’s gang, but was every bit as ruthless. The Salinas gang was headquartered at Camargo, Mexico, directly across the border from the US Army outpost of Ringgold Barracks, near Rio Grande City.  This confrontation is known as the Las Cuevas War, which occurred in November 1875.

McNelly and his rangers entered Mexico on November 20.  Under cover of brush and scrub oak, they made their way on foot to the Salinas stronghold at the Rincon de Cucharras outpost of the Las Cuevas ranch. Confronting the outlaws, McNelly demanded the return of stolen cattle and horses.  The ensuing gunfight pitted rangers against an estimated four hundred of Salinas’ men.  Fearing that mounted Mexicans would surround his men, McNelly ordered his men to pull back to the river to make a stand. At the river, about half the US Army’s 24thInfantry Regiment and 8thCavalry detachment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James F. Randlett, formed a defensive perimeter at the bank of the river on the Texas side.  In the fight that followed, with the aid of the US Army firing a Gatling gun on the Mexicans, General Juan Salinas (who also served as the Alcalde (mayor) of Camargo) and eighty of his outlaws died on the riverbank.  There then ensued a so-called Mexican standoff, with the Mexican militia retreating to regroup after their leader’s death, and Captain McNelly refusing to back down from his demands on the return of the stolen cattle. Later that afternoon, Major A. J. Alexander from Fort Ringgold arrived with a message from Colonel Potter, who commanded at Fort Brown (today, Brownsville, Texas).  His message, directed to Captain McNelly, was:

“Advise Captain McNelly to return at once to this side of the river.  Inform him that you are directed not to support him in any way while he remains in Mexican territory.  If McNelly is attacked by Mexican forces on Mexican soil, do not render him any assistance.  Let me know if McNelly acts on this advice.”

Captain McNelly responded:

“The answer is no.”

At sundown, another message arrived:

“Major Alexander, commanding: Secretary of War [William W.] Belknap orders you to demand McNelly return at once to Texas. Do not support him in any manner. Inform the Secretary if McNelly acts on these orders and returns to Texas. Signed, Colonel Potter.

In response to this second message, Captain McNelly penned this reply:

“Near Las Cuevas, Mexico, Nov. 20 1875.  I shall remain in Mexico with my rangers and cross back at my discretion.  Give my compliments to the Secretary of War and tell him and his United States soldiers to go to hell.  Signed, Lee H. McNelly, commanding.

After a night’s sleep, Captain McNelly moved his men directly opposite Camargo on the Texas side of the river. It was now Sunday, and the stolen cattle had been moved and penned in a corral, but still on the Mexican side of the border and under guard by plenty of armed horsemen riding herd.  Diego Garcia, a Camargo official next in charge to the dead alcalde, promised to move the cattle across by 3:00 pm. McNelly, however, was suspicious and pulled his men to Rio Grande City to relax while he made his plans.

At 3:00 pm, McNelly returned to the ferry landing, selected sixteen rangers to accompany him, and re-crossed the river in a rowboat.  He also took along five horses.  The squad of rangers included Captain McNelly, Lieutenants Tom Robinson and Jesse Lee Hall (alias Frank Bones), Sergeants George A. Hall, John Barclay Armstrong[11], R. P. Orrell, and Corporal William L. Rudd, and Rangers Lincoln Rogers Dunnison, Randolph D. Scipio, Robert H. Pitts, William Crump Callicott, Thomas McGovern, Horace G. Mabin, James R. Wofford, and interpreters Thomas Sullivan, George Durham, and Jesus Sandoval.  The five mounted men included Robinson, Sandoval, Hall, Armstrong, and Orrell.

The squad of Texas Rangers marched up the riverbank to the customs house and demanded the return of stolen cattle.  When a Mexican captain replied that they didn’t do business on Sunday, the Texans promptly took him prisoner.  McNelly then hauled the prisoner to the Texas side and informed him that if he did not return the stolen animals within the hour or he would die.  McNelly was surprised to learn that rather than the 250 head being returned as expected, more than 400 stolen cattle were crossed back into Texas.  Nearly every brand in the Nueces Strip was in the herd, from the King Ranch’s “Running W” up near Corpus Christi to Hale and Parker’s “Half-moon” brand over near Brownsville.

From among the American outlaws, Lee McNelly’s greatest rival was Texas gunman by the name of John King Fisher[12](referred to as King Fisher) and his band of outlaws.  Although most notable as livestock rustlers, Fisher’s gang rarely raided against Texas civilian populations; they concentrated more on rustling their neighbors of the border.  This added to tensions among the Mexicans living in northeast Mexico and gave an excuse for Mexican bandits to raid inside the United States.

Within one year’s time, McNelly had destroyed both the Cortina and Salinas gangs; he did this by disregarding orders not to cross the Rio Grande River, and by employing stern measures against outlaws, whether from Mexico or the United States.  Following a raid on his ranch by the Texas Rangers, and the arrest of King Fisher, this gang too dispersed and Fisher retired from raiding inside Mexico. McNelly apparently convinced Fisher that continuing raids inside Mexico would not be good for his health.  Fisher later became the Sheriff of Uvalde County, Texas.

Lee McNelly suffered the effects of tuberculosis (called consumption in those days) and because of his ill health, he retired from the Texas Rangers in 1876.  He passed away on September 4, 1877 at his home in Burton, Texas.  He was survived by his wife Carey Cheek McNelly and two children. He is remembered as a tallish, thin man with a quiet manner and a soft voice.  Apparently, his bite was much worse than his bark … and despite modern-day criticism of the techniques he employed to restore law and order to South Texas, he did get the job done.  In my view, Leander Harvey McNelly was one of America’s greatest men.


[1]The battle involved land and naval forces. As described by the Confederate Congress, “The bold, intrepid, and gallant conduct of Major General J. Bankhead Magruder and other officers and men of the Texan Rangers on January 1, 1863 entitle them to the thanks of the Congress and the Country.”  Galveston, Texas remained in the hands of the Confederate forces throughout the balance of the war.

[2]Now, Valverde, New Mexico

[3]Now, Morgan City, Louisiana.

[4]In April 1865, an unarmed Major General Wharton was killed by Major General George W. Baylor over a personal quarrel, a so-called an unpleasant misunderstanding of military matters.  Baylor was acquitted of murder in 1868.

[5]McNelly captured 380 Union troops at Brashear City, Louisiana.

[6]The origin of the term Jayhawker may extend back to the American Revolution when it was used to describe a group of men associated with patriot John Jay.  During the Civil War, the term applied to militant bands affiliated with anti-Slavery free-soilers.  During the war, a Jayhawker was a guerrilla fighter.  Today, Jayhawk is a nickname for native-born Kansans.

[7]The Sutton–Taylor feud arose from a growing animosity between the Texas Taylor family —headed by Pitkin Taylor, the brother of Creed Taylor (a Texas Ranger)— and local lawman, William E. Sutton —a former Confederate soldier, who had moved with his family to DeWitt County intending to raise cattle.  Sutton had been elected deputy sheriff in Clinton, Texas prior to the feud’s inception in 1862.  The feud lasted almost a decade and has been called the longest and bloodiest in Texas history.

[8]The Nueces Strip or Wild Horse Desert is the area of south Texas between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers.  The Republic of Texas claimed the Rio Grande River as its southern border, while Mexico claimed the Nueces River (150 miles north of the Rio Grande) as its northern border.  Both countries invaded it, but neither controlled it nor settled it. The Nueces Strip was the scene of the first fighting in the Mexican-American War of 1846.  In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, Mexico ceded the Nueces Strip to the United States.  Ever since then, the Nueces Strip has had a reputation for lawlessness and smuggling; it was the primary zone of operations of the Texas Rangers.

[9]General Cortina was a Mexican rancher, politician, military leader, outlaw, and folk hero in Mexico.  He was an important caudillo, military officer, and regional governor who effectively controlled the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.  In borderlands history he is known for leading a paramilitary mounted Mexican militia during the so-called Cortina Wars. These wars were raids targeting Anglo-American civilians whose settlement Cortina opposed near the several leagues of land granted to his wealthy family on both sides of the Rio Grande.

[10]A type of oxbow lake that can be found in the southern half of Cameron County, Texas.  Resaca’s constitute former channels of the Rio Grande River, are naturally cut off from the river, and having no inlet or outlet.

[11]Armstrong was later instrumental in the capture of famed outlaw John Wesley Hardin and the killing of outlaw Sam Bass near Round Rock, Texas.

[12]By the late 1870s, Fisher had earned the reputation of a fast gun.  In 1878, an argument between Fisher and four Mexican vaqueros erupted. Fisher is alleged to have clubbed the nearest one to him with a branding iron, then as a second drew a pistol Fisher drew his own pistol and shot and killed the man. He then spun around and shot the other two fellows, who merely sat on the fence during the altercation and had not produced any weapons.  Fisher was arrested several times for disputes in public by local lawmen and had been charged at least once with “intent to kill”.  Quite often, chargers were dropped against Fisher when no witnesses came forward to offer testimony.  Although well known as a trouble maker, Fisher was well liked in south Texas.


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in CIVIL WAR, FRONTIER, HISTORY, LONE STAR, OUTLAWS. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Lee McNelly

  1. Kid says:

    How would you describe this guy? Had a lot of bark on him ?


    • Mustang says:

      IMO, he is one of America’s greatest men. He saw a problem … he fixed that problem, and didn’t give a damn about the feelings of Mexican or American bandits. We need more men like this today … maybe we need them even more today than we did 120 years ago.

      Liked by 2 people

    • kid says:

      We do need these men today. There are far too many who need a lesson in how things work successfully. I don’t have anything at my fingertips but I have seen youtubes of young guys verbally, but violently, rejecting the SJW movement. Hard to believe there are that many pussies out there in America.
      Yes, This guy is the epitome of getting it done. Exactly what is needed. Trump is trying hard to get it done imo. I hope we as a country can give him some help in 2018 and 2020.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. And I thought crossing the river was Pershing’s idea.
    Thank you for the lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      You’re welcome, Ed.

      General Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico wasn’t his idea; he was following the orders of Woodrow Wilson. Lee McNelly was a Texas Ranger who executed the orders of his governor to destroy the bandit gangs in South Texas. McNelly realized that for as long as Cortina and others were protected by the US-Mexican border, the bandit raids would continue … so he did what he felt was necessary to protect the citizens of Texas. I suppose that one might argue that these bandit raids continue today, only instead of having to deal with bandit-generals, we have to deal with murdering thugs who violate state and federal sovereignty at will.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Baysider says:

    Thanks for this fascinating history. I can see I’m not the first one to conceive of a functional solution. McNelly shows it takes WILL. It was this same kind of will that put an end to the horrific depredations of the Barbary pirates that spread as far as Ireland and made commerce in the Mediterranean impossible without tribute to outlaws (also protected by their governments).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Why aren’t we reading about this hero in our history textbooks? We should be!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: South Texas, 1875 | Old West Tales

  6. Pingback: The Sutton-Taylor Feud | Old West Tales

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