(I’m off to a book event today – the Christmas Market, or Weihnachtsmarkt, at the conference center in New Braunfels, for the launch of The Quivera Trail. In the mean time, another thrilling frontier adventure. The details and the quotes are taken from Walter Prescott Webb’s history of the Rangers, which is so powerfully testosterone-laden that I have to keep it sectioned between a couple of … milder-themed books which have a sedating effect.)
After the debacle of the Civil War, the Texas Rangers barely existed as an entity – either in Indian-fighting, or law-enforcing. The Federal government would not countenance the organization of armed bodies of volunteers for any purpose. Combating Indians or cross-border bandits was the business of the regular Army; interested semi-amateurs need not apply. But a Reconstruction-Republican governor, E. J. Davis, did institute a state police force in 1870, the existence of which was lauded as necessary for the preservation of law and order – such as it was. The state police under Davis was relatively short-lived and unadorned by laurels during its brief term, being dissolved at the end of his administration – but one of their officers had such a sterling reputation that when the Texas Rangers were formally reorganized, he was charged with heading one of the two divisions. One was the Frontier Battalion, dedicated to the Ranger’s traditional mission of fighting hostile Indians. The other – the Special Force – was charged with generally upholding law and order, shortly to become the Ranger’s modern raison d’être. Leander Harvey McNelly served for only a brief time in the interim of the change from Indian fighting to upholding law and order – but his leadership inspired many of those Rangers who took note of his personal example to heart.
He was then thirty years old, the Virginia-born son of a sheep-rancher who farmed cotton near Burton, Texas, when he had the time for it. He was married, with two children. As a child he suffered from tuberculosis, a condition which would kill him three years after taking charge of the Special Force. Into those brief years he crowded a good many hours of glory, starting as a scout and spy for the Confederacy in Texas, as a law officer and ranger. His appearance and bearing – gentle-spoken and self-effacing, with a high forehead and refined features – were a disconcerting contrast to other elements of his character; raw physical courage, an absolute willingness to administer brutal treatment to brutal men, and determination to follow his own course. Like Jack Hays before him, Leander McNelly had men who would cheerfully follow him into hell, if the mission called for it.
His first challenge after assuming command was to resolve, or at least tamp down the epic Sutton-Taylor feud (more about that in a future post). The second; put a stop to industrial-scale stock theft and general outlawry in the ‘Nueces Strip’ – the borderlands between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers. Rip Ford’s old enemy, Juan Cortina was still a powerful influence. Mexican cattle ranchers, including Cortina himself, had contracts to supply beef cattle to the Cuban markets – and it had become extremely profitable for ranchers on both sides of the border to help themselves to someone else’s. Organized gangs of well-armed men terrorized the population indiscriminately, wreaking havoc on commerce and civil order on both sides of the border. In the spring of 1875, McNelly was charged to raise a company of Rangers and get it sorted, for once and all.
When McNelly and his company appeared in Brownsville, he was told there was a steamship lying offshore, waiting for a large shipment of cattle, now held in pens at Baghdad, the port for Matamoros. At least two thirds of the cattle had American brands on them. The commander of Federal troops at Fort Brown told McNelly that he only had a hundred and fifty men at hand – and that Juan Cortina had at least half that number. Cortina was only one of the cattle-raiding kingpins. In June, McNelly got word of a Cortina raiding party, intending to cross the river and rustle cattle in the La Parra area, and confirmed it by capturing two scouts. The scouts told McNelly that the main party was now heading south with more than three hundred stolen head of cattle. McNelly set his own men to watch all the likely routes, and let out twenty-two of his own volunteers, including sixteen-year old Berry Smith and a local guide named Jesus Sandoval, whom the other Rangers called ‘Old Casuse.’ Sandoval was a small rancher with a white-hot burning hatred of stock thieves; his own small herd had been stolen – and worse yet, his wife and daughter raped by the bandits responsible. Sandoval and one of his Anglo neighbors had already fought back against bandits by hanging four of them – arousing threats of retaliation. But Sandoval knew the territory well – and those who lived there even better. Fellow Ranger William Caldicott writing an account of McNelly’s exploits decades later, noted grimly that “After the Captain had all the information he wanted, he would let Casuse have charge of the spy. Casuse would make a regular hangman’s knot and place the hangman’s loop over the bandit’s head, throw the end of the rope over a limb, make the bandit get up on Casuse’s old paint horse and stand up in the saddle. Casuse would make the loose end of the rope fast, get behind his horse, hit him a hard lick and the horse would jump from under the spy, breaking his neck instantly. Captain McNelly didn’t like this kind of killing, but Casuse did … We caught several spies on that scout before we overhauled the bandits with the cattle, and Casuse dealt with them all alike, showing no partiality – he always made them a present of six feet of rope.”
Just after sundown on June 11, McNelly’s patrol reported Cortina’s men were returning south, approaching the Palo Alto prairie, where the battle which had kicked off the war between the U.S. and Mexico had taken place three decades before; all the cattle, and eighteen professional rustlers, many of whom already had bad reputations in the Nueces Strip. Likely McNelly’s men would encounter them in the dark; as a precaution, McNelly asked Caldicott to give up his white shirt – the only such among the Rangers, promising to replace it as soon as possible. McNelly tore the shirt into strips, telling each of the Rangers to tie it around their left arm. “If they should stampede, pick you out the one that is nearest to you and keep him in front of you and keep after him. Get as close as you can before you shoot. It makes no difference in what direction he goes, stay with him to a finish.” Luckily, they didn’t tangle with the cattle thieves until daylight. The thieves made a brief stand on the shore of a lagoon, before legging it for the River with all speed. McNelly and his fellows chased after them. Ranger Caldicott later recalled, “I rammed both spurs into Old Ball, who opened up his throttle with such an unexpected lunge that he went from underneath my hat and came near going from under me…”
The Rangers on their tired horses soon caught up to the the fleeing bandits. McNelly later wrote in his official report: “After that it was a succession of single hand fights for six miles before we got the last one. Not one escaped out of the twelve that were driving the cattle. They were all killed. I have never seen men fight with such desperation. Many of them, after being shot from their horses and severely wounded three or four times, would rise on their elbows and fire at my men as they passed.” It became another running fight, rather like that between Jack Hays’ company and the Comanche in the ‘Big Fight’ in the Pedernales four decades before. Modestly, McNelly left the take-down of the last bandit out of his report, but Ranger Caldicott recalled it with relish. “The last one we killed was riding the best horse in the bandit’s crowd, and kept away ahead of any of the rest. The Captain and three or four of us were after him. We killed his horse from under him near a little Spanish dagger thicket and he ran into it on foot. The Captain ordered us to surround it, and then he dismounted, took his pistol out of his scabbard and started into the thicket. When he met the bandit they were about six or eight feet apart. The bandit had emptied his pistol and the Captain had only one ball left in his. The Mexican drew his Bowie knife and with a grin on his face, started at Captain McNelly, saying as he came, ‘Me gotta you now, me gotta you.’ The Captain leveled his pistol and placed the last shot he had between the bandit’s teeth as if he had put it there with his fingers.”
Later they called it McNelly’s ‘Red Raid.’ The only casualty among the Rangers, aside from Caldicott’s hat and shirt, was young Berry Smith – sadly he had gotten too close to an unhorsed bandit hiding in another thicket. McNelly ordered the bodies of every bandit who could be found, gathered up, hauled into Brownville and displayed for public view. This was his word and demonstration of how the Rangers would deal with stock thieves from then on. Berry Smith’s body was also taken to Brownsville for what Ranger Caldicott described as the finest public funeral that ever took place in Brownsville. (He was the youngest Ranger ever killed in action.)
Leander McNelly spent the rest of 1875 and the following year hard at work in the Nueces Strip, interdicting cattle bandits – both Mexican and American. At least once, he and his volunteers went deep into Mexico to retrieve stolen herds, sending the military and diplomatic establishments of two countries into into spasms. But he had the gratitude of ranchers like Richard King, who felt the border depredations most severely. One of the practices which McNelly encouraged was the collection of information on bandits, bad men and troublemakers generally, and circulating it among those with a need to know. From 1878 on, the department of the adjutant-general of Texas compiled and circulated copies of a little publication; The List of Fugitives from Justice, or the ‘Book of Knaves’; listing with descriptions of wanted criminals, indexed alphabetically and by county. Likely such information on known and wanted criminals was being circulated even before formal publication. Historian Walter P. Webb noted in his history of the Rangers that so many of the criminal class were taken out of circulation in 1877, even the newspapers were moved to comment on the noted decrease in crime. This was the fruit which McNelly’s efforts with the Special Force began to bear, but it came at a cost. The rigors of field operations likely accelerated the decline of his health. He resigned early in 1877, returning home to Burton, where he died of tuberculosis before the year was out.