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To Hell and Back

by Tom Clavin

Below is an excerpt from my new book, Follow Me to Hell. It is November 1875 and Captain Leander McNelly and his company of Texas Rangers have rather rashly invaded Mexico to recover stolen cattle. Faced with an army of 800 Mexican soldiers, the 26 Texans have retreated but refused to leave the country altogether. McNelly must have that cattle and a victory to bring home. On the other side of the border are U.S. cavalry, who have been ordered not to interfere.

Captain Leander H. McNelly, 1875. This image is in the public domain.

On the Mexico side of the Rio Grande, Capt. McNelly paced back and forth, occasionally pausing to peer south to spot the approach of riders. He did not have to wait long. About two dozen appeared, led by Juan Flores Salinas himself. Apparently, in a rush to overtake the Rangers or at least catch them in the vulnerable position of trying to cross the river, the rurales leader had set off accompanied by only his fastest riders, leaving his main force behind.

Also spotting the approach of the Mexicans were U.S. Army officers and troopers. However, it was clear to McNelly that at least for now the 8th Cavalry troopers on the north bank would be no more than spectators.

The Rangers lined the river’s south bank where they had carved out firing positions. Without hesitation, Salinas led his men toward the Ranger position, yelling and shooting. “Not seeing any of us on top,” Ranger Bill Callicott reported, “they thought we had taken a scare and were swimming the river back to Texas. There was not a tree on the bank at that place on the river. It was an open field for one hundred fifty yards back to the thicket.”

There may have been a fleeting moment when the rurales leader realized his terrible mistake . . . but by then it was too late.

“Come on, boys!” McNelly called out. “Open up on them as fast as you can.” In the volley that followed, Salinas was shot off his horse and was dead when he hit the ground.

The Rangers heard a few cheers from the cavalrymen across the river. When the rurales retreated, McNelly prepared to remain on the Mexico side indefinitely. He posted two guards, one each 50 yards up and down the river.

The abrupt death of Gen. Salinas earned only a delay of hostilities. During it, the Ranger captain and the Army officers conferred. McNelly wondered if there was a way that Clendenin and Radlett could justify to their superiors crossing into Mexico. Randlett had his answer ready: He would characterize it as a defensive maneuver. Once bullets from Mexican guns began hitting the ground and underbrush on the northern side of the Rio Grande, they feared an invasion would follow. A pre-emptive strike was the most sensible and effective way to protect the United States. That all made sense to a nodding McNelly too.

For now, though, American soldiers would still not venture forth to Mexico. But Randlett offered to send a message. This one went to Major Andrew Alexander at Fort Ringgold. His presence at the Rio Grande was urgently requested.

The Rangers remained on guard as the sun rose higher. The warming light helped McNelly, who had returned to the south side of the river, to see that the main force of Mexicans was approaching. It appeared to consist of a motley mix of militia, vaqueros, and whoever else could be rounded up quickly from the men at Salinas’s ranch. The captain estimated there may have been as many as 300 armed men on their way toward the Rangers.

Warily, then with a little more confidence, the Mexicans moved closer. Then they began firing and coming on faster. No matter how well-positioned the Rangers were, the odds against them were more than 10-to-1. The captain called across the river to the Army commanders, “For God’s sake, come over and help us.”

The eyes of his men were fixed on the approaching enemy when they heard splashing behind them. This was the sound made by Capt. Randlett and some 40 troopers as they hurried across the Rio Grande. One of them, a sergeant named Leahy, and another soldier carried with them a Gatling gun. They set the weapon up atop the south bank with a clear line of fire. When Leahy opened up, swaths of Mexican men and horses fell.

Pidge Robinson, McNelly’s lieutenant, was especially pleased with this turn of events: “Just here I would like to remark that if there is an inanimate object in this whole world for which I have a pure and unadulterated veneration, respect and love, that object is a Gatling gun; if Mr. Gatling has a daughter I would marry her tomorrow, if she would have me.”

The charging Mexicans soon had enough of the sudden combined firepower of Gatling gun and Sharps rifles and turned back, leaving behind dead and writhing bodies. For a time, there was an uneasy camaraderie between the Bluebellies and the Rangers . . . until Randlett ordered his men to return to U.S. soil.

Still, McNelly got to thinking: If Randlett could be further persuaded to bring the rest of his men back across, leaving Clendenin with a token force on the American side, the combined group of troopers and Rangers might then surprise the Mexicans and send them rushing back to Rancho Las Cuevas, which would in turn come under attack. It would be quite the battle indeed, and it would end only when the stolen cattle—or an equivalent number—were herded to and then across the Rio Grande by defeated Mexicans. The bureaucratic details could be worked out later.

But the Army captain, despite his impetuous donation of some troops to the Ranger cause, continued to consider his career. Two dozen Texans venturing deeper into Mexico was one thing . . . a cavalry company with two Gatling guns doing so could not be seen as anything other than an invasion of a sovereign country. That decision was above his pay grade. He would wait to see if Major Alexander showed up.

Several times during the afternoon the Mexicans, whoever was leading them, tried a few half-hearted attacks that were easily beaten back by the sharpshooting Texas Rangers. Alexander had still not arrived by 5 o’clock when Capt. McNelly spotted a man riding toward the river holding aloft a white flag. Capt. Randlett, perhaps gritting his teeth, crossed over. He and McNelly rode out to meet the Mexican emissary. McNelly was especially eager to do so as he did not want it discovered how few men he had.

The group of five men bearing the white flag had as their spokesman a 39-year-old Englishman. Dr. Alexander Manford Headley had served in the British Navy; emigrated to the U.S., settling in Arkansas, and served as a Confederate surgeon during the war. By the time the conflict ended, the carnage he had witnessed had turned his hair and beard white. In Mexico, he would be known as el doctor canoso, the “grey-haired doctor.” One of the Ranger reporters described him as a “tall, handsome man [and] his long hair was white as snow, giving him a most patriarchal appearance. A closer view showed he had a youthful, ruddy complexion and deep, soft blue eyes. He wore a fine, white linen suit and a broad, wide sombrero.”

Headley was one of the many men who had tried Mexico after the South surrendered. In his case, he went with Gen. Joseph O. Shelby, who had organized a group of “undefeated rebels” to go to Mexico. They crossed into Mexico at Eagle Pass and reached Mexico City in August 1865. Unlike many former rebels, Dr. Headley chose to stay in Mexico. In Camargo, he established a medical practice and a large mercantile business called Casa de Comercio. He was later appointed military commandant of Camargo by President Lerdo de Tejada.

That was his role when McNelly’s Rangers crossed into Mexico. To prevent further bloodshed, the doctor/commandant had grabbed a white flag and, with the modest entourage of Mexicans, ridden out to parley.

Dr. Headley offered a letter to Randlett, he took it and opened it. He was informed that efforts were underway to arrest and punish the rustlers who had stolen the cattle. The letter, signed by the mayor of Camargo, insisted that the Americans leave Mexico immediately. Randlett worried that if he remained after the receipt of this letter, their presence could be considered an act of war . . . or escalating the one that had already begun.

McNelly did not share those concerns. He told Dr. Headley that the Texas Rangers were not going anywhere until they had both the cattle and the rustlers. He did, however, agree to continue the truce until the next morning and allow the bodies of Salinas and others to be carted to Camargo. With that, the expatriate physician and his silent companions turned and rode away.

As the sun drifted lower, food was provided to the Rangers by supportive citizens in Rio Grande City, who floated a skiff of provisions down to them. Their bellies full, the night quiet, and sentries posted, most of the Rangers eased off to sleep on the south bank of the Rio Grande.

Much of the next day, November 20, was uneventful too. But this American invasion of Mexico was not yet ready to end. At 4 p.m., Dr. Headley and his party, again bearing a white flag, were back. He asked the Rangers to return to Texas. Otherwise, there would be more killing.

Fixing Dr. Headley and the others with a stare, McNelly said loudly, “Very well. My men will kill every one of this flag-of-truce party if there is a shot fired.”

A frightened Dr. Headley said, “You don’t intend to have us murdered, do you?”

“My men will do what they are ordered to do,” McNelly replied.

While this meeting on the Mexican side of the river was taking place, on the American side, an irritable Major Alexander had finally shown up. He too carried a message, this one to Clendenin as well as Radlett. It was from Col. Joseph Potter at Fort Brown, who in turn had been telegraphed by Gen. Edward Ord in San Antonio: “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 on 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.”

With Alexander now the senior Army officer on the scene, it did not matter what Clendenin or Randlett thought. The major had the message brought across the river and handed to McNelly. The Ranger captain carefully read it and then issued four terse words. “The answer is no.”

Major Alexander’s next message re-emphasized that American troops would not cross the Rio Grande under any circumstances. If the Rangers indeed wanted to commit suicide, they would not take U.S. Army soldiers with them. The troopers and their commanders were not happy about this—by now, there was much respect for the Texans’ courage and stubbornness—but there was indeed nothing they could do.

Before long, the group of men headed by Dr. Headley was back. The physician told McNelly that every male over 14 years old had been recruited and given a gun. He estimated that there could be as many as 1,500 armed and angry Mexican troops ready to march to the Rio Grande and rid their country of the Texan infestation. McNelly fixed a stare on him and said firmly that he and his men would not return to Texas without the stolen cattle.

At sundown, on the U.S. side of the river, another message arrived, addressed to Major Alexander: “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.”

This was also transported across the river. In less than a minute, Capt. McNelly penned a reply that would become famous throughout Texas: “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.”

It looked like when the truce ended, hell was going to get more crowded.

Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.

Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.