Leander Harvey McNelly
1844 – 1877
Leander H. McNelly was born March 12, 1844 near Follansbee, Brooke County, Virginia. Leander spent two years in Missouri with the family of his older brother Peter, before returning to Virginia.
By the later 1850s, Peter McNelly had settled in Washington County, Texas, bringing Leander with them. By 1860, L. H. McNelly was already showing signs of the tuberculosis that would later cause his early death. In the years before the outbreak of the Civil War, McNelly tended sheep for Travis J. Burton.
In September 1861, McNelly was mustered in as a private in Campbell’s Company, 2nd Regiment of the Sibley Brigade, 5th Texas Cavalry. He saw action in campaigns in New Mexico, Galveston and Louisiana. By the end of the war he was a captain of a company charged with hunting down deserters.
Following the war, McNelly returned to farming near Brenham, Texas. He also spent some time working for the General Land Office. When the Reconstruction-era State Police agency was formed in 1870, McNelly accepted a commission as one of four captains of the force. He was wounded in Walker County in February 1871, but continued to serve in the State Police until they were disbanded in April 1873.
In 1874, McNelly was commissioned to head a special force of Texas Rangers called the Washington County Volunteers. Although separate from the Frontier Battalion, the mission of the “Special Force” was the same — to protect the frontier from the depredations of factions both inside and outside of the state.
McNelly’s Rangers were very active in suppressing lawlessness in the Nueces Strip, an area of land along the border between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. They were instrumental in quelling the Sutton-Taylor Feud and curbing the activities of John King Fisher and Juan Cortina.
The “Special Force” was effective, but many saw their tactics as too aggressive. For example, McNelly and his men crossed into Mexico and engaged in gun battles with bandits and citizens in attempts to recover stolen livestock. This was in contravention of U.S. policy and Mexican law and raised the ire of politicians in both countries.
By early 1877, McNelly was incapacitated by the effects of the tuberculosis he had suffered from for years. He was forced to resign his command and retire to his farm.
Leander H. McNelly died of tuberculosis on September 5, 1877. He is buried at Burton, Texas.
Suggestions for further reading:
- Chuck Parsons and Marianne E. Hall Little, Captain L. H. McNelly, Texas Ranger, Austin: State House Press, 2001
- Walter Prescott Webb, The Texas Rangers, Boston, 1935
- George Durham, Taming the Nueces Strip, Austin, UT Press, 1962
- Frederick Wilkins, The Law Comes to Texas, Austin: State House Press, 1999
- Adjutant General’s Records, Texas State Archives, Austin, Texas
- Vertical Files, Texas Ranger Research Center, Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, Waco, Texas