Intrigue on the Rio Grande:
The Rio Bravo Affair, 1875
MICHAEL G. WEBSTER*
N THE Rio Bravo AFFAIR OF 1875 ONE FINDS A DARING INTRIGUE ON
the part of United States citizens to manufacture a war with
Mexico.' Captain L. H. McNelly of the Texas Rangers and Lieutenant
Commander Dewitt C. Kells of the gunboat U.S.S. Rio Bravo, sta-
tioned at the mouth of the Rio Grande, conspired to bombard the
Mexican bank of the river and thereby precipitate a conflict with
Mexico. The expressed objective was to rid Texas of the border ban-
dits that plagued her frontier; probably behind this immediate goal
was the unfulfulled desire of Texas to extend her boundaries to the
Sierra Madre. Sustaining the impetuous, intrepid McNeely and the
imprudent Kells was the pledge of General E. O. C. Ord, commander
of the Department of Texas, to assist McNelly if he should encounter
difficulties with the Mexicans. Indiscreet boasting by Lieutenant Com-
mander Kells that resulted in his removal from command, a fortuitous
dispatch from General William T. Sherman, Commander of the
Army, ordering United States troops not to cross the Rio Grande, and
prudent intervention on the part of Thomas Wilson, the United States
consul in Matamoros, combined to thwart the premeditated assault by
federal and state forces on Mexican territory.
Although immortalized by Walter Prescott Webb in his history of
the Texas Rangers," the eventual attack on Las Cuevas ranch by
McNelly and his small company of Rangers constituted only a frag-
ment of a grander design. The aborted scheme, if accomplished, prob-
*Mr. Webster is an assistant professor of history at Trinity University, San Antonio.
Research for this article was made possible by a Latin American Studies grant and a
James Woodburn Fellowship from Indiana University.
'For a discussion of a similar intrigue in 1845 see Richard R. Stenberg, "The Failure
of Polk's Mexican War Intrigue of 1845," Pacific Historical Review, IV (March, 1935)
39-68; Glen W. Price, Origin of the War With Mexico: The Polk-Stockton Intrigue
(Austin, 1967). For judicious criticisms of the intrigue see Holman Hamilton's review
of Price's book in the Hispanic American Historical Review, XLVIII (November, 2968),
2Walter P. Webb, The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense (Boston, 1935),
255-280; see also George Durham, Taming the Nueces Strip: The Story of McNelly's
Rangers (Austin, 1962), lo3-128.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 74, July 1970 - April, 1971. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101200/. Accessed January 25, 2015.