Alexander Headley, Public Servant or Scoundrel?


In the early 1860s Headley moved to Arkansas where he purchased property and joined the Arkansas State Forces. Upon the start of the Civil War and Arkansas’s secession, Headley, then age 25, was musted into the army of the Confederate States of America.

In was in this stage of his life that the tall, blue-eyed, ruddy-complexioned Headley’s appearance was strikingly transformed into an individual with completely white hair and beard. Later in Texas and Mexico he would be nicknamed el doctor canoso, the grey-haired doctor.

In the military service, Headley first served as an assistant surgeon, then senior surgeon. His units included Company F of the 30th Arkansas Infantry and the 7th Arkansas Volunteer Infantry, also known as the Bloody Seventh. Both units fought many engagements east of the Mississippi River including major ones at Shiloh and Bragg’s Kentucky Campaign.

Upon the end of the conflict Headley became involved in a most unusual event. This is termed by historians “The Shelby Expedition.” Rather than surrender to Union forces Brig. Gen. Joseph Orville (Jo). Shelby organized a group of volunteers of “undefeated rebels” to go to Mexico. He had been the commander of the “Iron Cavalry Brigade” of Missouri. When Lee had surrendered Shelby and his troops, numbering about 1000, were in Marshall, Texas, having crossed the Arkansas River into Texas in October 1864.

He was determined to continue the conflict from a base in Mexico. With his well-disciplined and orderly men, with all their cannons, arms, and ammunition, he marched from Corsicana, Tyler, Waxahachie, Waco, Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, declaring martial law and forcibly quelling local outbreaks of looting and rioting where they found it.

Eventually they reached Eagle Pass. The force then crossed the border at Piedras Negras. During the river crossing Shelby buried, in a funereal memorial, the Confederate guidon (a type of specialized flag) in the riverbed in order to keep it from falling into federal hands. This action was forever remembered as the “Grave of the Confederacy Incident.”

The event is depicted in a painting displayed at the Eagle Pass City Hall. Readers may also view a fictionalized portrayal of Shelby’s retreat in the 1969 movie The Undefeated starring John Wayne and Rock Hudson.

Upon encountering the army of Benito Juarez, Shelby’s followers sold all their arms to the rebels except their revolvers and carbines, and then they were permitted to pass to the south to Mexico City, arriving August 1865. Once here the majority chose to align with Emperor Maximilian. Their offer was rejected, but some were awarded land as colonists and others continued different pursuits. Headley had other ideas.

After staying briefly in Mexico City and Cordoba, Headley traveled north to the border city of Camargo opposite Rio Grande City. In this bustling Mexican city Headley set up his medical practice and a large mercantile business called Casa de Comercio in early 1866. His military experiences were recognized, and he was later appointed military commandant of Camargo by Lerdo de Tejada, who succeeded Benito Juárez as president of Mexico.

While practicing medicine in Camargo, Dr. Headley provided yeoman service in combating yellow fever during the epidemic of 1882–83.

Mary Margaret McAllen Amberson in her comprehensive Valley history book I Would Rather Sleep in Texas had this to say about Headley’s return to the border “Shortly afterward Headley returned to the border at Camargo where he befriended a curious array of political leaders, all of whom were foes to each other, and he reportedly worked as a surgeon for Juan N. Cortina’s troops. Headley though described as a gentleman, understood and often defended the rights of the average man. He was highly regarded along the border.

Then when Porfirio Diaz fomented his coup against Lerdo de Tejada, he asked Headley to join him, but he refused in deference to Lerdo de Tejada.

After Diaz’s ascendancy to the presidency, Headley moved to Hidalgo County and became active in Hidalgo politics in the mid-1870s, owning a ranch near Edinburgh [the present day town of Hidalgo].

Headley’s hair turned white at the age of 30 and from then on he became known as “El Canoso,” “the gray-haired one.” Headley was still involved in Mexican affairs despite taking up residency in the United States. Once more he played a role in an international incident. This was in November 1875 when Texas Ranger Capt. Leander H. McNelly crossed the Rio Grande to retrieve stolen cattle near Rancho Las Cuevas (also referred to as Los Cuevos) while Col. A. J. Alexander of Fort Brown waited on the north bank with his cavalrymen. McNelly was met with a band of men coming out of the brush with a white flag tied to the barrel of a carbine that had a letter inserted under the gun’s hammer.

According to Mrs. Amberson the leader was none other than Headley who “was a tall man of ruddy complexion and blue eyes, and that day wore a white linen suit and a broad white hat.” Although the Rangers believed that Headley was behind some of the cattle rustling they didn’t challenge him who now acted as spokesman. The letter was from the governor of Tamaulipas ordering the Rangers to leave Mexico.

Amberson in her book relates, “Headley, who believed McNelly was about to burn the town (San Miguel) argued with the Rangers telling them ‘You have invaded Mexico and killed our beloved alcalde of Camargo and eighty other citizens.’ McNelly was determined to stay until the cattle were returned to him. He told Headley, ‘We’ll negotiate when we get that herd of stolen cattle. We’ll stay in Mexico until we do.’ Headley promised them the cattle and after a skirmish with a Mexican customs official, McNelly took possession of the fifty-two head and returned to Texas.”

The number of cows was far less than the number that had been rustled.

Amberson continues, “Thirty four years later in a newspaper interview Headley was quoted about the incident. “I made them acquainted with the fact that they would meet with desperate resistance should they make an attack upon the town I agreed to have as many of the stolen cattle delivered up to them as I could find.”

Amberson wrote, “When Colonel Alexander asked him what he would have done if they crossed and the cavalry to attack the town, Headley replied ‘I would have taken my 600 armed men and started a march through Texas…. I told Colonel Alexander that had he crossed the Rio Grande with his armed force he would have brought war between Mexico and the United States….The Mexican population of the lower border territory were greatly aroused by Captain McNelly’s attack upon San Miguel.’”

Author Chuck Parsons in his book John B. Armstrong Texas Ranger and Pioneer Ranchman has a slightly different account of McNelly’s raid. “And stay they did. McNelly crossed back to the Texas side of the river to communicate with President Grant about his actions in crossing and creating a potential political crisis. During his absence a group of Mexicans under a white flag and led by Dr. Alexander Manford Headley, an English doctor who practiced on both sides of the river, approached the troop with the intention of convincing the Rangers to return to Texas soil to save their lives. The doctor and his group were rebuffed. Three times the truce party approached the Rangers, each time requesting the same thing: return to Texas. But each time the response was the same: they would leave only with the stolen cattle.

“Ultimately, McNelly did agree to return to Texas on condition that the stolen cattle and the horses and saddles of Armstrong and Hall be returned the next morning at Rio Grande City, a few miles up the river. McNelly almost certainly agreed to this because of Dr. Headley’s involvement.

“It was Dr. Headley who negotiated the terms of peace which allowed McNelly to save face by returning to Texas and who promised that at least part of the stolen herd would be returned.”

McNelly recorded this in a telegram dated November: “I withdrew my men last night upon the promise of the Mexican authorities to deliver the cattle to me at Rio Grande City this morning.” But when the next morning came, no cattle were produced, so again McNelly crossed, but this time he met with a delegation of citizens who informed him that the cattle could not be crossed because they had not been inspected. McNelly saw this as a delaying tactic and threatened that he “would kill the last one of them”(In his own memoir Ranger William Callicott notes McNelly using stronger language. He also earlier mentions a white man from Arkansas [Dr. A.M. Headley].) unless the cattle were produced within five minutes.”

Pidge recalled that the Mexicans needed assistance to cross the cattle, and McNelly and ten men, Armstrong one of them, went over.” Then another excuse was provided, that there was no permit allowing the cattle to be taken across the river.

Pidge Robinson was one of the ten who helped with the crossing and recalled the following: “Capt. M[cNelly] — exhausted all arguments with these gentlemen, except one, which he reserved for the very last, and which, as a dernier resorte [sic] in this country, is considered ‘a clincher;’ then he exhausted that; ‘Prepare to load with ball cartridges — load!’ The ominous ‘kerchak’ of the carbine levers as the long, murderous looking cartridges were chambered home, satisfied them as to the permit and the cattle were allowed to cross over without one; such is the power of a fifty-calibre argument, such the authority of Sharp on International law.”

The cattle were miraculously produced under this threat, although the number amounted to only sixty-five head. McNelly telegraphed Adjutant General Steele that the Mexicans would produce “more [cattle as] soon as captured and the delivery of the thieves.”

The sixty-five head of cattle were delivered, and Armstrong and Hall recovered their horses, saddles, and bridles without further incident. No thieves were delivered, however, in spite of the promise of the Mexicans. The cattle were returned to their owners, many of them ranchers in the immediate area. Those of cattleman Richard King were also returned, with volunteer Rangers Durham, Callicott, Rudd, and Pitts herding them back to the Santa Gertrudis Ranch.

A greatly surprised King had never expected to see them or any of the Rangers again, as he anticipated that McNelly and his invading force would become “another Alamo.” He was so grateful that he ordered the right horn of each of the recovered cattle to be sawed off and the cattle turned loose on the range to live out their days in peace. King’s vaqueros called these special cattle los viejos (the old ones).