During the eight years following the end of the Civil War Indians striking from below the Rio Grande into South Texas had stolen tens of thousands of head of livestock, burned countless ranches, and murdered scores of settlers. Most of these raiders were Kickapoos who had migrated to Mexico from the United States during the previous quarter century. In return for land grants and annuities from the Mexican government, they promised to help defend that country's northern frontier against marauding Comanche and Kiowa Indians. This alliance with the Mexicans worked so well that soon many Kickapoos had settled near the Rio Grande in the state of Coahuila. The Kickapoos soon discovered that South Texas from San Antonio to the Rio Grande contained over 90,000 horses, mules, and cattle, and fewer than 4,500 residents to protect them. Stealing was ridiculously simple, and local Mexican government officials abetted the Indians by steadfastly refusing to allow United States troops to pursue the raiders into Mexico. By 1873 the Kickapoos and other Mexican groups had been responsible for an estimated $48 million in property damages and livestock losses.
Washington was inundated with letters and petitions from settlers demanding help and protection. President Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish attempted to find peaceful solutions to the problem by negotiation with the Kickapoos and then diplomatic pressure on the Mexican government, but they failed. The raids continued, and the outcry grew. Finally, in January 1873, President Grant's patience with diplomacy was exhausted; he ordered the Fourth United States Cavalry to move from North Texas to Fort Clark in the southern Rio Grande area. The president's choice of the Fourth was not haphazard; inspection reports rated it as the finest cavalry regiment in the American army, and it was commanded by a dynamic young officer of extraordinary talent and ability, Col. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie. By late March 1873 eight companies of the Fourth were encamped in and around Fort Clark. In April Secretary of War William Belknap and Gen. Philip H. Sheridan visited Fort Clark and gave Mackenzie instructions to strike at the base of the depredating Indians, which meant crossing into Mexico. Since such an action could have serious diplomatic consequences, Belknap and Sheridan refused to make the orders official; and without anything in writing, the full responsibility for such an action could come to rest totally upon Mackenzie's own shoulders. For a month Mackenzie carefully and secretly prepared for his dangerous assignment. He dispatched trustworthy civilian scouts to spy on three large Kickapoo, Lipan, and Mescalero villages on the banks of the Río San Rodrigo near the town of Remolino, about forty miles inside Mexico. On May 16 these scouts reported that most of the warriors of the Kickapoo village had ridden off to the west that morning. By 1:00 P.M. on May 17, 360 enlisted men and seventeen officers of companies A, B, C, E, I, and M, with twenty-four Seminole scouts and fourteen civilians began to move slowly toward the Rio Grande, and just after sundown the command crossed the river into Mexico.
In the darkness the troopers blindly followed their scouts on a winding, tortuous route that avoided all settlements and even isolated ranchhouses. Surprise was essential. So too was speed. Mackenzie wanted to be in position to attack at daybreak, and he pushed his men unmercifully throughout the night. Shortly before sunup on May 18, having ridden sixty-three hard miles since crossing the Rio Grande (twenty-three more than the straight-line distance), the raiders reached the Río San Rodrigo about a mile upstream from the three Indian villages. After a short halt to rest the men and water the animals, Mackenzie's troopers spurred their mounts up the stream bank and without hesitation moved against the Kickapoo village (the largest and nearest of the three). The cavalrymen charged by platoons, volley firing as they went, then wheeling out of the way to reload and prepare to charge again. The rear elements dismounted and began to set fire to the canvas teepees and grass huts. The Kickapoos were taken completely by surprise and with so few of their warriors present stood no chance of successfully defending their homes. Some fought like demons but most fled with the soldiers in close pursuit.
In a matter of minutes it was over, and the troopers rode on to the other villages. The Lipan and Mescalero bands had taken flight at the first sound of shots, and the soldiers moved unopposed among their deserted dwellings and set them afire. In minutes, all three villages (a total of around 180 lodges) were totally destroyed. Mackenzie reported nineteen Indians killed and forty women and children taken prisoner. Costilietos, the principal chief of the Lipans, was also taken. Some sixty-five ponies were captured. Mackenzie lost one man killed and two others wounded. At 1:00 P.M., the Americans and their prisoners started for home. Their route was much more direct than the one used to reach the Indian villages; there was no longer any need for stealth. Mackenzie drove his command straight through the afternoon and evening and reached the Rio Grande at dawn on May 19 without incident, having covered some 140 miles in a little over forty hours. After a night of badly needed rest, the men marched to Fort Clark at a leisurely pace.
The response to the raid was immediate and favorable. Although Mackenzie had technically violated Mexican sovereignty and attacked allies of the Mexican government without official orders, both Belknap and Sheridan enthusiastically commended his actions, and the Texas legislature extended to Mackenzie "the grateful thanks of the people of our State." The Mexican government did not want to turn the raid into an international issue and after an exchange of notes dropped the matter. As for the border situation, Indian raids all but stopped. Fearing more retaliatory strikes, many bands divided and moved into the mountains. But the Kickapoos, in exchange for their wives and children still held prisoner, agreed to return to the United States. By 1874 over half the tribe had resettled at Fort Sill in Indian Territory.