Mexican Border: Pershing vs Villa; Prelude 1908-16 (Part 1)

On 9 March 1916, the forces of Doroteo Arango, better known as Francisco “Pancho” Villa, attacked the small border town of Columbus, New Mexico. In response to the raid, President Woodrow Wilson authorized Brig. Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to organize an expedition into Chihuahua, Mexico, in order to kill or capture Villa and those responsible for the assault. By 15 March, 4,800 Regular Army soldiers had assembled in Columbus and Camp Furlong, the Army garrison just outside of the town’s center. These men fanned out into the Mexican countryside on horseback in small, highly mobile cavalry detachments—sometimes led by local guides or by the Army’s Apache scouts—that could cover large swaths of sparsely populated and rough terrain. Cavalrymen employed skills and strategies developed in the preceding decades on frontier campaigns in the West and in warfare against irregular, guerrilla forces in the Philippines. The Mexican Expedition, popularly called the “Punitive Expedition,” was to be one of the last operations to employ these methods of warfare and one of the first to rely extensively on trucks. It also provided a testing ground for another new technology—the airplane. During the eleven months that Pershing’s expedition was in Chihuahua, U.S. troops failed to kill, capture, or even spot Pancho Villa, but the impact of the expedition reached far beyond the deserts of northern Mexico. The approximately 10,000 regulars that served in the Punitive Expedition gained experience in large, multiunit field operations at a time when small-unit actions were the norm. At the same time, the task tested Pershing as a commander, leader, and organizer. Although he did not always agree with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and President Wilson, Pershing proved that he could run an efficient campaign despite the difficulties of operating in northern Mexico and the restrictions that Washington placed on his operations. In addition, although the approximately 110,000 members of the National Guard who patrolled the border from May 1916 through February 1917 saw little action, they received training that bolstered Army readiness just months before the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. Thus, the U.S. Army was far more prepared for war in Europe than it had been in early 1916. Despite this unexpected benefit to the Army, the results of the Punitive Expedition were not all positive for the United States. Wilson’s invasion of Mexican territory and intervention in the Mexican Revolution created an environment of suspicion and distrust that took decades to repair and caused a general decline in relations between the United States and Latin American republics.

Strategic Setting

From 1910 to 1920, revolution gripped Mexico. Since 1876, dictator Porfirio Díaz had ruled Mexico with only one interruption. In an attempt to spur economic development, Díaz offered incentives and enacted laws that allowed foreign individuals and corporations to dominate large sectors of the nation’s economy. Although this stimulated some growth, foreign entities came to own more than 100 million acres of territory while 90 percent of Mexican peasant farmers owned none. By 1910, U.S. interests held 97 percent of mining concerns and controlled 90 percent of the petroleum industry in Mexico. Though dictatorial, Díaz maintained a façade of elections and constitutional rule throughout the length of his regime.

In 1908, Díaz announced he would not seek re-election in 1910, leading political moderate Francisco I. Madero to campaign aggressively for the presidency. After realizing his rival might win office, Díaz reversed his position on retirement and arrested Madero, who escaped jail into exile. From San Antonio, Texas, Madero issued a revolutionary manifesto, the Plan de San Luis Potosí, which called for a national uprising against the dictatorship. A brief, popular revolt followed, after which Madero became Mexico’s new president in 1911.

Long-term disaffection with Díaz by the Mexican people, coupled with the events surrounding the election of 1910, sparked a protracted series of conflicts collectively known as the Mexican Revolution. Concerned about the lives, property, and investments of U.S. citizens living in Mexico and the border region, the War Department sent Army units to the border on several occasions during the war. The first major deployment occurred in 1911 when President William H. Taft ordered 20,000 soldiers to Galveston and San Antonio, Texas, and San Diego, California. Officially designated as the “Maneuver Division” for what the War Department described as training exercises, or “war games,” it served to warn Mexican authorities that the United States could intervene militarily in the conflict to protect its citizens and their interests. While the Maneuver Division enjoyed widespread support when it first was formed, Secretary of State Philander C. Knox came to distrust the measure and expressed fears that moving troops to the border might encourage Washington to use invasion before diplomacy as a tool for enacting change, resulting in a long and costly occupation south of the border. In any case, the United States began withdrawing its forces as Madero consolidated his hold on power, and the Maneuver Division disbanded on 7 August 1911.

Secretary Knox was correct that occupying northern Mexico— particularly the state of Chihuahua where the Punitive Expedition ultimately operated—would have been challenging due in part to its difficult terrain. Chihuahua, Mexico’s largest state, roughly the size of Michigan, consists of a high plateau that rises into the Sierra Madre Occidental with elevations of up to 10,000 feet. Although the state has a desert climate, the high elevation creates extremes in temperature, with blazing hot days in the summer and frigid blizzards in winter and spring. Temperatures can rise or fall thirty or forty degrees within the same day, and sand quickly gives way to grasslands and forest depending on the elevation. In the early twentieth century, this remote area had few roads or telegraph lines to link the small towns and ranches that dotted the state. Except for connections with the state capital, Chihuahua city, telegraph lines did not extend much farther south than the town of Namiquipa, about 130 miles south of the border, presenting U.S. forces with a major challenge in maintaining basic communication. Large-scale cattle ranches, including the one million-acre farm at Babícora owned by U.S. newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, as well as mining operations divided much of the land. The state also fell victim to violent dust storms that periodically coated entire regions with a fine layer of silt. Two major railroads, the Mexican National and the Northwestern, ran north-south, but only a few spur lines covered the rest of the state.

The border between the United States and Mexico remained calm again until February 1913 when Madero was assassinated during a coup led by General Victoriano Huerta. This touched off years of renewed fighting that pitted Huertista forces against rebels led by Venustiano Carranza, a shrewd, pragmatic, Coahuilan from a well-to-do ranching family, whose supporters were known as Constitutionalists. Pancho Villa stood as one of Carranza’s allies. Before the coup, Villa had backed Madero until the president decided to arrest him on Huerta’s recommendation that he neutralize possible rivals. After escaping from prison in Mexico City prior to Madero’s death, Villa fled to the United States and lived for a short time in exile until the coup, when he crossed the border again to fight against Huerta. Once in Mexico, Villa raised his own army, a well-organized force numbering 30,000 to 50,000 men at its peak, that became known as the División del Norte after its geographical area of operation. The charismatic Villa led his men to a series of victories on the battlefield, compensating for a lack of arms, ammunition, and supplies with unpredictable tactics, such as night attacks that surprised and terrorized his enemies. As Villa’s army rose in prestige in northern Mexico, the sometime-outlaw-turned populist-revolutionary general grew in lore. In the United States, he became a well-known, almost romantic figure and even made the acquaintance of Pershing and Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Hugh L. Scott in 1914. Pershing saw him as a potential ally who could protect U.S. interests as revolution consumed Mexico, and he gave Villa texts and studies on the art of war.

As this renewed wave of violence deepened, President Wilson came to believe that the Constitutionalists would be unable to remove Huerta from power without aid from the United States. Even though Carranza was opposed to U.S. military intervention in Mexico, Wilson sought a reason to intervene in the struggle between these two powers. The president finally seized upon a minor incident that occurred on 9 April 1914 in which nine U.S. sailors were briefly arrested in a Tampico fueling station after straying into an off-limits area. Mexican officials quickly released the sailors and apologized but refused to perform a twenty-one gun salute in penance, as requested by R. Adm. Frank Friday Fletcher, head of the naval forces there. In response, Wilson asked Congress for authorization to occupy the port of Veracruz, about 280 miles south of Tampico. While Wilson waited for Congress to act, the president received a report that a ship, the Ypiranga, approached Veracruz with weapons destined for Huerta. Wilson ordered the Navy to seize the customs house at Veracruz and prevent the arms from reaching their destination. Marines and sailors landed on 21 April, followed ten days later by a brigade of soldiers. The combined force eventually occupied the entire city of Veracruz. Fletcher later received the Medal of Honor for leading the successful landing in Mexico. Carranza never accepted the presence of U.S. troops. Since 1898, the United States had invaded a string of Latin American countries. At the time of the seizure of Veracruz, U.S. forces already occupied Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. However tempting Wilson’s support might have been, Carranza did not want to risk Mexico becoming a protectorate of its neighbor to the north. Even with his unwillingness to accept U.S. aid, Carranza’s Constitutionalists succeeded in ousting Huerta on 15 July 1914. Brig. Gen. Frederick N. Funston administered Veracruz city until 23 November when U.S. forces withdrew. By that time, World War I had erupted in Europe, capturing the attention of U.S. citizens. Soon after Huerta fled into exile, Villa split with Carranza’s regime and joined with Emiliano Zapata, a revolutionary leader who operated mainly in his native Morelos, south of Mexico City, against the Constitutionalists. Villa’s and Zapata’s combined forces attacked and briefly held Mexico City in April 1915, but that summer Villa suffered a significant defeat against Carranza’s armies at Celaya. Villa lost more battles as well as influence through summer, and by September mounting casualties reduced the once formidable División del Norte to a small guerrilla band of between 500 and 1,000 men. Many of these men had formed part of Villa’s elite guard, the Dorados. Young and loyal to their general, they mostly hailed from either Chihuahua or Durango. Some had been popular leaders in their hometowns and could recruit and lead small bands of men through personal sway and act semi-independently in the field. Due in part to the U.S. arms embargo on Villa, these men had few weapons and lacked adequate ammunition to conduct regular warfare, opting instead for quick raids on vulnerable and remote positions followed by retreat.

For Villa, President Wilson’s decision to officially recognize the intelligent but uncharismatic Carranza as the legal president of Mexico proved the final insult. This move allowed the Constitutionalist leader to legally import arms from the United States to use against Villa and other opposing revolutionary forces. In the wake of this decision, Villa, embittered by the loss of U.S. support, lashed out at his former allies and became convinced that a conspiracy was afoot. He came to believe that Wilson and Carranza had entered into a corrupt bargain to sell northern Mexico to the United States in exchange for political recognition. Acting from his home base in Chihuahua and Durango, Villa charged Carranza with treason and railed against Wilson for violating U.S. neutrality.

With his army just a shadow of its former existence, Villa adopted new tactics to continue his fight against Carranza’s better equipped forces. In Chihuahua, the general turned to impressment for the first time to fill his depleted ranks. Villa also began raiding Chihuahua’s small and increasingly disaffected middle class for supplies. This represented a marked change, since through 1915, Villa had managed to provision his army mostly by confiscating goods and money from the wealthiest hacendados in the state. Where Villa once had avoided attacking U.S. citizens living and working in Mexico, his forces now targeted them in retaliation for Wilson siding with Carranza. The deadliest result of this new policy came on 10 January 1916 near Santa Isabel, Chihuahua. There, in the desert, a detachment of Villistas halted and boarded a train that had eighteen American engineers on board. Employed by the Cusihuiriachic, or “Cusi,” Mining Company, they were on their way to reopen the mines and carried passes of safe conduct issued by Carranza’s government. Villa’s men ordered the Americans off the train and shot them execution-style, save one who escaped. In response, Carranza’s forces prepared a new offensive to stamp out Villa’s remaining troops. The main government force in Chihuahua was led by General Jacinto Treviño, who commanded the 1st, 3d, and 5th Divisions of the Army of the Northeast. These three divisions consisted of approximately 10,231 troops, led by 6 subordinate generals and 41 other officers. Unfortunately, Treviño and many of his troops were from Coahuila, not Chihuahua. To the local population, having forces from outside of the state operating within its borders was akin to being occupied by a foreign force. Local military leaders and troops alike often refused to follow Treviño’s commands, showcasing how weak support for Carranza’s regime was in some areas far from the capital. Local antagonism toward Treviño only worsened after 12 May 1916, when Carranza recalled Governor Ignacio C. Enríquez of Chihuahua, probably at Treviño’s insistence. Carranza then replaced Enríquez with the general’s brother, Francisco Treviño, who proceeded to use his office for personal enrichment. Beyond the friction that festered between Treviño, local military commanders, and the citizens of Chihuahua, Carrancista forces suffered from a host of problems including a dearth of discipline, high rates of desertion, and a dangerous lack of weapons and other supplies.

With violence on the border rising, Colonel Herbert J. Slocum, commander of the 13th Cavalry at Camp Furlong, tried to determine where and when Villa might attack next. The 21 officers and 532 soldiers of his regiment patrolled sixty-five miles of border, a difficult task made even more complicated by conflicting reports of Villa’s movements. On 7 March, Slocum spoke to two Mexican men who claimed to have seen Villa’s camp about forty miles south of the border. The colonel offered one of the men, Antonio Muñoz, $20 for additional information. Although clearly reluctant, Muñoz crossed into Mexico and returned the next day, reporting to Slocum that he had seen about 120 Villistas at Boca Grande, thirty miles south of the border. Muñoz claimed that they seemed to be moving south toward Parral. On the same day, Maj. Gen. Frederick N. Funston—in command of the Army’s Southern Department, encompassing Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona—alerted Slocum that the Department of State had received a report that Villa might go to Columbus, about eighty miles west of El Paso, Texas. They reported that Villa might either ask for asylum or cause an incident to provoke U.S. intervention in Mexico. Pershing, the commander of the Army’s 8th Brigade at Fort Bliss, also received a warning from Mexico’s General Gabriel Gavira that a Villista force was seen moving north toward the border. Slocum dispatched additional patrols and strengthened the garrisons at Gibson’s Ranch, twenty miles west of Columbus, and at the border gate three miles south of town. Only about 120 cavalrymen remained at Camp Furlong. In the absence of reliable information, the colonel did not put the post on alert. In fact, Villa had been planning an attack on the United States since at least late February. Without informing his men of their objective, Villa began marching with his army toward Columbus on 24 February. Small and remote with only about 350 residents, the town presented a tempting and easy target, despite its location adjacent to Camp Furlong. The post was home to one squadron of the 13th Cavalry, with four lettered troops, the regiment’s headquarters, and machine gun troops—a total of 274 soldiers and 79 support personnel. Because the post did not have adequate family quarters, many of the officers lived in private homes in town.

Columbus, New Mexico

Early in the morning on 9 March, as Villa waited just over the border in Mexico, about 500 Villistas organized into small parties and crossed into the United States just west of the border gate at Las Palomas. They concentrated outside of Columbus, dismounted, and divided into two columns. Traveling in opposite directions, one of these columns rode to attack Camp Furlong while the other headed to downtown Columbus. Both attacked at approximately 0400, shouting “Viva Villa” and “Viva México” as they advanced toward their respective targets. Though taken by surprise, the soldiers at Camp Furlong reacted quickly to the attack. The officer of the day, 1st Lt. James P. Castleman, assumed command of Troop F. Armed with their M1903 Springfield rifles, the cavalrymen fought their way to downtown Columbus. At the same time, 2nd Lieutenant John P. Lucas heard hoof beats and saw men wearing large sombreros running past the window of his quarters. He grabbed his pistol and raced barefoot, fighting as he went, to the armory where the men of his unit, the machine gun troop, retrieved a French-designed Hotchkiss M1909. They placed the machine gun by the railroad tracks that ran between Camp Furlong and town and opened fire, but the weapon jammed after only a few rounds. This was unsurprising since the Hotchkiss machine guns were notorious for jamming even under ideal conditions. Fortunately, the soldiers were able to replace the useless gun with four others from the armory. About the same time, a group of Villistas burst into the adobe building that housed the post kitchen. The cooks fought back with the shotguns they normally used for hunting along with axes, pots of boiling water, and kitchen utensils. The Villista column that advanced on downtown Columbus managed to do more damage. One small group detached from the main force and went to the Commercial Hotel, where they killed four townspeople and then robbed and set fire to the grocery store across the street. The flames from the fire spread to the Commercial Hotel and other buildings. Raiders systematically plundered the businesses and private homes that were spared destruction in the fire. Among the residences attacked was the home of John J. and Susan Moore, owners of a small shop in town. When the Moores recognized one of the raiders as a customer in their store, the intruders shot and killed the husband and seriously wounded his wife. Next to the other hotel in town, at an adobe structure named the Hoover Hotel, the town switchboard operator braved stray bullets and shattered glass to dial Fort Bliss, ensuring that word of the attack would reach Washington, D.C., while the emergency was still under way. In an action for which he later received the Distinguished Service Cross, Lieutenant Castleman led Troop F through heavy enemy fire to relieve the beleaguered civilians sheltering at the Hoover.

After about two hours of fighting, Villa’s forces began retreating in the direction of the border. Slocum gave Major Frank Tompkins—commander of the 3d Squadron and acting regimental executive officer— permission to pursue the raiders with Troops F and H. A Villista rear guard attempted to delay the pursuit from a piece of high ground about 300 yards south of the border, but it broke and ran when Tompkins led the troopers in a mounted charge. The cavalrymen then dismounted with their rifles and engaged the fleeing Villistas, killing several before the raiders moved out of range. At this point, Tompkins realized that they had skirmished inside Mexico and thus had violated international law. He sent a messenger to Slocum to ask what to do. Slocum replied that Tompkins should use his own judgment in making a decision, so the cavalrymen remounted and continued the pursuit into Mexico. Although outnumbered, the troopers drove the rear guard back on the enemy’s main body in a series of four skirmishes and recovered some of the goods Villistas had taken at Columbus. About fifteen miles south of the border, the U.S. soldiers dismounted and repelled a counterattack. Carrying two wounded men, lacking rations, and running low on water and ammunition, Tompkins finally led the tired troopers and their exhausted mounts back to Camp Furlong. For this action, Tompkins later received both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal.

Even though the Villistas retreated into the desert, the violence in Columbus did not end with Tompkins’ return. In the immediate aftermath of the raid, rumors spread that the Villistas had selectively targeted Anglo American businesses and citizens at Columbus, leading to a panic that Mexican Americans in town had acted as spies for the Villistas. Even though he had no evidence to support these charges, Slocum temporarily declared martial law and ordered members of the 13th Cavalry to search several area homes. An unknown number of people were detained on charges of espionage or theft and forced to leave town. Over the course of the next several days, reports circulated of extralegal killings of up to twelve Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

When viewed as a military operation, the raid on Columbus was a failure. Although they captured about 80 horses, 30 mules, and 300 rifles and shotguns, Villa’s army sustained significant losses, including about 100 dead. Sixty-seven of these fell in and around Columbus, while the rest perished in the retreat. Thirty more Villistas were captured, and an unknown number were wounded. Some of these losses were the result of poor planning and intelligence. Prior to the raid, scouts had reported to Villa that only about 50 soldiers were stationed at Camp Furlong when in fact more than 300 manned the post. Villa’s troops still had the numerical advantage in Columbus, but they were poorly armed and dangerously short on ammunition. In order to attack swiftly, devastate the town, and withdraw, Villistas would have needed to sweep through the town relatively unopposed, but Camp Furlong had too many U.S. troops to make this possible. In contrast, the United States suffered fewer losses, with eight soldiers killed and five wounded. Ten civilians also were killed in town. Authorities learned later that just before the attack, while en route to Columbus, Villistas hanged two U.S. citizens and shot a third ranch hand they had taken captive in Mexico.

The Villista raid on Columbus may have failed as a military action, but it constituted a startling political and strategic victory for the rebel leader. Villa stood in a difficult position in the first months of 1916, and he knew that in his weakened state, he needed to do something that would destabilize Carranza’s regime. One way to do this was to prompt an invasion from the United States, and launching an attack within U.S. territorial boundaries would achieve this end. Even if he had wanted to minimize the attack, Wilson felt tremendous pressure to act due to the upcoming presidential election, and the president hardly could ignore the extensive press coverage of the raid and the genuine popular outrage it generated. Villa calculated that military intervention from the north would prompt one of two possible outcomes. Either Carranza would oppose the presence of U.S. troops, leading to a diplomatic break between Mexico and the United States, or Carranza would support U.S. actions in which case patriotic Mexican citizens would turn against the regime. Believing in Carranza’s “corrupt bargain” with Wilson, Villa also may have seen attacking the United States as a way to exact revenge over his former ally for what he saw as a betrayal of Mexican sovereignty.

As Villa expected, the United States did move quickly to send troops to Mexico in the wake of the raid on Columbus. On 10 March, General Funston sent Wilson a telegram recommending that he authorize an expedition to “pursue into Mexican territory hostile Mexican bandits who raid American territory.” Funston argued in this communication that the inadequately policed border allowed Villa to “harass our ranches and towns” with impunity and that sending in an expedition would remedy the situation. After meeting with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and General Scott, the president accepted Funston’s proposal. The Southern Department commander expected that he personally would lead the expedition, but on Scott’s recommendation, the president appointed Pershing. While originally focused only on apprehending Villa, Wilson ordered Pershing to capture or disband the Villista units that had attacked Columbus and then withdraw from Mexico as soon as possible.

In the spring of 1916, gathering the required number of Army regulars to man what was termed the “Punitive Expedition” was a major undertaking. Part of the reason for this was that the U.S. Army was relatively small, consisting of only 108,399 soldiers. The Army stationed most of these soldiers in the U.S.-administered Philippines, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal Zone, while 24,602 others were scattered across the continental United States. Many of these men had experience with colonial operations in the Philippines, policing the islands, or fighting the small guerrilla forces dispersed throughout the countryside.

In contrast, European armies expanded rapidly after 1914 through the use of conscription. Great Britain’s army, comprised of just 247,432 regulars in 1910, swelled to nearly 4 million. France had averaged 670,000 active troops before the war but called up 2.9 million for active service when the war broke out in 1914. By the end of the war, approximately 8,317,000 Frenchmen had served. Germany had a prewar force of about 800,000 men, but roughly 13,250,000 had served by 1918. The soldiers conscripted in Europe fought as members of large, multiunit forces in battles that pitted millions of men against each other for months at a time and required massive industrial output to sustain….

SOURCE: THE MEXICAN EXPEDITION 1916–1917; BY: Julie Irene Prieto (United States Army Center of Military History)

Mexican Border: Pershing vs Villa; “Hot Pursuit” (Part 2)


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