Mexican Border: Pershing vs Villa; Crossing the Border March 1916 (Part 3)

The Eastern Column crossed the border on 15 March without incident. Passing through the Las Palomas border gate, it found the guard station deserted and learned that the Mexican detachment stationed there had fled earlier that morning. Problems with Pershing’s touring car delayed the Western Column’s departure until the following day. It reached Colonia Dublán at 1930 on 17 March, and Pershing established his  headquarters there. The general chose the location for its access to the Casas Grandes River and Mexico’s Northwestern Railroad, as well as its proximity to a Mormon settlement. The Mormons welcomed and readily aided the expedition by providing a place to camp, access to supplies, and sources of intelligence. In return, the U.S. Army provided protection from local bandits who preyed on foreigners living and working in Chihuahua as well as anti-American revolutionaries operating in the area. Pershing met with his staff to plan the first operations.

Acting on information that Villa had been seen about sixty miles to the south in the vicinity of San Miguel de Babícora, Pershing decided to act without waiting for the Eastern Column to arrive. Keeping the 3d Squadron of the 10th Cavalry at Colonia Dublán, he formed three forces from the remaining units. One column, the entire 7th Cavalry commanded by Colonel James B. Erwin, would advance mounted south through Galeana and El Valle and then move east in the direction of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains in the hopes of catching Villa or his bands if they tried to ride east from Babícora. The other two detachments were to proceed to Babícora itself. Pershing decided to send these two detachments by rail at least part of the way in order to afford the troopers and their mounts a much-needed rest after deploying from Fort Huachuca, Arizona, to Colonia Dublán. The 10th Cavalry’s 2d Squadron, reinforced with the regimental machine gun troop and commanded by Lt. Col. William C. Brown, would leave the train at El Rucio, a railroad station forty miles north of Babícora, and advance south. Meanwhile, the 1st Squadron, commanded by Major Elwood W. Evans, was supposed to unload at Madera, about twenty-eight miles south of Babícora, and advance north. Pershing’s plan sought to locate Villa with one column while the other two converged to trap him in a pincer movement. This stood as the only time during the Punitive Expedition that Pershing used the Mexican rails before Carranza’s decree took effect.

Although Pershing’s decision to use the railroad seemed sound, the plan proved to be disastrous. The railroad’s rolling stock was in such bad condition that when the train arrived at Colonia Dublán, the soldiers had to repair doors, cut ventilation holes into the walls, and patch large gaps in the floors caused by old cooking fires to make the cars suitable for transporting men and horses. After a delay of several hours, the train departed, but fearing Villista or Carrancista interference, the conductor refused to stop in Casas Grandes, just outside of Colonia Dublán, to load firewood for the locomotive. This forced the troops to provide the necessary fuel instead by using their camp hatchets to demolish a loading pen and to chop down telegraph poles, which the U.S. government had to pay for later. The train continued only a short distance farther before the locomotive needed water and had to return again to the starting point. Once replenished, the conductor refused to proceed to El Rucio. Colonel Brown bribed the conductor to settle the matter. Finally, outside of El Rucio, the conductor found that the locomotive lacked the necessary power to pull the twenty-five loaded cattle and boxcars up the steep grade heading into town, and the train gave out short of its first destination. About 1200 on 20 March, a frustrated Colonel Brown ordered his men off the train and continued the mission on horseback. Major Evans’ detachment remained on board the lightened train until two cars derailed and plunged down an embankment near Cumbre Pass, injuring eleven men. Evans then ordered the 1st Squadron to disembark and conducted a night march to Babícora, but shortly after he arrived, he received orders to join Brown. The two met outside Babícora at 1400 on 24 March. Erwin’s contingent continued to patrol east of Babícora and remained out of contact with headquarters for several days.

After their rendezvous, the two squadrons learned that Villa had, in fact, not been in Babícora for several months. Suspecting he was still somewhere in the region, the squadrons continued their search mission for the next thirty-two days. Although the troopers relied on Mexican citizens they met along the trails for information, they received little useful intelligence. Peasants and townspeople alike often viewed U.S. troops as invaders, whether or not they were sympathetic to Villa. Covering the vast Chihuahua wilderness of mountains and plains proved almost impossible given that Villistas knew the terrain and had a much greater knowledge of possible escape routes and hideouts. The soldiers also understood that while they were restricted to operating in Chihuahua, Villa and his men could simply go south beyond their reach to the state of Durango if threatened. Hearing Pershing’s discussion on the location and operations of these columns at a 23 March press conference, one scout quipped, “We’ve got Villa entirely surrounded . . . on one side.”

As the Babícora operation continued, the Eastern Column arrived from Columbus to Colonia Dublán. Just as he had with its sister force, Pershing divided the cavalry of the Eastern Column, this time into four operational detachments. Major Elmer Lindsley commanded the first, consisting of Troop L and the entire 2d Squadron of the 13th Cavalry. Major Tompkins led the second detachment, with Troops K and M of the 13th, and Troops I and K of the 10th Cavalry. The third and fourth detachments, under the command of Major Robert L. Howze and Lieutenant Colonel Henry T. Allen, respectively, came from the 11th Cavalry.

Pershing expected these mobile units, which he called “flying columns,” to operate semi-independently with minimum guidance as they gathered intelligence to locate and destroy Villista bands. Detachment commanders were to stay in communication with headquarters, but Pershing allowed them freedom of maneuver in their assigned areas without having to wait for specific orders. While Army quartermasters worked to forward provisions and other supplies, the flying columns mostly lived off the land. Major Tompkins recounted that his men frequently subsisted on a diet of beef taken from cattle they killed, butchered on the trail, and then fried in their mess kits over the campfire. The expedition’s hasty assembly caused other problems besides a lack of food. Tompkins’ unit, for example, had no maps, while some units used ones that dated from the Mexican War of the 1840s.

Meanwhile, Pershing merged two of the three detachments from the Eastern Column, which now operated in the Babícora area. Sixty-three-year-old Colonel Dodd assumed command of his old regiment, the 7th Cavalry, as well as the 10th Cavalry. Soon after this reorganization, the 7th Cavalry encountered a small group of Carrancistas on the outskirts of El Valle, about twenty-five miles east of Babícora and fifty miles south of Colonia Dublán. Dodd requested intelligence from the Carrancista commander, Colonel Enrique Salas. The Mexican officer told him that recent reports put Villa near Namiquipa, about forty miles farther south. Dodd assumed that Salas was credible and led his men in that direction only to discover that Villa had already departed. When he arrived, Dodd questioned local federal soldiers, but several people with whom he spoke gave contradictory information. Dodd next decided to lead Erwin’s men south again through Santa Ana to Bachíniva, where he received orders to wait for Howze. But Dodd believed he was closing in on Villa and instead chose to press on southwest to Guerrero, about 190 miles south of Colonia Dublán.

Unknown to Dodd, Villa and his forces were in Guerrero at the time and were on the cusp of suffering a major reversal. Soon after crossing back into Mexico, Villa had ordered his men to move to Boca Grande and then to Ascensión and Galeana, about 150 miles south of Columbus. There, he attempted to reinvigorate support for his cause in the countryside and enlist recruits by giving speeches in which he promised to only attack U.S., not Mexican, citizens going forward. In one of these speeches in El Valle, he predicted that U.S. troops would soon invade Mexico with Carranza’s knowledge and approval, and he warned of the damage to Mexican sovereignty.

Shortly afterward, Villa attacked the Carrancista garrisons at Guerrero, Miñaca, and San Isidro. It was during this attack on 27 March that Villa was shot in the leg, probably by one of his own men. His followers immediately took him to the nearby home of Dr. Lyman B. Rauschbaum for treatment. Rauschbaum advised Villa to have surgery to remove bone fragments from his wound, but the general refused to stay for the procedure. Realizing that U.S. and Carrancista forces would soon learn of his injury and come looking for him, Villa ordered Brigadier General Nicolás Fernández, his principal subordinate on the Columbus raid, and a small escort to take him into the mountains to hide. Although a tee-totaler who seemed immune to physical discomfort, Villa numbed the pain with alcohol. After taking shelter in a cave, Villa sent Fernández ahead to Durango to await further orders. Completely out of touch with the rest of his command—during which the rumor circulated that he had died of complications from an amputation—Villa relied on relatives to bring him food and water.

While this was unfolding, Dodd had made the decision to cross the mountains to Guerrero, but to do this efficiently, he needed a guide. At first, no one in Bachíniva was willing to help U.S. troops, but after much searching, Dodd convinced a reluctant local to lead his unit along the winding mountain trails. Whether out of fear of reprisal or loyalty to Villa, the man led the troopers on a circuitous route that doubled the actual distance between the two towns to about fifty-five miles. Then, when the 7th Cavalry finally neared Guerrero, the local guide refused to advise on the best approach to town, so Dodd had no choice but to surround it and wait for daylight to advance. Because Dodd approached Guerrero in daylight, his movements were highly visible to the approximately 200 or so Villistas who remained in town, and they quickly retreated, scattering in several directions. The cavalrymen pursued, and Dodd led one small contingent on a chase of about ten miles through an arroyo before U.S. troops set up a rifle and a machine gun position. U.S. forces killed about thirty Villistas as they tried to escape through the narrow canyon. At the same time, another troop of the 7th Cavalry spotted a group of armed men whom they initially suspected of being Villistas. Before they could engage, the cavalrymen noticed that the suspects moved in an orderly column with a large Mexican flag, so the U.S. troopers held their fire concerned they might attack Carrancistas in error.

After the engagement, Dodd returned to Namiquipa to rest the exhausted men and horses and to file his report. The colonel noted that because many of the Villistas in Guerrero were Yaqui Indians, making an accurate count of enemy casualties was difficult. The Yaqui tended to carry their dead off the battlefield in order to obscure their true losses. He concluded that his men therefore probably killed or wounded more of the enemy than the corpses left behind indicated. Dodd did not know, but at the time of the skirmish, Villa rested only a few hours’ ride outside of town and was moving slowly due to his injuries. Dodd’s attack and pursuit at Guerrero proved the closest anyone in the Punitive Expedition came to capturing Villa.

The clash at Guerrero further convinced Dodd that questioning Mexican soldiers and citizens was unlikely to yield useful intelligence. Not only were local people unwilling to help in many cases, but Villa often kept his location a carefully guarded secret, even from his own officers. Often, neither locals nor Villista soldiers knew where Villa was operating. Carrancista forces experienced similar problems trying to get reliable intelligence, but even when they came across credible information, they were reluctant to share it for fear that U.S. operations would hamper their own. Pershing likened it to “interfering in a family quarrel; they would fight each other when we were not about, but when we appeared frustration of our plans was the common objective.

Pershing’s forces had to develop alternatives to gathering intelligence on the ground from Mexican citizens. Major James A. Ryan, Pershing’s intelligence officer, led this effort, and during the first several months of the expedition, he assembled a network of trusted local informants and civilian scouts. Their work helped to compensate for the shortage of reliable maps and supplemented the tracking efforts of U.S. Scouts, not only in locating Villa’s men, but in finding animals, fodder, and water to add to their meager supplies. Ryan also transmitted numerous reports by telegram to the War College Division of the General Staff and its Military Information Section, although no evidence exists that anyone acted on or even read them.

SOURCE: Mexican Expedition 1916-17; BY: Julie Irene Prieto (United States Army Center of Military History)

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