One would have to search hard to find the tiny village of Columbus, New Mexico on a map in the modern era. It wouldn’t have been any easier on March 9th, 1916.
The quiet hamlet on the Mexican/American border had grown in recent years thanks to the train stop, adding a general store, a saloon and even a school, in addition to several hundred new residents. Signs of the village’s growth were everywhere as four new hotels sprang up and even a local newspaper. Guarded by a few hundred soldiers, Columbus probably felt as safe as any location in the United States.
The sounds of gunshots and battle cries surprised both civilian and soldier alike. Cutting through the cold desert night, 500 Mexican guerrillas loyal to famed rebel Pancho Villa, (or Villistas, as they were known) had invaded the village, pillaging and shooting anything they could. Desperate for supplies in their long-running war against Mexican authorities, Villa and his men had mistakenly been told the village was all but unprotected (rumors persist into the modern era that Villa had come to Columbus to buy guns from an American arms dealer). Instead, 270 U.S. soldiers, and several Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié machine guns, lay just over the border. By the time dawn broke, Columbus had been burnt to the ground, with at least 90 Villistas, 8 U.S. soldiers, and 10 U.S. civilians dead. Elements of Columbus’ garrison defied orders and chased Villa 15 miles into Mexico, killing a few more of his men.
The United States had resisted entering Europe’s war, even amid hundreds of American casualties. But blood had been spilled on American soil from across the Mexican border – and not for the first time. America was going to war in Mexico.
The turbulent political background in Mexico had seen an ever-changing series of alliances, with the United States intermittently intervening and then withdrawing, unwilling and/or uninterested in creating permanent relationships with the variety of figures and governments in Mexico since 1910. Despite a sizable American military presence on the border, rebels continued to cross into the U.S., trading fire and casualties. Coupled with political paralysis from Washington, which dithered between antagonizing Mexico and trying to quell the violence, the situation on the border had significantly deteriorated by the beginning of 1916.
In January of the new year, Villistas had stopped a train near Santa Isabel, Chihuahua. Ostensibly looking for valuables and supplies, the train was filled with American workers from an American-based oil refinery. For reasons never fully understood, the Villistas took 18 Americans off of the train and executed them to horror of the remaining passengers.
Passions from the Santa Isabel incident were already white-hot when news reached Washington of the Columbus invasion. Despite his pacifism towards Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare, President Woodrow Wilson was prepared to launch an open-ended invasion of Mexican territory in pursuit of Villa. With only vague orders to conduct operations with a “scrupulous respect for the sovereignty of [Mexico]”, Gen. John J. Pershing and his 10,000 men crossed the Mexican border on March 15th, 1916.
The man Pershing and America were hunting had been viewed as a celebrity – and potential ally – just years earlier.
José Doroteo Arango Arámbula had been little more than a career bandit struggling to become a legitimate businessman when the Mexican Revolution started in 1910. Having killed several men over his years of banditry, Arámbula changed his name to Villa, after his paternal grandfather, and attempted to settle down with several unsuccessful business ventures. The revolution provided far greater opportunities for a man skilled with gun. Allying himself with the forces of rebel Francisco Madero, who had narrowly lost the 1910 Presidential election against the 35-year dictatorial incumbent (likely to massive fraud), Villa proved himself a talented tactician, winning several important victories for the revolutionaries.
But Villa’s loyalties were easily frayed. Disgusted with Madero’s attempt to co-opt the political players who had opposed him, Villa confronted the new President with a threat: “You, sir [Madero], have destroyed the revolution…It’s simple: this bunch of dandies have made a fool of you, and this will eventually cost us our necks, yours included.”
Villa’s threat would prove prophetic. Madero would be overthrown in a coup by the very forces that had tried to co-opt, leaving former allies like Villa to once again wage war within the newly formed Constitutionalist Army of Mexico. Despite Villa being at best an unruly lieutenant in the faction, the bandito quickly became the toast of American and international media for his Robin Hood-esque exploits and media-savvy skills. Villa would even star as himself in a docudrama – The Life of General Villa – produced by the legendary filmmaker D.W. Griffith in 1914.
But the grueling realities of how Villa conducted his war were already straining his relationships on either side of the border. Villa’s fellow Constitutionalists didn’t share his socialist zeal. And in the U.S., early cuts of The Life of General Villa produced stomach-churning real images of Villa’s men executing prisoners and knocking the teeth out of skulls of dead opponents to collect the fillings. By late 1914/early 1915, Villa was out of favor – in Mexico City, in Washington, and in the court of public opinion.
As the first 6,600 of Gen. John J. Pershing’s men crossed into Mexico, supported by eight Curtiss JN3 airplanes scouring the mountainous landscape for any sign of Villa, the reaction of the Mexican government was one of cautious optimism.
President Venustiano Carranza had spent the better part of 1915 fighting Villa – and fighting for any sense of political legitimacy. By the start of 1916, Carranza’s forces (technically the government, but called Carrancistas), had defeated Villa’s main army and won recognition from the United States. If Pershing’s army kept to the original objective of hunting down the last of Villa’s men, Carranza had little problem allowing the U.S. unfettered access to Mexican territory.
The expedition looked like it might be over before it started. On March 29th, 1916, 370 soldiers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry surprised a larger force of Villstas at Guerrero, where Villa’s men had just chased a garrison of Carrancistas out days earlier. Unbeknownst to the American soldiers, Villa had been shot in Guerrero and was resting when the 7th Cavalry charged into the town. Despite being outnumbered and exhausted (the 7th Cavalry had crossed 55 miles of the Sierra Madre in less than 17 hours), the 7th Cavalry routed the Villstas, causing nearly 90 casualties to only five of their own.
Villa had escaped. While it was likely that Villa and a small band of men fled early in the fight into the mountains, Villa’s legend told of a bolder plan. A handful of Villstas, wearing Mexican national uniforms, marched out to greet the 7th Cavalry, who promptly believed them to be their allies. Under the cover of needing reinforcements, the disguised Villstas made their way out of town. The anecdote was true; Villa’s presence in the story probably was not. But in either case, the Mexican rebel was still on the run.
The estimated 500 Villstas that had ransacked Columbus, New Mexico had all but been broken as a fighting force. If sole objective of the expedition had been to weaken Villa’s core followers, it could be have been called a quick success. By mid-April, Villa’s remaining forces had split up into the mountains, doing their best to avoid fighting American soldiers.
But the bandito himself was still at large – and American forces were pushing further and further into Mexico in search of him. The American incursion wasn’t winning allies among the Mexican population. At the town of Parral, 513 miles past the border, the American 13th Cavalry found themselves under fire by 500 Carrancistas. Casualties on the American side were minimal, but underscored the danger of such an open-ended mission.
While American forces were under fire by their nominal Carrancistas allies, in other parts of Mexico the two sides were still cooperating against the remaining elements of Villa’s rebels. Despite Villa’s focus on fighting Carrancistas and not Americans, the battle at the small mining town of Cusihuiriachic demonstrated the two sides were often one in the same, as the American 11th Cavalry rode to the aid of the local Carrancistas outpost, killing over 45 Villstas in their relief effort.
Perhaps in response, several hundred newly formed raiders under the leadership of one of Villa’s lieutenants invaded the border towns of Glenn Springs and Boquillas in Texas in early May. While the damage and casualties were slight by comparison to Columbus, the inability to shut down the border to Villa’s men was causing frustration in Washington – and the continuing presence of the U.S. military was doing the same in Mexico City. The hunt for Pancho Villa was coming to a head.
Hovering in the background of the American expedition in Mexico was the influence of Imperial Germany.
The Germans had nurtured a relationship with Mexico City’s governing elite in both formal and informal ways. Imperial Germany had shipped arms to the Mexican government for years, and supposedly supported dictator Victoriano Huerta with an arms shipment, sparking in part an 1914 American occupation of Veracruz, while German spies like Capt. Franz von Rintelen worked tirelessly to forge an alliance with Mexico as a hedge against American involvement in Europe. Germany’s influence was also economic. While Mexico City held only 1,200 Mexican-German citizens, they represented some of the most financially and politically influential private citizens in the nation. Civilian groups like the Verband Deutscher Reichsangehoriger (VDR) spread pro-German propaganda in the Mexican media and lobbied Venustiano Carranza for support. Carranza, eager for a counterweight to U.S. influence, gladly endorsed favored treatment for German industries, leading many in Washington and Berlin to believe Carranza might ally himself to the Central Powers. German arms and advisors were slowly trickling into Mexico.
Carranza would certainly have needed German support to follow-up on his government’s threats to the American expeditionary force in Mexico in early May of 1916. At El Paso, Carranza’s Secretary of War and Navy, General Álvaro Obregón threatened to attack Gen. Pershing’s supply lines, forcing them to retreat back to the United States. The threats became actions in early June as elements of the 10th Cavalry were surprised by 300 Carrancista troops in Carrizal. The result was an American defeat and a number of American prisoners.
At once, the American objectives in Mexico shifted from neutralizing Villa to confronting Carranza and his government. The call for reinforcements on the border increased, straining the limited American military and National Guard. Over 100,000 American troops would eventually be stationed on the Mexican border amid fears of another Mexican-American War.
Despite the provocations and miscalculations of both sides, neither the United States or Mexico were interested in a full-blown war.
Throughout the summer and early fall of 1916, negotiations in New London, Connecticut resolved the status of Pershing’s army, now sitting dormant at the Mexican Mormon colony of Colonia Dublán (the birthplace of George Romney, for you history buffs). As tempers cooled, Pershing would leave Mexico in early 1917, concluding American operations. What would become known as the “Pancho Villa Expedition” had certainly thinned Villa’s forces, but at the expense of fraying Mexican-American relations. Mexico was now even further aligned towards Imperial Germany, leading the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmerman, to contemplate the offering of a Mexican-German alliance.
With a few exceptions, such as a young George S. Patton’s shoot-out with one of Villa’s commanders, the expedition had achieved few notable moments. It most certainly had not achieved it’s original goals. Skirmishes with Villa’s men would continue as Villa rebuilt his forces. The last American actions against Villa wouldn’t be until 1919, as 8,600 American soldiers, allied with 7,300 Mexican troops, fought against 9,500 Villistas near El Paso. The battle of Ciudad Juarez dwarfed anything experienced in the expedition, with 92 Americans and 67 Mexican soldiers dying in a battle that finally convinced Villa to surrender shortly thereafter. Only after Villa’s retirement from the battlefield did the American objective of pacifying the border become a reality.
As the expedition faded from public memory, the man in charge of operation thought that forgetting the battles might be for the best. For as John J. Pershing himself privately admitted “when the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate.”