Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Border Conflict: Villistas, Carrancistas, and the Punitive Expedition 1915-1920
Reviewed by Dennis Linton

Border Conflict: Villistas, Carrancistas, and 
the Punitive Expedition 1915–1920

by Joseph A Stout, Jr.
Texas Christian University Press, 1999

Pancho Villa was not over five feet ten, with the chest and shoulders of a prizefighter and a perfect bullet-shaped head…A small black mustache serves to mask a mouth which is cruel even when it is smiling. New York Times, 1914

Border Conflict is a study of the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20. Joseph Stout's research of Mexican correspondence and field reports is insightful as it shows the conflict through the eyes of Mexican soldiers and political leaders. The book primarily covers the time frame of 1915–1920 when the United States crossed into Mexico to stop raids and incursions on the U.S.–Mexico border. Besides extensive coverage of the internal Mexican conflict, the book looks at the activities of the Punitive Expedition that President Wilson sent in to find Pancho Villa.

Pancho Villa's relationship with the United States was complicated. However, after he led 500 men across the border and attacked Columbus, New Mexico, on 9 March 1916, Wilson ordered Villa captured dead or alive. General John Pershing took command of primarily cavalry soldiers in pursuit of Villa into Mexico. When Pershing's Punitive Expedition entered Mexico, the American Army's total troop strength in the continental United States was only 24,602. Pershing had parts of four cavalry regiments, two field artillery batteries, and various horse-drawn and motorized supply units totaling 4,800 men and 4,175 animals. Pershing also had an aerial reconnaissance unit, one of the first deployments of a nascent Army Air Corps. The Punitive Expedition would be one of the last times U.S. horse cavalry regiments would see action in battle.

The author does an excellent job of setting the background of the Mexican Revolution and the rise of Venustiano Carranza to the presidency. The book looks at the internal dynamics of Carranza's Constitutionalist forces as well as its campaign against Villa. The use of Mexican sources provides essential context for understanding Villa, the Constitutionalist Army and their clashes with each other and U.S. forces in 1916 and 1917. Joseph Stout's research shows that Carranza actively sought to defeat Villa's forces, contrary to other books based solely on U.S. sources. While Carranza saw the American intrusion as a possible long-term threat, he was more worried about Villa, Zapata, and various other revolutionary factors posed to his regime survival. The Constitutionalist Army fought battles with Villa but was hampered by lack of unity of command, inconsistent provisions, and poor pay for the troops. Additionally, Villa used Pershing's incursion into Mexico as a propaganda tool asserting Carranza could not protect Mexicans from the gringo army.

Although both countries had Nationalist factions calling for war, neither Wilson nor Carranza wanted or could afford a costly and protracted conflict. Carranza still had not consolidated power in Mexico, and the possibility of entering World War I was on Wilson's mind. However, after direct negotiations failed on 9 May 1916, in El Paso, Texas, the Constitutionalist Army was ordered to oppose the U.S. forces.

While there was much posturing, there was little actual fighting between the American and Constitutionalist forces; both spent most of their energy and forces protecting against attack instead of taking offensive actions. The book does go into detail with the one significant fight between the 10th U.S. Cavalry and the Mexican Army in the battle of Carrizal, where the U.S. suffered twelve killed, ten wounded, and 24 taken prisoner. The fight at Carrizal brought both nations to the brink of war. The U.S. used the new powers of the Defense Act of 1916 to call up 100,000 citizen soldiers of the newly formed National Guard to defend the U.S.-Mexico border.

Pancho Villa with His Irregulars

While this was a big military move, the reality was that both countries made overt diplomatic gestures to avoid war. During the protracted negotiations, the soldiers of the Punitive Expedition stayed in Mexico, but not in close contact with Mexican forces. The Punitive Expedition engaged Villa forces in many small skirmishes, but it did not succeed in capturing Villa; he retired as Pershing's forces withdrew and was assassinated in 1923. However, the U.S. expedition did enable Carranza to escalate anti-American sentiment and strengthen his position as president. Border Conflict is well worth the read to understand the context of the Mexican Revolution and the American forces before the United States entered World War I.

Dennis Linton, COL, U.S. Army, retired. Assistant Professor, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS. Docent at the National World War I Memorial and Museum.

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