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

Saturday, March 15, 2014

98 Years Ago: The U.S. Launches the Punitive Expedition into Mexico

Ninety-eight years ago this week, President Woodrow Wilson sent General John J. Pershing into Chihuahua in what came to be known popularly as the "Punitive Expedition." Historian Mitch Yockelson explains what happened. [A week] earlier, the bandit/politician Francisco "Pancho" Villa had raided Columbus, New Mexico. With approximately 485 men, known as Villistas, Villa had attacked the border town on 9 March 1916. According to War Department reports, ten American officers and soldiers were killed, two officers and five soldiers wounded, eight civilians killed, and two wounded. The Mexican irregulars' losses numbered approximately one hundred killed, with seven wounded and captured. From 16 March 1916, to February 14,1917, the expeditionary force of more than 14,000 regular army troops under the command of Brig. Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing operated in northern Mexico "in pursuit of Villa with the single objective of capturing him and putting a stop to his forays." Another 140,000 regular army and National Guard troops patrolled the vast border between Mexico and the United States to discourage further raids.

10 March 1916 Cartoon

Although the Mexican Punitive Expedition is considered a minor event in U.S. history, it is a story filled with adventure, intrigue, and confusion. Despite its failure to capture Pancho Villa, the Mexican Punitive Expedition can be deemed a success. Secretary of War Baker praised the efforts of Pershing and his men by stating that "its objective, of course was the capture of Villa, if that could be accomplished, but its real purpose was a display of the power of the United States into a country disturbed beyond control of the constituted authorities of the Republic of Mexico as a means of controlling lawless aggregations of bandits and preventing attacks by them across the international frontier. This purpose is fully and finally accomplished."

Pershing Leading His Force

Order Now
Most important, the Mexican Punitive Expedition provided military training experience for the 11,000 regular soldiers who made up the expedition. Pershing's experience during the Punitive Expedition and the death of Funston on 19 February 1917, made him the obvious choice as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Many of the same men who served with Pershing in Mexico accompanied him to France.

Mitch Yockeleson's excellent summary article (especially helpful for researchers) can be found on the website of the National Archives (link) and the late John Eisenhower's in-depth treatment can be purchased at

1 comment:

  1. As I recall the Punitive Expedition was one of the first major military movements to incorporate aircraft reconnaissance as an integral part of the search and advance activity.