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

Thursday, March 10, 2016

9 March 1916, Part II: Villa's Raid on Columbus, New Mexico, Sets Off the Punitive Expedition

One hundred years ago, a bandit, opportunist, political operator, and – in his own way – a Mexican patriot, became part of America's and – albeit in several steps removed  – the Great War's history. On 9 May 1916 Pancho Villa led 500 men in a raid on a desolate little village across the U.S. border named Columbus, New Mexico. Historians dance around it, but it was simply an act of terror. Villa, however, never "spilled the beans" as to why he initiated the raid, but the editor of this blog believes it was most likely to provoke the very response he got, an American military excursion into Mexico to undermine the regime of Mexico's latest leader to emerge after the revolution begun in 1910,  General Venustiano Carranza head of the dominant "Constitutionalist" faction. 

100 Years Later, Pancho Villa Holds a Place in America's Collective Memory

The United States and six Latin American nations officially recognized the Carranza government on 19 October 1915, a direct insult to Pancho Villa and his followers, who had earlier parted ways with Carranza. Feeling betrayed, the Villistas set forth on a course of retaliation directed mainly at Americans.  In one instance, Villa's irregulars assassinated 17 U.S. citizens aboard a train traveling from Chihuahua City to the Cusi Mine at Santa Isabel, Chihuahua. Although this act infuriated the American public, it was the Villistas' next attack, the raid on Columbus, New Mexico, that caused the U.S. government to seek retribution.

Why Villa chose Columbus as a target for his most daring raid is unclear. The small town had only one hotel, a few stores, some adobe houses, and a population of 350 Americans and Mexicans. Most likely, Villa was enticed to attack Columbus because it was the home of Camp Furlong and the Thirteenth U.S. Cavalry Regiment under the command of Col. Herbert J. Slocum. The Thirteenth had been garrisoned at Columbus since September 1912. At the time of the attack, the regiment comprised 500 officers and men, but only about 350 men were at the camp. A local citizen warned Slocum that Villa was nearby. As a precaution, Slocum strengthened the patrols and outposts of the camp with detachments from the regiment. Since Villa had numerous sympathizers living in Columbus and the vicinity, he had no trouble obtaining information on Camp Furlong's troop strength or other bits of intelligence.

The Damaged Town

Although Villa's rationale for attacking Columbus has never been explained, the outcome is clearly documented.  The secretary of war reported that "Villa's command crossed the border in small parties about 3 miles west of the border gate, concentrated for and made the attack during hours of extreme darkness after the moon had set and before daylight." After a bloody confrontation in which 18 Americans died, two troops of the Thirteenth Cavalry under the direction of Maj. Frank Tompkins pursued the bandits. The troops chased the Mexicans south of the border for 12 miles before their ammunition and supplies were exhausted. The raid, however, could hardly be considered a victory for Villa and his men. Besides killing a small number of soldiers and civilians, his men came away with a few horses and a meager amount of loot from the stores and homes of the town.

Villa's Men Captured at Columbus

Both public outcry and pressure from the Army moved President Wilson to order the military to pursue Villa and punish him. General Funston, now commanding the Southern Department, telegraphed the War Department the day after the raid, "I urgently recommend that American troops be given authority to pursue into Mexican Territory hostile Mexican bandits who raid American territory. So long as the border is a shelter for them they will continue to harass our ranches and towns to our chagrin." Wilson responded by directing Secretary of War Newton Baker to organize a punitive expedition. On the advice of his senior military, Baker would designate John J. Pershing to lead the mission.

The adventures of the Punitive Expedition to be continued in future postings on Roads to the Great War

Source:  Mitchell Yockelson's "The United States Armed Forces and the Mexican Punitive Expedition" at Prologue, the online  magazine of the National Archives and Records Administration


  1. An interesting theory. Perhaps Villa wanted to show that the Carranza government was powerless to control Mexico. With the failure of the Carranza government to oppose the intervention, perhaps he hoped would do what he ultimately did, kill Villa

  2. An added factor, of course, is that Wilson had allowed the transport of Carranza's troops across southern Texas so that they could be deployed in northern Mexico against Villas. That gave Villa a direct incentive to raid into the US in retaliation. I addressed that here on our blog:

    I've often thought the basic reason for the read were fairly clear. U.S. policy in Mexico had been fairly inept and the US had been hostile to revolutionary forces, which responded in kind. By allowing the transport of the putative government's forces across our soil we were taking a role against Villa in favor of Carranza, who ironically was not particularly sympathetic towards the US. Columbus was largely a target of convenience for the much depleted Villistas, quite a few of which actually walked to the battle rather than rode.