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 15, 2016

The General and the Jaguar, Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa
reviewed by Jim Gallen

The General and the Jaguar, Pershing's Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge

by Eileen Welsome
University of Nebraska Press, 2006

The Great War was truly a world war and a facet of its worldwide impact is the subject of The General and the Jaguar by Eileen Welsome. The General is John J. Pershing, the Jaguar is Pancho Villa, and the story is the 1916 American invasion of Mexico to capture Villa and to disperse his followers.

Villa's Raiders Captured by the Army After the Columbus Raid

Thirty-five years of relative stability under Mexican President Porfirio Díaz ended in revolt after the disputed 1910 election. Diaz's overthrow started a spiral of government instability that descended into a three-way civil war by 1914. The victory of Venustiano Carranza drove his rivals, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, into guerrilla warfare. When the Wilson administration recognized the Carranza government in October 1915 Villa felt betrayed and turned his wrath on the United States. Villa's men executed 16 Americans after removing them from a train in northern Mexico.

Columbus, New Mexico, was a border town with four troops of U. S. Army soldiers (totaling about 240 men) on which Villa focused his vengeful gaze. While heading north, Villa killed two Americans with whom he had been friendly, William Nye Corbet and Ed Wright, and also took Wright's wife, Maud, hostage. Approaching the sleeping town, the attack began at 4 a.m. on 9 March 1916. Swarming into Columbus in four waves, Villa's men wreaked havoc until they were driven back by the counterattacking soldiers, leaving 67 to 78 Mexicans dead along with eight U. S. soldiers and ten civilians.

The American leadership looked backward to the Spanish-American War and Philippine insurrection where its commander, Black Jack Pershing, had gained experience, and forward to two world wars in the first of which Pershing would command and his aide, George S. Patton, would be wounded before winning fame in the second.

Crossing the border on 15 March, the American force of infantry and cavalry, trucks and reconnaissance aircraft began their 500-mile quest in search of Villa and his band. Rough terrain, cold weather (yes even in Mexico), and local resistance kept the Jaguar out of reach. Torn between a shared distaste for Villa and the need to defend Mexican honor, the Carranza government denied the Americans' permission to use Mexican railways. Battles with Villistas at Parral on 12 April and government forces at Carrizal on 21 June demonstrated the challenges of pursuit and the dangers of mission creep as the expedition plunged deeper into Mexico. By 5 February 1917 the Americans returned to New Mexico with Villa reduced but still at large. After the executions of seven raiders, smoldering Mexican resentment over further criminal prosecutions was doused by not guilty verdicts and executive clemency.

The General's pursuit of the Jaguar had implications stretching far beyond the Western Hemisphere. Mexico was a boiling pot into which the kaiser's cooks added their own spices. As a neighbor of the United States and chief oil supplier to the Royal Navy, Mexico had a seemingly disproportionate role in German war plans. A prewar agreement to supply German arms in return for an interruption of oil supplies to Britain in the event of war was an early intrigue.

As America drifted toward hostilities in the European War the prospect of an all-out Mexican-American war gave hope to Germany and presented a specter of horror to America. In the days during which General Pershing outlined a plan to occupy all of Mexico and President Wilson requested Congressional authority to occupy, if necessary, all the Mexican states along the border, and would have asked for a declaration of war had Mexico possessed a legitimate government, the effectiveness of American intervention in Europe was much in the balance.

Regulars of the 6th Infantry on the March in Mexico
Many of These Men Would Later Be Sent to the Western Front

As ill-prepared as the United States was when it entered the European war, a full-scale occupation of Mexico may have precluded significant American participation on the Western Front until matters on the Continent had been decided by battle or revolution. After reading this book I can understand how the Zimmerman Telegram was a rational proposal on Germany's part rather than the quixotic adventure that I had always considered it.

This book is well written and holds the reader's interest. Author Eileen Welsome draws on various sources, including the memories of hostage Maud Wright. Welsome displays a talent for keeping the characters straight, even for readers unfamiliar with Mexican history. The General and the Jaguar is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the complexity of issues influencing America's entry into the Great War.

Jim Gallen


  1. Pershing, although looked down upon by the other allied commanders, probably had the widest military experience of all, from campaigning against Native Americans, action against Filipino insurgents in the jungles of the Philipine Islands, and chasing after Pancho Villa through the deserts of Northern Mexico.

    1. His experience is an interesting point.

      Of course, some British officers had pretty wide experience going into World War One as well, given that the Boer War hadn't been all that many years prior, and they had a vast colonial empire.

  2. "After reading this book I can understand how the Zimmerman Telegram was a rational proposal on Germany's part rather than the quixotic adventure that I had always considered it."

    Whether it was rational or not may be another question, but it would have been difficult and perhaps even foolish for Imperial Germany to completely ignore the Mexican Revolution. Indeed, it had not been, and the effort of Germany to supply arms to Huerta's force had sparked American naval (and land) intervention in 1914. Germany would have been foolish to disregard the situation between the Constitutionalist, Villistas, and the US in 1916, as it threatened to lead to a full scale war between Mexico and the US, and the US was proving to be incapable of actually eliminating the Villistas and extracting itself. Even if a war with the US had been a disaster for Mexico, that would have served Germany's aims nicely.

    FWIW, I've been running a series of posts on The Punitive Expedition on my blog, quite a few in Century Delayed Real Time, for anyone who might be interested:

  3. We were just in Columbus, NM, a couple weeks ago, partly out of curiosity at another aspect of this expedition; the first (all) American launch of airplanes against a foreign country. The immediate area is very flat; not too much for airplanes to get tangled up in unless they manage to reach the mountains on the horizon. We got pictures of the area 100 years after the fact; they are posted on Great War Stories Gift Shop on Facebook. (Columbus, NM doesn't seem to have changed a whole lot. Especially note the picture showing population totals over the years.)

    1. I noted a little about the aircraft story here: