Pancho Villa’s Raid on New Mexico

United States #3591 (2002) FDC
United States #3591 (2002) First Day Cover

I lived in the state of New Mexico for more than a decade prior to moving to Thailand. There are many things I love about the region, including the rich history dating back to long before it became a territory of the United States. Just four years following its admission as the 47th state of the Union on January 6, 1912, the tiny border town of Columbus came under attack — the only time in the twentieth century that the continental United States was invaded by outside forces, about a century after the War of 1812 and 85 years before the World Trade Center attack of September 11, 2001. The Battle of Columbus began as a raid early on the morning of March 9, 1916, conducted by Pancho Villa’s Division of the North on the small town located three miles north of the border. The raid escalated into a full-scale battle between Villistas and the United States Army. Villa himself led the assault, only to be driven back into Mexico by elements of the 13th Cavalry Regiment stationed at Columbus. The attack angered Americans and President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Punitive Expedition in which the U.S. Army invaded Mexico in an unsuccessful attempt to capture General Villa.

The outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 had resulted from the failure of the 35-year long regime of Porfirio Díaz to find a managed solution to the presidential succession. This meant there was a political crisis among competing elites and the opportunity for agrarian insurrection. Wealthy landowner Francisco I. Madero challenged Díaz in 1910 presidential election, and following the rigged results revolted under the Plan of San Luis Potosí. Armed conflict ousted Díaz from power and a new election was held in 1911, bringing Madero to the presidency. The armed conflict lasted for the better part of a decade, until around 1920, and had several distinct phases. Over time, the Revolution changed from a revolt against the established order under Díaz to a multi-sided civil war in particular regions with frequently shifting power struggles among factions in the Mexican Revolution. One major result of the revolution was the disappearance of the Federal Army in 1914 which Francisco Madero had kept intact when he was elected in 1911 and General Victoriano Huerta used to oust Madero. Revolutionary forces unified against Huerta’s reactionary regime defeated the Federal forces.

Although the conflict was primarily a civil war, foreign powers that had important economic and strategic interests in Mexico figured in the outcome of Mexico’s power struggles. The United States played an especially significant role. From the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the United States Army was stationed in force along the border and on several occasions fought with Mexican rebels or federals. Conflict was not only subject to Villistas and Americans; Maderistas, Carrancistas, Constitutionalistas and Germans also engaged in battle with American forces during this period. Out of Mexico’s population of 15 million, the losses were high, but numerical estimates vary a great deal. Perhaps 1.5 million people died; nearly 200,000 refugees fled abroad, especially to the United States.

Francisco “Pancho” Villa (born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula on June 5, 1878) was commander of the División del Norte (Division of the North) in the Constitutionalist Army and a military-landowner (caudillo) of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Given the area’s size and mineral wealth, it provided him with extensive resources. Villa was also provisional Governor of Chihuahua in 1913 and 1914. Villa can be credited with decisive military victories leading to the ousting of Victoriano Huerta from the presidency in July 1914. Villa then fought his erstwhile leader in the coalition against Huerta, “First Chief” of the Constitutionalists Venustiano Carranza.

Villa was in alliance with southern revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who remained fighting in his own region of Morelos. The two revolutionary generals briefly came together to take Mexico City after Carranza’s forces retreated from it. Later, Villa’s heretofore undefeated División del Norte engaged the military forces of Carranza under Carrancista general Álvaro Obregón and was defeated in the Battle of Celaya (April 6-15, 1915). This battle is referred to by some historians of the period as Pancho Villa’s “Waterloo” in the sense that he was dealt a crippling military defeat. Irreparable damage was done to both his military power and his critical aura of invincibility. Further, a number of domestic and foreign observers of the revolution came to the conclusion that the Villistas were not capable of defeating the Constitutionalist army.

Militarily, the Villistas were never again as strong as they were before taking the field at Celaya in April 1915. As a result of the disastrous battle, Villa himself was forced to go on the defensive in an attempt to reorganize his forces and procure war materiel lost at Celaya. His faithful adviser General Felipe Angeles argued that Villa should return to northern Mexico, where he had allies and could reconstruct the División del Norte. Villa, displaying supreme confidence in his military judgement, decided to conduct a defensive battle at Leon similar to what Obregón had done at Celaya. Obregón himself continued his to pursue his destruction of Villa in the ensuing battles of the revolution. At the battle of Leon, Obregón lost his right arm in the fighting and nearly died.

Villa was again defeated by Carranza on November 1, 1915, at the Second Battle of Agua Prieta, after which Villa’s army collapsed as a significant military force. The Division of the North was in shambles, wandering around northern Mexico foraging for supplies. Lacking the military supplies, money, and munitions he needed in order to successfully pursue his war against Carranza, Villa planned a raid on Columbus, New Mexico, and camped his army of an estimated 500 horsemen outside of Palomas, six miles south of the border.

Columbus, located 3 miles north of the border was populated by about 500 Americans and about as many Mexicans that fled north from the advancing Villistas. The reasons for the raid have never been established with any certainty. An American kidnap victim traveling with the raiding party, Maude Hauke Wright, said that Villa came with 3000 men and 6000 horses and attacked Columbus with 1500. She was told that Villa thought that by provoking America into invading Mexico it would cause the Germans and Japanese to intervene.

At their camp, Villa and his men waited for his returning patrols. After the patrols told him that only about thirty soldiers garrisoned Columbus, Villa moved north and crossed the border about midnight. In actuality the garrison came from the 13th Cavalry Regiment usually stationed at Camp Furlong, adjacent to Columbus, and consisted of the headquarters troop, machine gun troop, and four of the seven rifle troops deployed to patrol the border, totaling in all 12 officers and 341 men, of which approximately 270 were combat troops.

Villa divided his force into two columns, most of which approached the town on foot, and launched a two-pronged attack on the town in the dark early on March 9. Most of the town’s population was asleep, along with most of the garrison, when they entered Columbus from the west and southeast at a little past 4 a.m., shouting “¡Viva Villa! ¡Viva México!” and other phrases. One bullet struck the clock outside the town’s railroad station, effectively stopping it forever at 4:11 a.m. More than 400 of Villa’s men, mostly on foot, began shooting, looting and burning Columbus. The Army soldiers, caught off guard and in some cases running about barefoot, managed to set up machine guns and fire somewhere around 5,000 rounds at their hard-to-see attackers.

The townspeople awoke to an army of Villistas burning their settlement and looting their homes. The commander of the 13th Cavalry was Colonel Herbert Jermain Slocum. He had been advised the day before, from three conflicting reports from Mexican sources, that Villa and his soldiers were on the move, possibly against Columbus. One warning was given by Juan Favela, the foreman of a ranch near Palomas, who had seen them headed north the day before the attack. Amidst many such reports that had proved false, the warning was ignored as unreliable, although the troop at the Border Gate was reinforced and all three troops in the field were ordered to step up patrolling of the 65-mile long border. However, U.S. soldiers were forbidden to reconnoiter inside Mexico and thus unable to check reports of Villa’s whereabouts.

Despite being taken by surprise, the Americans quickly recovered. Soon after the attack began, 2nd Lt. John P. Lucas, commanding the 13th Cavalry’s machine gun troop, made his way barefooted and alone from his quarters to the camp’s barracks. He organized a hasty defense around the camp’s guard tent, where his troop’s machine guns were kept under lock, with two men and a Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié machine gun. He was soon joined by the remainder of his unit and 30 troopers armed with M1903 Springfield rifles led by 2nd Lt. Horace Stringfellow, Jr. The troop’s four machine guns fired more than 5,000 rounds apiece during a 90-minute fight, their targets illuminated by fires of burning buildings. In addition, many of the townspeople were armed with rifles and shotguns. Many residents took refuge in the two-story brick schoolhouse.

Villa’s men looted and burned many houses, fighting civilians that were defending their homes. It is not known if Villa was with the raiding party at any time. However, it is known that during most of the battle, Villa, his commanders, and about two dozen other men took up position on Cootes hill overlooking Columbus where they could observe the action and where some of Villa’s men acted as sharpshooters to fire upon the town.

The Villistas fought the pursuing American troops and civilians until a bugler sounded the order to retreat. Major Frank Tompkins, commanding the regiment’s 3rd Squadron and acting as its executive officer, asked and received permission from Slocum to pursue the withdrawing Mexicans. Disregarding the rules of engagement, he led two troops 15 miles into Mexico in pursuit of a force approximately six times the size of his, engaged Villa’s rear guard four times, and inflicted some losses on them before withdrawing back across the border after running low on ammunition and water. Tompkins was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Service Cross in 1918 for this action.

In spite of Villa proclaiming that the raid was a success by evidence of captured arms and equipment from the camp — which included over 300 rifles and shotguns, 80 horses, and 30 mules — the raid was a tactical disaster for him with ill-afforded casualties of 90 to 170 dead from an original force that had numbered 484 men, including at least 63 killed in action and at least seven more who later died from wounds during the raid itself. Of those captured during the raid, seven were tried; of those, one sentence was commuted to life in prison; and six were convicted and executed by hanging. Two were hanged on June 9, 1916; four were hanged on June 30, 1916. The sixty-three dead Villa soldiers that were left behind in Columbus following the raid were dragged south of the stockyards, soaked with kerosene and burned.

The United States government wasted no time in responding. National Guard units from around the nation were called up and by the end of August 1916 over 100,000 troops were on the border. The Battle of Columbus resulted in the creation of the Punitive Expedition led by General John J. Pershing to track down and capture or kill Villa or disperse the attackers, In the operation, the U.S. Army used Curtiss Jenny airplanes for reconnaissance and trucks to carry supplies (both firsts for the Army). They scoured portions of northern Mexico for six months but Villa was not found. In January 1917, with the United States likely to enter World War I soon, and under intense diplomatic pressure from the Mexican government, these troops were withdrawn from Mexico.

After U.S. forces were withdrawn in January 1917, Pershing publicly claimed the expedition to be a success, which in light of the public declarations by President Wilson was clearly not the case since Villa eluded capture by the U.S. Army. Pershing complained privately to his family that Wilson had imposed too many restrictions, which made it impossible for him to fulfill that portion of his mission. In the sting of the moment, having been compelled to withdraw out of political considerations and before much larger events in Europe put the episode behind him, he admitted to having been “outwitted and out-bluffed at every turn” and wrote that “Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs.” During the three months of active operations, American forces captured 605 rifles, 14 machine guns, and 139 horses and mules from the Villistas. Most of the horses and mules were returned to local residents.

General Pershing was permitted to bring into New Mexico 527 Chinese refugees who had assisted him during the expedition, despite the ban on Chinese immigration at that time under the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese refugees, known as “Pershing’s Chinese”, were allowed to remain in the U.S. if they worked under the supervision of the military as cooks and servants on bases. In 1921, Congress passed Public Resolution 29, which allowed them to remain in the country permanently under the conditions of the 1892 Geary Act. Most of them settled in San Antonio, Texas.

Soldiers who took part in the Villa campaign were awarded the Mexican Service Medal.

Santa Fe historian Jeff Lowdermilk, whose grandfather fought in World War I, said expeditionary troops under Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing’s command used biplanes, trucks, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and other techniques and tactics that would be useful for the war in Europe. “The Punitive Expedition was the birth of the modern American military,” Lowdermilk said.

The pursuit of Villa also was a steppingstone in Gen. George S. Patton’s military career. He served as a lieutenant under Pershing during the Mexican foray. Patton went on to become an Army commander in Europe during World War II. While Pershing and Patton did not find Pancho Villa during that expedition, Patton and a few of his men came across one of Villa’s main officers, Julio Cárdenas. During a gun battle, in which Patton blazed away with his Colt pistol, Cárdenas and some of his men perished. Patton strapped their bodies to the hood of his touring car and brought them back to Pershing like prize bucks.

“He had blood on his hands,” Helen Patton said of her grandfather’s first rush of action, “He could say, ‘I’ve done it, I killed.’ It made him rate as a warrior.”

During the course of its search for Villa in Mexico the Pershing Expedition found twenty-one men who had allegedly taken part in the Columbus raid. These men were indicted in New Mexico in April 1917, again on charges of murder in connection with the raid. Sixteen of the men pled guilty to Second Degree Murder. A. B. Renehan, the Villistas’ defense counsel, argued that they were unable to understand the implications of such a plea. Renehan also made the argument, just as the six executed Villistas had, that they were “victims of a press-gang, seized by force, under threats and made part of Villa’s army.” They did not join voluntarily and they were “utterly ignorant of their destination at the time of the Columbus raid, except a general supposition that they were being led to attack Carranza forces supposed to be at Palomas.” After interviewing the Villistas, Renehan reported that there was “one poor little devil,” who was paralyzed from the waist down among the prisoners. He reportedly had nothing to do with the Columbus raid. The family of his girlfriend did not approve of him, so when Pershing’s men came through their town, they claimed that he had been involved in the raid in order to be rid of him.

This group of sixteen Villistas was still held in the New Mexico state prison in Santa Fe in 1920 when Governor Octaviano A. Larrazolo investigated their case. Larrazolo himself had been born in Allende, Chihuahua, to a wealthy ranching family. He was educated in Arizona and New Mexico, eventually setting up a law practice in Las Vegas, New Mexico. His personal Mexican heritage seemed to weigh heavily on him as he considered various petitions for clemency from family members of the accused Villistas. Larrazolo unconditionally pardoned Ramón Bustillos, Rafael Bustamente, Tomás Camareno, Santos Torres, Pedro Borciago, José Tena, José de la luz Marquez, Lorenzo Gutierrez, Rafael Rodríguez, Pedro López, Mariano Jimenez, Juan Muñoz, David Rodríguez, Francisco Solís, Juan Torres, and José Rodríguez on November 22, 1920. His major argument for doing so was that the men were forcibly conscripted into Villa’s forces, meaning that they had to follow his orders or face the possibility of death themselves. As mere soldiers, none of them knew beforehand that they were crossing into the United States to attack Columbus. They, therefore, could not be guilty of murder. Although the pardon was contested, most heavily by members of the New Mexico American Legion, the men were eventually freed.

Their freedom was short-lived, however. The New Mexico Supreme Court decided to uphold an injunction on the pardons and allowed their arrest by Luna County authorities. Governor Larrazolo publicly defended the pardons, again arguing that the men should not be viewed as bandits because they were merely participants in a military expedition. In April 1921, the sixteen Villistas were placed on trial in Deming for the murder of William T. Ritchie, the proprietor of the Commercial Hotel who was killed during the raid. Attorney R. F. Hamilton was appointed by the court to represent the accused. His main defense was, again, that the men had been forcibly conscripted into service under Villa and therefore were not guilty of murder. When the case was passed to the jury on April 28, 1921, deliberations ensued for only twenty-five minutes before a verdict of “not guilty” was returned.

Pancho Villa ceased to be a national leader and became a guerrilla leader in Chihuahua. While Villa still remained active, Carranza shifted his focus to dealing with the more dangerous threat posed by Zapata in the south. Villa’s last major military action was a raid against Ciudad Juárez in 1919. Following the raid, Villa suffered yet another major blow after Felipe Angeles, who had returned to Mexico in 1918 after living in exile for three years as a dairy farmer in Texas, left Villa and his small remaining militia. Angeles was later captured by Carranza’s forces and was executed on November 26, 1919.

Villa continued fighting, and conducted a small siege in Ascención, Durango, after his failed raid in Ciudad Juárez. The siege failed, and Villa’s new second-in-command, his longtime lieutenant Martín López, was killed during the fighting. At this point Villa agreed that he would cease fighting if it were made worth his while.

On May 21, 1920, a break for Villa came when Carranza, along with his top advisers and supporters, was assassinated by supporters of Álvaro Obregón. With his nemesis dead, Villa was now ready to negotiate a peace settlement and retire. On July 22, 1920, Villa was finally able to send a telegram to Mexican interim President Adolfo de la Huerta, which stated that he recognized Huerta’s presidency and requested amnesty. Six days later, de la Huerta met with Villa and successfully negotiated a peace settlement.

In exchange for his retirement from hostilities, Villa was granted a 25,000-acre hacienda in Canutillo, just outside Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, by the national government. This was in addition to the Quinta Luz estate that he owned with his wife, María Luz Corral de Villa, in Chihuahua, Chihuahua. The last remaining 200 guerrillas and veterans of Villa’s militia who were still loyal to him would reside with him in his new hacienda as well, and the Mexican government also granted them a pension that totaled 500,000 gold pesos. The 50 guerrillas who still remained in Villa’s small cavalry would also be allowed to serve as Villa’s personal bodyguards.

In 1923, as presidential elections approached, he re-involved himself in Mexican politics. On Friday, July 20, 1923, Villa was killed while visiting Parral. He frequently made trips from his ranch to Parral for banking and other errands, where he generally felt secure. Villa was usually accompanied by his entourage of Dorados (his bodyguards), but had gone into the town without them on that day, taking only a few associates with him. He went to pick up a consignment of gold from the local bank with which to pay his Canutillo ranch staff. While driving back through the city in his black 1919 Dodge touring car, Villa passed by a school, and a pumpkinseed vendor ran toward his car and shouted ¡Viva Villa!, a signal to a group of seven riflemen who then appeared in the middle of the road and fired more than 40 shots into the automobile. In the fusillade, nine dumdum bullets, normally used for hunting big game, hit Villa in the head and upper chest, killing him instantly.

While it has never been proven who was responsible for the assassination, most historians attribute Villa’s death to a well planned conspiracy, most likely initiated by Plutarco Elías Calles and Joaquín Amaro with at least tacit approval of the then president of Mexico, Álvaro Obregón.

In life, Pancho Villa helped fashion his own image as an internationally known revolutionary hero, starring as himself in Hollywood films and giving interviews to foreign journalists, most notably John Reed. After his death, he was excluded from the pantheon of revolutionary heroes until the Sonoran generals Obregón and Calles, whom he battled during the Revolution, were gone from the political stage. Villa’s exclusion from the official narrative of the Revolution might have contributed to his continued posthumous popular acclaim. He was celebrated during the Revolution and long afterward by corridos, movies about his life, and novels by prominent writers. In 1976, his remains were reburied in the Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City in a huge public ceremony not attended by his widow Luz Corral.

Villa’s impact on New Mexico continued throughout the twentieth century. In the 1960s, his name caused renewed conflict in Columbus when a new state park was proposed. Although many locals were outraged that the park was to be named after Villa, others welcomed the name as a vehicle for state and nationwide recognition. The lawmakers behind the proposed park defended their use of Villa’s name as a means of building unity between New Mexico and Chihuahua by letting bygones be bygones. Still, as Columbus resident Carl Graham put it, “It’s hard to figure. . . . Somebody comes in and wrecks the place. So what do they do — name everything in town in his honor.” Arthur Ravel and Jesús Carreon, who both lived through the raid, were equally puzzled and outraged. Following the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11, 2001, stories appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune which compared Villa’s raid to the actions of the modern terrorists.

Pancho Villa’s influence on events in New Mexico was mostly indirect, although interactions with prominent state politicians and a brief visit to Deming directly impacted the opinions of New Mexicans about the revolutionary general. Villa was highly adept at building a positive image for himself north of the border. That image was destroyed by the Columbus raid, which also placed New Mexico in the thick of international events. Residents of the border region already experienced the fear and uncertainty of potential revolutionary violence that regularly filtered through the porous border. At the same time, the border was reasserted as a very real dividing line between a backward nation caught in the throes of civil war and an advanced nation with imperial ambitions.

Today, the tiny town of Columbus, is a struggling community of 1,700 people. Poverty and drug problems are persistent. The town last made news in 2011, when its police chief, mayor and a village trustee pleaded guilty to gun-running, selling high-powered pistols to Mexican cartels.

Interest in Pancho Villa and his attack remains strong. The most famous episode in Columbus’ history continues to attract visitors. The State of New Mexico Parks Commission established Pancho Villa Historical Park and its museum in Columbus, near Cootes hill across the Palomas road from the site of Camp Furlong. The small museum dedicated to the raid is among the few attractions in the sleepy downtown.

On April 4, 2002, the United States Postal Service released a sheet of 50 self-adhesive stamps under the banner “Greetings from America” (Scott #3581-3610), portraying scenes from each state. The New Mexico stamp (Scott #3591) is the first stamp on the left in the seventh row from the top of the pane. It’s denominated 34 cents, printed in photogravure, and depicts a church in Santa Fe as well as Taos Pueblo.

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