*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Shortly before daylight on March 9, 1916, some 500 Mexican guerillas moved through the darkness outside Columbus, New Mexico. Led by Pancho Villa, a revolutionary looking for revenge after betrayal by the United States government, the men set the small town on fire and killed 18 Americans before retreating into Mexico. The attacks — the largest assault on the continental US by a foreign force until the hijackings September 11, 2001– nearly led to war between the North American neighbors.
Born in the state of Chihuahua in north-central Mexico, Villa spent much of his youth acting as a part-time criminal. By his late teens, he was an outlaw riding through the neighboring state of Durango with a group of robbers. When caught at the age of 24, Villa managed to avoid prosecution and secured a position in the federal army instead — one he ran away from within months of his appointment. From 1903 until 1910, he moved through society as a sort of gentleman thief, bouncing back and forth between legal and illegal ventures based mostly on his whims until a chance meeting with Abraham Gonzalez helped Villa focus his energies.
According to Gonzalez, Villa could become a Robin Hood-like figure if he wanted, subverting the rule of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz by attacking wealthy landowners and, when possible, sharing the property amongst peasants and soldiers. Intrigued by the possibilities and eager to see Diaz ousted, Villa joined the revolutionaries in the north and helped drive Diaz into hiding.
The leadership vacuum created by Diaz’s flight left many hungry for the seat of power. Francisco Madero, whom Villa supported, took over as President of Mexico in 1911 and held the office for just 15 months until a plot by his former general, Victoriano Huerta, led to his assassination. Huerta quickly proclaimed himself the interim leader, angering a number of Mexicans loyal to the dead president.
Villa himself was furious. Opting to join Venustiano Carranza’s and follow his Plan of Guadalupe to remove Huerta, Villa suppressed his reservations about Carranza for the sake of avenging Madero. Even with his misgivings, Villa served admirably as the head of the Division del Norte, planning and executing raids on behalf of the Constitutionalists for months. Immensely popular with those living closer to the border with the US, he found willing recruits at almost every turn.
About the same time, President of the United States Woodrow Wilson began to exert diplomatic pressure on Carranza’s behalf. Calling Huerta’s administration a “government of butchers,” Wilson removed the US ambassador for helping bring Huerta to power and offered help to the rebels by way of weapons and other supplies. Carranza would ride the support to victory, taking over as leader in August 1914.
By that time, Villa had gone from being suspicious of Carranza to hating him outright. Once Carranza’s involvement in the murder of Gonzalez, Villa’s close friend from his days in Chihuahua, was confirmed, he could not stand to see the man in power. Coordinating with his fellow rebel Emiliano Zapata, who led the southern armies, peasant armies continued to strike out at government officials and create problems for administrators.
Watching from afar for the better part of a year, Wilson felt unsatisfied with the heavy-handed policies Carranza employed. Though he, like Villa, knew Carranza to only be marginally better than Huerta, Wilson hoped to see stability and progress toward a democratically-elected government in Mexico. In a decision that would come back to haunt him later, Wilson initially opted to back Villa’s forces before changing his mind in late 1915 because he believed Carranza was finally on the right track.
Undermined by the Americans, Villa fled into the mountains of Chihuahua with 200 loyal men at his side. Determined to make Wilson pay for his slight, the Villistas launched an assault on a train moving past Santa Isabel and killed 18 American workers around mid-January 1916. The lone survivor passed details along to the press, forcing Villa to admit he ordered the raid, though he refused to say he wanted the riders slaughtered.
Not yet content with the havoc he had caused, Villa set to work with his guerillas — suddenly a force of 500 after his gruesome success — for an audacious raid into the US. According to historians, it seems logical Villa believed the assault would serve two purposes: 1) striking fear into the Americans living near the border with Mexico and 2) allowing his soldiers to grab supplies from the military outpost in the small New Mexico settlement of Columbus. (No record exists of Villa’s true intentions.)
Camped near Palomas, Mexico, three miles south of Columbus, Villa and his men waited for information about the contingent of US Army soldiers stationed within the town. Informed the defenders amounted to just 30 men, the group of about 500 moved to the north during the early morning hours of March 9, 1916. Riding into Columbus from two directions, the Mexicans shouted “Viva Villa!” while grabbing whatever valuables or weapons they could carry and throwing torches on American homes.
Though most of the residents and soldiers were asleep — the assault started around 4:15am — the garrison recovered quickly to pursue the Villistas. Unknown to the raiders, the scouts had only spotted a small group of the Army unit on site. Some 330 men were available to pursue the attackers and, led by a wounded Major Frank Tompkins, the 13th Cavalry inflicted severe casualties on the retreating Mexicans.
After an hour’s worth of fighting, Villa stood in front of his men and proclaimed the mission a victory. Based on the additional horses and military equipment stolen, one would find it difficult to disagree. He had, however, lost 80 men and seen an additional 100 wounded, a significant portion of his fighting force. Further, the Villistas’ action angered the even-tempered Wilson and invited a full military response.
Six days after Villa crossed into the US, General John Pershing received orders from the American President to lead a 5,000-man hunting party after the outlaw and his men. On March 19th, pilots from the 1st Aero Squadron were in the air over northern Mexico attempting to find Villista encampments as American soldiers marched across the border and fanned out across Chihuahua in two “flying columns.”
Almost immediately, disputes arose between the neighboring governments. Carranza’s administration, wary of having Pershing on their soil, prevented the Army from using Mexican railroads for supply. Trains were forced to stop at the US-Mexico border and unload their cargo onto trucks for transport into Chihuahua. Through a series of battles during the latter half of 1916 and early 1917, the Americans inflicted heavy casualties but were unable to capture the man himself.
Carranza, impatient with the US pursuing a Mexican citizen in his country for so long, withdrew permission for Pershing to continue operating south of the border in late January 1917. It was just as well, as far as Wilson was concerned — the deterioration of the Americans’ relationship with Germany meant he needed the soldiers to begin training for entry into World War I.
Villa would never again venture onto American soil, instead choosing to retire from public life after Carranza was killed in May 1920. Granted a 25,000-acre estate in Chihuahua as part of the agreement to step away from politics, he received a generous pension from the interim government. While driving through the town of Parral on July 20, 1923, Villa was assassinated by seven gunmen. In the decades after his death, he would be elevated to the status of national hero by Mexicans and cult figure to others — his raid is celebrated by, of all people, the citizens of Columbus to this day.
Also On This Day:
632 – The Last Sermon of the Prophet Muhammad occurs
1933 – President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt begins the New Deal by submitting the Emergency Banking Act to Congress
1934 – Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut and the first man in space, is born
1945 – The US Army Air Forces begin the Bombing of Tokyo, one of the most destructive raids in history
1959 – The American International Toy Fair sees the debut of the Barbie doll
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