Today in 1916, two hours before sunrise, more than 500 Mexican raiders led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa crossed the US border and attacked the small town of Columbus, New Mexico. The raid marked the beginning of a confrontation with the Mexican revolutionary and helped the citizens of the United States wake up to the fact that isolation and neutrality brought no guarantees of security and peace.
Columbus, New Mexico was a typical border town. Its only distinguishing characteristic in 1916 was Camp Furlong, a nearby Army post manned by 350 men from the 13th Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Meade, South Dakota. Their presence brought a sense of security to the area. But a revolution was raging in Mexico, a revolution that would soon spill across the border and into the lives of both the town's citizens and the unprepared soldiers of the camp.
The attack came from the southwest around 4:20AM. The raiders were not in Columbus to kill, but to raid. While their true intentions remain unknown, it is likely that the group was short on supplies, weapons and ammunition. This theory is supported by the fact that most of the damage was wrought in Columbus' business district. Had they wanted to destroy the town and kill its citizens, they most likely could have done so. Some townspeople believed that the rebels were retaliating against a local arms dealer who had received payment from Villa for weapons and then never delivered them.
As it was, the damage they caused was extensive. Most of the buildings in the business district were either totally consumed by flames or suffered major fire damage. Camp Furlong was attacked but received little damage, possibly because the raiders did not know how many soldiers were stationed there and did not want to find themselves surrounded by a numerically superior force. Many residents fled their homes and either headed for the desert, the local schoolhouse or the Hoover Hotel.
The noise from the raid alerted the garrison at Camp Furlong. Soldiers were soon running to the business district, weapons in hand. Two crew-served machine guns were set up, one in front of the Hoover Hotel and another on East Boundary Street. This created a deadly crossfire. As the sun began to rise and Pancho Villa's men ran from the murderous machine gun fire back towards the border, the damage assessment began. Almost 75 of Villa's men lay in the streets of Columbus; 18 Americans, mostly civilians, died there as well.
The American response to the raid was swift. General John "Black Jack" Pershing arrived from Fort Bliss, Texas, two days after the raid and established Columbus as his base of operations. In less than 48 hours, soldiers from other cavalry regiments began to arrive. Soon, they numbered over 5,000 and made Columbus, at least temporarily, the largest city in New Mexico. On March 16th, exactly a week after the raid, Pershing and his men crossed the border into Mexico on what came to be called the Punitive Expedition. Their mission was to capture Villa and scatter his rebel army.
Supporting a growing army of 5,000+ men in northern Mexico proved to be a logistical nightmare. Pershing could not initially gain permission to use the Northwest Railroad to transport men and supplies, so his army resorted to using trucks and mules. Army trucks of 1916 were not the specially-designed, rugged machines we know today---they were mostly bought straight from the manufacturer in the same configurations that were offered for sale to the public. On the crude and often non-existent roads of Mexico, maintenance soon became a major problem. In addition, thousands of horses needed to be shod, feed and watered at regular intervals.
Pershing had Army aircraft at his disposal for aerial reconnaissance, but the small, underpowered planes were easily grounded by strong winds. In addition, Villa's men knew the area well and utilized the rough terrain to remain virtually invisible. Still, Pershing's use of airplanes and his partial reliance on mechanized ground transportation helped bring the US Army into the 20th century.
The expedition eventually pushed 300 miles into Mexico, but Villa was nowhere to be found. The local population was of little help as many citizens supported the rebel leader and disliked the idea of foreign troops riding through their country. In January, 1917, the expedition was recalled; by then, it was a force of more than 10,000 soldiers. Pershing took his force to El Paso, Texas, where they were welcomed as heroes. The Punitive Expedition marked the last time a unit of United States Cavalry took to the battlefield on horseback.
Pershing called the journey into Mexico a learning experience, and a timely one: in April, 1917, the US Congress declared war on Germany, drawing the nation into the First World War. The strategies of modern combat devised in Mexico would serve the American Army well in Europe, considering that Pershing was placed in command of the American Expeditionary Forces. One of the young officers who gained valuable experience in Mexico was a man named George Patton.
Pancho Villa retired from rebellion after three more years of fighting. He reached an agreement with the Mexican government in which he would move to Durango. It was near there on July 20, 1923 that he was killed by gunmen while driving home. He was 45. Although never proven, it has been theorized that powerful players in the Mexican government arranged the assassination.