Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

The early 1900s were interesting times for the United States. We were beginning to be accepted as a modern nation by older powers as we increased the size of our military and took over colonial lands, following the lead of countries like Great Britain, France, Spain, Russia and Germany. Technology was also expanding by leaps and bounds, with the mass introduction of electricity, telephone service, automobiles and airplanes.

Amid this American growth, the neighboring country of Mexico fell into civil war. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) occurred after more than 30 years of rule by President Porfirio Diaz, whose democratic policies of his earlier years had changed into autocratic rule in his later years. A rigged election in 1910 threw the country into chaos, with various revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, and Federal forces fighting for power as subsequent Mexican presidents were forced into exile, assassinated, or overthrown at regular intervals.

Among those fighting for power was Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a revolutionary who had backed various presidential candidates over the years. By 1916, Villa had gone from national political and military leader supported by the United States, to a guerilla leader, making hit-and-run raids on his enemies as his power and army shrank. Angry at American support for new Mexican head-of-state and one-time ally Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa attacked American interests in Mexico, leading to the deaths of dozens of American workers.

In addition, between June 1915 and June 1916, there were 38 Mexican attacks from various groups upon American soil, resulting in the deaths of 26 American soldiers and 11 American civilians, not to mention the destruction and terror wrought by the raids. On March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa ordered an attack on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Reasons suggested for the attack include retribution for American support of Carranza or an attempt to acquire more supplies and military equipment to continue his fight against Carranza. Whatever reason, the attack lead to the deaths of 18 Americans, an attack upon an American cavalry regiment, and the burning of the American town.

The attack upon and destruction of Columbus led President Woodrow Wilson to send 5,000 soldiers of the United States Army into Mexico under General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. For the first time in American history, aircraft and trucks were used to ferry men and hunt Pancho Villa and his forces. The “Punitive Expedition, U. S. Army” as it was originally called, came to be called the “Pancho Villa Expedition” or “Mexican Expedition.” Although American forces were unable to capture Pancho Villa, they did defeat his main force and kill nearly 300 of his followers, including several of his top men. Further American forces were stationed in Texas, New Mexico and other border locations to guard against possible Mexican attacks; by the time the expedition ended, more than 10,000 American soldiers had been involved in the expedition or its support. Pancho Villa’s attack on Columbus was also the major reason behind the passing of the National Defense Act of 1916, which greatly expanded the US Army and National Guard and provided additional duties to them.

We’ll complete this story, and see the local connection to it, next week!

Eric Musgrove can be reached at ericm@suwgov.org or 386-362-0564.

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