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Borderlands: Pershing, Villa Forever Linked to Columbus 21 (2002-2003)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Pershing, Villa Forever Linked to Columbus

 Article first published in Vol. 21 (2002-2003)

By Mary Gutierrez, Anna Regalado, Daniel Aguilera, Estela Salazar, Alejandro Moriel and Wendy King

"Viva Villa!" and "Viva Mexico!" shouted the raiders over the sound of gunshots as they stormed the sleeping town of Columbus, N. M., on March 9, 1916. At 4 a.m., forces of Mexican revolutionary General Pancho Villa attacked the unsuspecting 400 citizens.

Entering Columbus from the Mexican town of Palomas, they pillaged and burned the bank, stores and other properties after looting ammunition, guns, and other supplies. This was Villa's second strike against the United States since it had recognized Venustiano Carranza as the Mexican leader instead of Villa.


Image caption: General Pershing stands next to Pancho Villa, apparently on friendly terms, before the Columbus Raid. Aultman Collection, El Paso Public Library

This raid by the disgruntled revolutionary brought about the Punitive Expedition which later influenced battle strategies of World War I.

After an American-supported defeat at Agua Prieta, Villa swore revenge on Americans. In January 1916, Villa's men executed 16 American mining engineers on their way to a mine near Santa Isabel in Chihuahua. In El Paso, Gen. Pershing declared martial law and Fort Bliss soldiers remained on alert, ready for Villa. 

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The tiny town of Columbus, however, did not suspect its residents could become victims, and Villa completely surprised them. Leon Metz writes that the villistas rode in wearing sombreros, khaki-colored uniforms and crisscross bullet-filled bandoleers on their chests.

On March 8, 1916, Villa had sent two officers to scout the town and nearby garrison. The next day his men went around a hill next to Camp Furlong, an American army cantonment with troops under the command of Lt. Ralph Lucas. There, Villa's men divided into two groups. One attacked the garrison, while the other attacked the town. Jessie Thompson, grandchild of William Ritchie who was murdered at the Commercial Hotel during the raid, described the terrorism her grandmother, mother and aunts survived. The terrified women said that the bandits shot in every direction while smashing storefronts with their rifles. They destroyed everything in sight, turning store goods into trash.

After stripping her grandmother's valuables from her and attempting to take those of her mother, the bandits forced her grandmother to lead them through the hotel where they destroyed every possible hiding place. They set the hotel on fire once they were satisfied the man they were looking for was not hiding - Sam Ravel.

Villa biographer Friedrich Katz describes Ravel as a merchant who had supplied weapons and ammunition to several revolutionaries. And although his brother Arthur Ravel denied that they had any dealings with Villa, a letter from Sam himself dispels that assertion. In those days, it was common to pay in advance for promised merchandise and ammunition. Villa had done so.

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However, President Wilson's embargo on Villa prevented Ravel from following through with the delivery. But Ravel neither delivered the merchandise nor returned the money. A furious Villa vowed revenge.

Villa was unaware of how severely his scouts had underestimated the garrison. Rather than the 50 soldiers they reported, the villistas confronted 600. It is not certain whether Villa actually partook in the raid or waited on the Mexican side.

Soldiers from the garrison responded quickly, and soon the villistas and soldiers met in the central part of Columbus. The burning hotel provided a light for the soldiers, who were then able to see and shoot their targets.

By 7:30 a.m., the villistas sounded their retreat, and it was over. William Ritchie, along with about 17 other Americans, lost their lives while the villistas lost about 100 men.

Besides the Ravel theory, historians have several other hypotheses as to why Villa attacked Columbus. Several references, including author Frank McLynn, tell us of a "notorious true incident in El Paso" a couple of days before the attack. Twenty Mexican prisoners were deloused with kerosene, a common practice at the time, but someone set fire to the kerosene, and the men were burned alive.

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Other historians, however, point to an existing German conspiracy to support a Mexican attack on the United States to keep the Americans from entering World War I on the side of the Allies. Any large-scale attack on Mexico would prevent the sale of materiel to the Allies and keep American forces occupied and out of the war. Katz says the Germans supported the Columbus attack, and German agents may have supplied Villa with weapons.

Katz says the most probable of reasons for Villa's attack on the Americans, besides pure revenge, was to gather much needed support from his fellow Mexicans against the United States.

Regardless of Villa's motive, Americans demanded action, and Wilson felt obliged to respond with the Punitive Expedition. Military advisors agreed that General John Pershing was the perfect man for the job. The original purpose of the expedition was to capture Villa, but historians say that Pershing was later told to scatter the followers of Villa and cooperate with Carranza's authorities.

John J. Pershing, a West Point graduate, first took an assignment in Fort Bayard, N. M., leading Troop L of the Sixth Cavalry against Apaches led by Geronimo. He then led the all-black 10th Cavalry, for which he was called "Black-Jack." Pershing was the ideal officer with a neatly trimmed mustache and immaculate uniform. He, too, was a natural born leader and was known as a strict but humane disciplinarian.

Pershing advanced quickly in his military career through his quick thinking and leadership skills. At the age of 44, Pershing married Helen Warren and they had four children. Tragically, his wife and three daughters died in a fire in San Francisco on August 27, 1915, while he was away. Only his son survived.

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Personal tragedy did not stop him from leading American forces. He had assumed command of Fort Bliss in 1914, and after attending the funerals of his family, he brought his son and his sister to Fort Bliss. On March 16, Pershing and 5,000 soldiers entered Chihuahua in an attempt to subdue revolutionary forces and capture Villa.

Pershing had to deal with complications in Mexico that made his mission almost impossible. The United States needed the Mexican government's permission to use the Northwestern Railroad to transport troops, food and equipment to Pershing's campsites, but at first, Carranza refused.

Journalist Frank Elser reported that Pershing resorted to the use of motor trucks and mule transport. The Mexicans' dislike of the now almost 7,000 American soldiers and the many rumors about Villa's whereabouts further complicated things.

The Mexicans protected Villa and misled the American troops. A growing Mexican legend depicted Villa as the adored hero of the masses. The Mexicans aided Villa, giving him money, horses and supplies.

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Pershing's cavalry had many difficulties on foreign soil. Horses were not acclimated to the Mexican climate, and horseshoes were scarce. The lack of forage was also hard on horses, many of which got sick from eating corn instead of oats. Many mounts succumbed to colic, exhaustion or starvation.

These hardships forced Pershing to introduce the use of aerial reconnaissance to search for the best routes to use in search of Villa. But the inadequately powered machines proved useless against the fierce winds and high mountains of northern Chihuahua.

General Pershing returned to the United States in early 1917 without Villa, but with something better: the experience he gained from fighting in difficult terrain and the guerrilla tactics used by Villa. He took this valuable information to Europe when the United States entered WWI, and he became Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces.

The United States' attention was now in Europe, but battles continued in Mexico. Villa would continue his guerilla warfare in Chihuahua for three more years until he and the government worked out a deal that retired him to Canutillo, a hacienda in Durango. He spent a great deal of time and money restoring and enlarging the damaged hacienda.

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His pride and joy was the school he built for all children in the area. Although highly intelligent, Villa had no formal education, but even he attended classes at the school he built. His idyllic country life would end, however, on the morning of July 20, 1923.

Villa, driving his own car, set out from Parral on his way home to Canutillo when shots rang out. He was hit by nine bullets and killed instantly. He was 45. Though it was never proved, evidence pointed to complicity by future Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles.

Along with tributes in Mexico, Columbus has established a museum dedicated to the life and career of Pancho Villa. Visitors may travel to Columbus for a look at Villa's hat, pictures, a replica of his death mask and other memorabilia by taking the highway from Santa Teresa, only a 60-minute drive.

Pershing, by contrast, lived a distinguished 88 years, dying in Washington, D.C., in 1948. He was the first to be named "General of the Armies" since George Washington. He became a military hero for his activities in World War I and served as Army chief of Staff.

Today, he is remembered in El Paso with Pershing Drive, the Pershing House on Fort Bliss grounds and other landmarks.  Francisco Villa and John J. Pershing, two military geniuses, different as night and day, are forever linked in history by the Punitive Expedition.

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Tags: biography

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