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Black Jack’s Mexican Goose Chase

July 2024
30min read

When Pancho Villa sacked an American town, Pershing was ordered to find him and bring him to book. But the orders failed to say where — or how

Early in March 19, Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s riders were operating closer to the United States border than ever before and almost daily firing upon our patrols from across the barbed-wire line, causing several American enlisted men to become quite dead as a result. On the first day of March a family of ranchers named Wright was kidnapped near Juárez, whereupon Mr. Wright had been murdered and his wife, Maud, taken by the raiders to face a perhaps even more harrowing denouement. But this was merely the latest of many incidents affecting relations between Mexico and the United States.

All told, about 170 American citizens had been killed by Mexican bandits, or factional troops, during recent years. Admittedly, most of the victims had died in Mexico, which had been in the throes of revolution since 1910. Under such circumstances, any adjacent foreigners are very likely to get hurt. But how to explain Villa’s recent plundering of Nogales, Arizona? What on earth was the meaning of it? And it was followed by the horrible affair at Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, in January, when a group of Villistas had stopped a train, ordered out the American passengers (nineteen employees of a mining company), and killed all but one. For what purpose? Nobody north of the border knew for certain, but the United States went wild with fury, and Senate Republicans petitioned the President to send our Army and Navy into action.

Was Pancho deliberately seeking United States intervention? He was not the man he used to be, but he still controlled 5,000 mounted irregulars; he was still the military emperor of Chihuahua, and quite openly he was threatening to kill all U.S. citizens in his state. A State Department agent named Carothers had already predicted that if the revolutionary wing received no support from Uncle Sam in its machinations against Venustiano Carranza (Mexico’s official First Chief) the irresponsible Villa would surely bring matters to a head by attacking some American town. As a result of this warning and recent depredations, six troops of the 13th U.S. Cavalry had been dispatched to Columbus, New Mexico, two miles north of the border. On March 7, Colonel H. J. Slocum, commanding, was advised that Villa and a large force were two miles south of the Border Gate.

Regrettably, next evening less than 200 of Slocum’s men were in Columbus proper. Others were garrisoned at Bailey’s Ranch and Gibson’s Ranch, three and fourteen miles west, respectively, and some officers were in El Paso, where they had been playing polo that afternoon. When at 2:30 A.M. Villa and a thousand men swept into the town from three directions, shouting “Viva Villa! Viva Mexico! Muerte a los americanos!” the cavalry regiment was badly split and taken by surprise. First to die was the sentry guarding the officer of the day’s shack. Within minutes the chatter of small arms, the pounding of hoofs, the yelling of the raiders, and the crackling of flames were mingling with the cries of women and babies to create a hellish cacophony. The town grocer, James Dean, was shot down in the middle of Main Street. As the Ritchie Hotel burst into flames, Mr. Ritchie ran out, and was held at gunpoint by the Mexicans. He begged for his life, offering all the money on his person: fifty dollars. They divested him of it and then killed him anyway.

Meanwhile American cavalrymen were bringing down substantial numbers of Villistas, partly with four machine guns, two of which soon jammed. (Splendid guns for fighting a war “between sun-up and sundown,” subsequently remarked the New York Sun.) The sergeant of F Troop was heard to call out: “Pick your men, there is hardly any more ammunition.” Lieutenant W. A. McCain killed one Mexican with his pistol butt. Another died at the end of a baseball bat. Villa’s men emptied Mr. Walker’s hardware store of saddles and other goods. Riderless horses and unmounted men darted in all directions, surrealistically illuminated by the flames of the Lemmon Store and the Ritchie Hotel, while most unarmed residents of the town tried to flee. Hidden within houses and behind improvised barricades, the white troopers and armed civilians took a murderous toll of the raiders. A sixteen-year-old boy named Arthur Ravel was grabbed by two Mexicans and walked down the main street, past the groaning, dying body of Mr. Ritchie. En route one was killed. The other cautioned Arthur to keep walking. Near the town drugstore, the remaining Mexican was also shot down. Saved by someone who knew how to handle a rifle, the boy ran for cover.

Several Villistas were caught in a crossfire as they crouched in clear sight against a kitchen wall. Direct hits and ricochets almost wiped them out. Mrs. Wright, a hysterical witness of the orgy, had been thrust into a nearby ditch. When Pancho Villa happened to ride by, she caught his eye and begged to be let free. He motioned her curtly toward the burning town. She ran to the house of a woman friend, whose husband lay dead on the threshold. It was now almost dawn, Mexican bugles were sounding retreat, and the remaining men of the 13th Cavalry were approaching Columbus in the best tradition of a television western, except that they were too late. As Major Frank Tompkins and other avengers clattered down the main street, past the smouldering wreckage, past scores of brown and white bodies sprawled in the dust, eighteen gringos were dead and about twice that number wounded. The cavalrymen pursued the Mexicans over the border, breaking through three rear-guard blocks, and later claimed that they killed 120 of them.

Six days later, a punitive column under Brigadier General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing also crossed the border after Villa. The fat was in the fire.

Now we were involved in the tag end of a foreign revolution, militarily penetrating a foreign land with which we were at peace; we had been intolerably provoked, and our motives were pure; still, here was Pershing in Mexico with 6,600 men at a time when our involvement in the great European conflagration seemed increasingly likely. Germany, although the evidence that she was financing Villa is questionable, was of course delighted.

A punitive expedition is not technically an act of war, provided that the acting Power is strong and civilized, while the chastised nation is backward and weak. Certainly Mr. Wilson, although he and Sr. Carranza disliked and mistrusted each other, did not desire hostilities with Carranza’s government, which he had recently recognized after two years of “watchful waiting"; and the Columbus raid was an outrage which cried aloud for vengeance. On the other hand it was fairly well understood by 1916 that Villa was an enemy of his own government. Was it not President Carranza’s job to punish him for the Columbus affair?

In 1914 Mexico’s reactionary President Huerta had resigned as a result of pressures from Washington, and we must revert to this point in order to envision the circumstances a year and a half later. Major General Hugh Scott, U.S. Chief of Staff, was strongly backing Villa for the presidency, and so was Secretary of State Bryan, who considered him an “idealist” because he neither drank nor smoked. General Villa was then the strongest war lord in Mexico. His personal army had swelled to about 50,000 men who were on the verge of taking Mexico City; but it was Venustiano Carranza—a huge, egotistical politician with moderate views on the land question—who took control of the Mexican government August 20, 1914. Immediately he advised President Wilson to remove his troops from Veracruz, where a large U.S. force had been stationed all through the late spring and summer. [On April 10, some U.S. sailors had been arrested by the Mexicans and quickly released, with an official apology. But the American commander also demanded a 21-gun salute to the Stars and Stripes; when Huerta refused, Wilson backed the demand, Congress backed Wilson, and on April 22, the day alter a German ship arrived at Veracruz with arms for Huerta, U.S.troops entered the city. In the action, 126 Mexicans were killed.]  After three months of prodding and veiled insults, Wilson did so. By this time the two presidents had come to despise each other in earnest. “1 have never known a man more impossible to deal with,” complained the American. And too late he learned that Carranza’s intention was to reserve all petroleum and mineral rights for the benefit of the Mexican people. Suddenly Carranza was issuing a stream of legal decrees which were virtual death warrants against U.S. property interests in Mexico. The man, it turned out, was a thief, a communist, a double-dealer. Mr. Wilson refused to recognize him or his government.

Meanwhile Pancho had been awarding himself various small titles, such as general-in-chief of the Mexican armies and president of Mexico. As 1915 dawned, civil war between Carranza, Villa, Zapata, Obregón, and other gun-happy generals was in full swing; more U.S. citizens were being killed below the Rio Grande; and Mr. Wilson was writing furious notes to the de facto First Chief in which he warned that U.S. rights must be respected, that Carranza must terminate his anti-religious program and plans for expropriating U.S. property, and so on. He advised all Americans to leave Mexico. Forty thousand out of fifty thousand departed before the end of the year. In Chihuahua, General Pancho Villa had reached his apogee of power when suddenly he was dealt two mortal blows.

First came a military catastrophe. In the past Villa had shown talent as a resourceful tactician with a sense for communications and for handling large masses of supplies. Except for a couple of drawn engagements, he had not once been defeated in battle since the revolution had begun. In the autumn of 1915, he attacked Carranza’s army in an impregnable position at Agua Prieta (south of Douglas, Arizona) and was thrown back with fearful losses. Four times Villa sent his screaming cavalry head-on against the barricaded Federales, in futile charges which cost him over 5,000 men. Demoralized and with the cream of its fighters gone, the rebel army melted away as it retreated toward the mountains. What had happened? President Wilson, having extended de facto recognition to Carranza’s government, had allowed Carranza’s troops and supplies to utilize U.S. railroads from Laredo and El Paso to Douglas. The same privilege had been denied Villa’s men; outnumbered, they had been drawn into a trap.

At this Villa flew into a maniacal rage and swore that he would revenge himself upon the gringos. General Scott, too, was perturbed. When early in 1915 Villa had demanded the confiscation of U.S. property in areas he controlled, Scott had talked him out of it. Now Scott said:

We permitted Carranza to send his troops through the United States by our rails to crush Villa. I did what I could to prevent this … I had never been put in such a position in my life. After Villa had given up millions of dollars at the request of the state department … they made him an outlaw. He was a wild man who … might very well have thought that I double-crossed him …

The last straw had been Wilson’s grudging recognition of Carranza’s government that October. By 1916 Pancho was financially squeezed, down to a few thousand ragged die-hards, terrorizing the north of Mexico, merciless in his treatment of while men—the victim, in short, of official U.S. policy.

At the time General Villa was thirty-eight years old, an inch or two under six feet, slightly obese, with a handlebar mustache and narrow, murderous eyes. His real name was Doroteo Arango, which at an early age he had changed to Francisco Villa (the “Pancho” came later), the name of a celebrated outlaw of former days. From birth he and his family were impoverished mestizo serfs who planted cotton at Hacienda Rio Grande under the godlike supervision of Don Arturo López Negrete and his degenerate son, Leonardo. Pancho was in and out of jail for years on minor offenses until Leonardo deflowered his sister, Mariana. An artist with la pistola , Villa killed him in a stately duel of the usual western type, fled, and joined up with various bandit gangs which infested northern Mexico. Though semiliterate, he gradually rose to high command among the anti-Huerta revolutionaries.

His appetite for women ran in odd directions; he was known to violate fourteen-year-old Mexican girls and respectable middle-aged women, sometimes American. At the same time he was devotedly married to a placid woman (she had to be placid) named María Luz Corral. He was at the mercy of children, whom he loved and for whom he would do anything. Mad for money wherewith to acquire women and power, he spent it uncaringly in any amount.

His political views were vaguely left-wing. Mainly they ran along the lines of redistributing the swollen estates. The masses loved him and considered him a kind of Robin Hood. A nurse in El Paso described him as a “nice-looking, fair-skinned and blue-eyed man … he plundered and robbed the wealthy, but he was a humanitarian and distributed the loot to the poor. People would line up in long queues and he would give them money and food.” He combined courage with cruelty. Once when being interviewed by a newspaperman, he was bothered by the shouting of a drunken soldier. Villa walked to the window, killed the man with a shot, and then resumed his talk.

Carranza he hated, not only because the First Chief was a conservative by Villa’s rough standards but because he was a pompous civilian who had achieved power without fighting Huerta. Concerning their first meeting, Villa later said,

I embraced him energetically, but with the first few words we spoke my blood turned to ice. I saw that I could not open my heart to him.… He never looked me in the eye and during our entire conversation emphasized our differences in origin … lectured me on things like decrees and laws which I could not understand … There was nothing in common between that man and me …

Sartorially Pancho was no prize. During the early years of the revolution he had been resplendent in a general’s gold-braided uniform, but after years of fighting he had tired of appearances. Usually he affected a brown turtle-neck sweater under a sweat-stained sombrero. Sometimes he wore an unpressed suit, a vest, and a shirt minus a tie.

Frequently he lived in El Paso in a hideout at Second and El Paso streets, visited the Juárez race track with such notables as General Scott, Colonel Matt Winn of Kentucky Derby fame, Tom Mix (later to be an actor), various gringo aerial pilots such as Mickey McGuire and Wild Bill Heath, Captain Sam Dreben (“the Fighting Jew”), and Colonel Giuseppe Garibaldi of the Italian liberator’s family. He was never without a bodyguard. He embraced no religion. Most officers caught by his men were killed. Once when overrunning Juárez, he personally supervised the execution of seventy-five Federalists. Another atrocity was described by a doctor in La Colorada:

Presently there appeared a group of men accompanied by soldiers on the opposite side of the arroyo … Villa arose and … spoke a few words, which I did not hear, to the soldiers, and the men were immediately lined up against the wall. Villa then personally shot and killed these eight men with his shooting iron, turned to us and said, “This is what happens to enemies of Pancho Villa. People are your friends or your enemies. There can be no neutrals …”

He walked in a slouch. On horseback he was grace personified. He spoke little. Usually he was expressionless, except for an occasional grin which became a sinister trademark in U.S. cartoons. He loved dancing; at one wedding he danced for thirty-six hours. “He is the most natural human being I ever saw, natural in the sense of being nearest to a wild animal,” wrote an observer; another said that “he was as unmoral as a wolf.” A journalist described his eyes as “never still and full of energy and brutality … intelligent as hell and as merciless.”

This was Francisco “Pancho” Villa—social revolutionary, rapist, commander of cavalry, megalomaniac—the unbalanced and almost brilliant idol of northern Mexico. It was Pershing’s job to get him dead or alive.

The man who led the third and last U.S. invasion of Mexican soil was born in 1860. Both Major General Scott, Chief of Staff, and his assistant, Major General Tasker Bliss, had recommended Pershing for the assignment over the man on the spot (Major General Frederick Funston), who outranked him. Commissioned in the cavalry in 1886, he was immediately put to work against the Sioux and Apaches. During the Spanish-American War he had served at Santiago (“the coolest man under fire I ever saw,” noted his commanding officer), and next performed brilliantly in the Philippines at the turn of the century, climaxing his efforts in 1903 by subduing the fanatical Moros of Mindanao. Three years later President Roosevelt promoted him to brigadier general from the rank of captain, passing him over 862 senior officers.

By 1915 he and his contingent were garrisoned at Fort Bliss. While not adequately equipped (three-quarters of their saddles were defective, trucks were lacking, replacement supplies were inadequate, there were too few light guns), these men were reasonably well trained, although most of them were recruits. Pershing was not charming, nor was it his job to be charming. He was severe but fair, tall, slender, gray-haired, immaculately tailored, well-modulated in speech. He lived by a code of ethics so honorable as to be almost incomprehensible to lesser men. It is hard to imagine two humans more different than this one and Villa.

One morning that August Pershing received a telephone call from San Francisco informing him that his wife and three of their four children had just died in a fire which had swept their wooden house in the Presidio. By October he was back on duty, somewhat more silent but otherwise unchanged. Only in letters to friends did he express emotion. “I shall never be relieved of the poignancy of grief … It is too overwhelming!” The training and inspections went on, even more intensively. “I shall be tied down with this border patrol indefinitely. I am working just as hard as possible and am really fortunate to have something to do.” So ended a bad year for Pershing and Villa; and ten weeks later came the nightmare in Columbus.…

The idea was to catch Villa unawares. On March 10 the White House stated that he would be captured “by a swift surprise movement.” Five days later, after mountains of newspaper publicity, Pershing’s column proceeded south from Columbus. (“Whose fault is it,” fumed the Army & Navy Journal, “that the Army was obliged to advertise for 54 motor trucks before it could venture across the frontier?”) What followed was to be an ironic footnote to the cavalry tradition established by Stuart and Sheridan in the Civil War, and given added luster by Chaffee, Lawton, and other Indian fighters.

Republican periodicals were especially outraged over the massacre. The New York Tribune stated that “the Bryan-Wilson policy … of dodging the duty of protecting them [U.S. citizens in Mexico] when living, and of avenging them when dead, has borne its perfect fruit.” Shrieked the editorial voice of William Randolph Hearst, who preferred to have us embroiled with Mexico rather than fighting alongside the British he abhorred: “California and Texas were part of Mexico once … What has been done in California and Texas by the United States can be done ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THE SOUTHERN BANK OF THE PANAMA CANAL AND BEYOND.”

And he further suggested: “Our flag should wave over Mexico as the symbol of the rehabilitation of that unhappy country and its redemption to humanity and civilization.” From New Mexico’s distraught Senator Ashurst (who had known some of the Columbus victims) came a demand for more “grape shot” and less “grape juice”—referring to the nonalcoholic soirees conducted by that contemptible pacifist, Mr. Bryan. “Nothing less than Villa’s life can atone for the outrage,” declared Pulitzer’s New York World .

Army recruiting stands were hastily erected to sign up 20,000 volunteers. In Chicago an enormous banner reading “Help Catch Villa” was carried behind a military band. The volunteers did not materialize as anticipated. After a trickle of 1,269 had responded, Congress passed an emergency bill authorizing the Regular Army to expand to maximum war strength. And while Count Johann-Heinrich von Bernstorff in Washington did not like the looks of large-scale U.S. mobilization, he cabled his government with relief: “It seems to be increasingly probable that the punitive expedition against Villa will lead to full-dress intervention … We are, I believe, safe from an act of aggression …”

Censorship was put into effect, while the nation restlessly awaited news from the field, and the Springfield Republican worriedly predicted that catching Villa might after all present problems:”… he commanded large armies and won important battles. He was Carranza’s big fist in the earlier days … has a certain untutored genius in war, and his brute force … makes many humble peons his adoring followers.”

Perhaps so, but Pershing would have the ardent cooperation of the Mexican Federal Army. Or would he? For suddenly Carranza had flown into another of his famous rages. It was true, he told Wilson, that they had agreed to permit each other to chase bandits across either side of the border, but this had nothing to do with the Columbus affair. It was not supposed to be retroactive. He demanded that Wilson pull Pershing back. U.S. reaction was as might be expected from people who were only trying to be co-operative. The New York American sneered: “Carranza is no more President of Mexico than he is Emperor of China.” A warning note was sounded by the World : “No complications with the Mexican Government need attend a punitive expedition, unless Carranza himself creates the complications.”

In time Wilson got the First Chief’s sullen consent to a temporary operation “for the sole purpose of capturing the bandit Villa.” Tempers were short all around. Then followed a nasty scandal in the States when it was learned that Villa’s agents were openly purchasing guns and ammunition from U.S. operators in El Paso. (“Business as usual,” one typical cartoon was captioned, showing shadowy figures trading over the border.) In Chihuahua, Pancho more than ever was the sentimental favorite of the peons, for now their hero was at war with both Carranza and the United States; and dolefully they crooned:

Maybe they have guns and cannons, /Maybe they are a lot stronger, /We have only rocks and mountains—/But we know how to last longer …

Bitterly the citizens of Columbus buried their dead, while the Mexicans who had been killed were thrown into a mass grave. In neighboring Texas, Governor Ferguson implored the President to seize Mexico if it took “ten or fifteen years to do it.” But concerning the menace to U.S. property there, the World opined, “Americans having interests in Mexico have backed the wrong horse. They put their money on an aristocracy instead of on democracy.” And the days slipped by angrily and excitedly, amid mounting suspicions that Pershing was getting no results.

General Funston, in command of the Mexican border at Fort Sam Houston, was directed by Newton D. Baker (our new Secretary of War and another devout pacifist until the moment of his appointment; Wilson and his Cabinet were apparently riddled with pacifism) “to make all practical use of the aeroplanes at San Antonio, Texas, for observation.” There were eight of them—the Provisional 1st Aero Squadron, composed of Jenny trainers—and Baker’s suggestion was sound, for Villa knew every inch of the hills, the forests, the ravines, the brushlands, the mountain passes, of northern Mexico. Without air-to-ground intelligence, Pershing’s chances of catching him were close to nil. Wilson was warned by Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane that a fiasco could make us a laughing stock among all Latin Americans. And suppose Villa did accept battle and resisted somewhat too successfully? To Cecil Spring-Rice, Britain’s ambassador to Washington, the thought was most distasteful, for such an event would further delay Uncle Sam’s entry in the European war; and nervously he cabled London: “A check might mean a general attack, and … a serious war.”

Ostensibly Carranza and Wilson were co-operating to put an end to Villa’s outrages. A cartoon in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, however, mordantly epitomized this relationship; it shows Mexico in the person of Carranza seated tensely in a chair, with a tiny apple labeled “Villa” on his head; Uncle Sam is aiming a rifle at the apple and saying, “STEADY, NOW!” Again and again we patiently explained that Pershing’s column was merely on police duty, to help Carranza rule Mexico competently. But scarcely had Pershing pierced the international boundary when Carranza once more became suspicious. When was Pershing going to get out? Why had there been no time limit on the agreement? Wilson placated him, but from Mexico City Carranza issued secret orders to his Federales in the north concerning actions to be taken if “Black Jack” should overplay his hand.

Meanwhile, Villista forces had the effrontery to raid Glen Springs, Boquillas, Eagle Pass, and Dryden in rapid succession, killing and capturing more Texans and causing further property damage. Next Villa attacked the Mexican town of Guerrero and slaughtered Carranza’s entire garrison. But, it was claimed, his leg had been amputated as the result of a wound, and reportedly a brilliant maneuver had cut him and his men off from the mountains. These rumors turned out to be false. Matters were baffling, especially since Federales and Villistas were all mixed together in Chihuahua and looked exactly alike; and Carranza was now insisting that Pershing’s troops and supplies must not ride any Mexican railway, that his men had to stay out of all towns, and that he must use only north-south roads. The General began to perceive that his was a more delicate job than anticipated. Fortunately he was somewhat acquainted with the crazy terrain, over which he had chased Geronimo years ago. As chief guide he employed Alexander Carson, a man who had once been kidnapped by Pancho and knew Chihuahua as well as any American. At the same time, Villa moved his wife and children to Cuba. Was a showdown near? By late April Pershing had been strengthened to 9,000 effectives and had reached Casas Grandes, ninety miles south of the border. As yet there had been no serious contact with the enemy—either enemy.

The ground over which Pershing led his eight cavalry regiments, five artillery batteries, and five infantry regiments, plus various ordnance, Signal Corps, quartermaster, ambulance, and engineer detachments, is a study in contrasts. To the west lie the Sierra Madre Mountains, which work southward in a broadening, almost impenetrable mass of granite. Eastward, an elevated plain 6,000 feet above sea level merges into desert country. The western plateau can be desperately hot or freezing cold or a wind-swept fury of snow and sand. On the desert nothing lives but the mesquite, the wild goose, the yucca, the tarantula, the agave, the rattlesnake, the cactus, the horned toad, and a few hapless Indians. Through this deadly wasteland ran the Mexican National Railway.

Chihuahua is (and was) the richest of the Mexican states, about twice the size of New York. It abounded in silver, lead, gold, and copper. Countless cattle grazed in the beautiful uplands, where timber, barley, cotton, beans, and wheat also grew. Its population in 1916 was 327,000. Through coercion or inclination, virtually all these souls were loyal to Pancho Villa and apathetic toward Carranza’s Federales, who were supposed to be preserving law and order. But many Federal troops served cynically under Villa as well, on occasions that promised to be interesting; and of course the civilian populace took neither side when the chips were down. No peón or shopkeeper cared to proffer information— especially to the gringos—unless it was his intention to commit suicide next morning anyway.

Pershing divided his men into two columns—West and East—both of which used cowboys, half-breeds, Apaches, gun fighters, and gamblers as guides. Immediately the two-timing commenced. A typical comment to any question put by an American was: “ Si, we know Pancho. He stopped here last night. An hour ago he went to the south. Si, the man we saw is the hombre you are after. He is a big fat man with a black mustache, and Carranza says he is a bastard. Si, Si, we know Pancho.” Pershing joined the west column and worked his way down along the edge of the Sierra Madre, using an automobile as his headquarters. He carried no equipment worth mentioning and rode with only one aide. Two other cars completed the tiny safari of command, one of them a rattling wreck occupied by Floyd Gibbons of the Chicago Tribune and Robert Dunn of the New York Tribune, who had purchased it by signing a demand note inscribed on wrapping paper.

A buzzer telegraph line was hastily strung up as Pershing moved south, to keep him in touch with United States signalmen, and after two weeks, the General dictated his first communiqué: “Our troops seem to be pressing him, but I won’t hazard any predictions. Villa is no fool—it may be that the campaign has just started.” A scout sitting nearby commented, “As I figure it, General, we have got Villa entirely surrounded on one side.”

Nothing much, really, had happened in a military sense. There had been occasional brushes with Villa’s men, and the 7th Cavalry had just scattered some raiders and wounded Villa in the leg. The crack 10th (Negro) Cavalry was swinging south through the dry belt, followed by Major Frank Tompkins and his 13th.

There were plenty of rumors. Some natives brought Pershing a pair of bloody boots and a bullet-riddled shirt; Villa, they announced solemnly, was dead. A few days later he was also killed in Santa Ana. He had also been crippled by a Carranzista in Juárez. The peones told the disgusted Americans dozens of other silly yarns. For observational purposes, Pancho had transformed himself into an agave plant. He was a little brown dog that yipped at the heels of U.S. cavalry mounts. He put horse shoes on backward, so that Pershing’s scouts would go the wrong way. He was disporting with the señoritas of Ojos Azules while Pershing’s men were only a few miles away—the only report which had a ring of truth. For on the night of March 30, as Pershing made camp near San Geronimo, 7,500 feet up in the Sierra Madre, in a blinding snowstorm, the fact was that Villa was traveling in a buggy toward Durango with 140 men. He had not been able to stay away from the expedition. It had fascinated him. He had kept scouting it, teasing it; and finally it had fetched him a bullet above the right knee, putting him out of action for weeks.

Much as the Mexicans resented foreign troops pouring into their country, business did boom. Prices soared and café windows carried the un-Mexican sign “Open All Night.” Along the lines of march Chinamen set up little booths and sold souvenirs to the Americans. The men chewed on syrupy cactus candy, pink tamales, and big black Mexican cigars; they tried out “Mex” cigarettes like Alfonsos and Belmontes; they drank Mex beer and mescal and sotol and tequila until drunkenness came to be a problem. Some of them sickened from the mouldy meat and dysentery-laden water. And business was exceptionally good for the perfumed Mexican prostitutes in little towns along the trek southward. Best of all, the gringos often paid in silver coin—not in the wretched paper currency which Villa and Carranza forced down the throats of their subjects. On the other hand, there was much resistance to official U.S. receipts; with them horses, cattle, flour, and other commodities were purchased until the Mexicans learned that it could take many months to work their way through U.S. red tape and get their cash.

In the Sierra Madre foothills, icicles hung from the whiskers of men and horses, and the water in canteens froze solid. Horseshoes and nails were so scarce that the men picked them up in any condition and saved them in oiled bags. Cash was short: Colonel W. C. Brown of the 10th Cavalry spent $1,680 of his own money on regimental supplies. “Other officers have advanced several hundred dollars,” he wrote Pershing plaintively. “How and when we will ever be reimbursed is problematical.” Under the blinding sun exhaustion became chronic, and there was seldom enough boiled water to drink. Scores of horses died. During rest periods the men were sometimes ordered to remain standing, for there was no rousing them if they lay down to sleep. At dusk darkness came to the canyons as though by the flick of a switch; the trails became a twisting nightmare; but each dawn the packmaster rattled his bells, the horses and mules drifted sleepily together, the expedition moved southward once more, and the men sang:

We left the border for Parral /In search of Villa and Lopez, his old pal. /Our horses, they were hungry, /And we ate parched corn. /It was damn hard living /In the state of Chihuahua /Where Pancho Villa was born.

All eight biplanes of the 1st Aero Squadron were cruelly squandered delivering messages between Pershing and his far-flung units, rather than being properly employed in reconnaissance duties as ordered. The fliers had no parachutes, their planes lacked replacement parts, gusty winds made desert landings risky, and soon only two planes were left. Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois flew one to Chihuahua City with a conciliatory message from General Pershing. Upon landing, he was astounded to find himself under attack from natives, who threw stones at him, fired at him, and ripped portions of the plane fabric with knives. Somehow he and his observer managed to stagger aloft and return to Pershing’s headquarters. Soon Foulois’ plane and the other remaining Jenny also cracked up, terminating the aerial phase of the expedition only five weeks after it had begun. This was a blow. Without air intelligence the punitive columns could only flounder around northern Mexico, irritate the populace, infuriate Carranza, amuse Villa, and accomplish nothing which bore the slightest resemblance to the lofty purposes enunciated by Mr. Wilson.

Would the cavalry ever come to grips with Villa? Early in April, Pershing helplessly asked Major Tompkins, who had rejoined the western column, “Tompkins, where is Villa?”

“General, I don’t know, but I would like mighty well to go find out where he is … I would head for Parral and would expect to cut his trail before reaching there.”


“The history of Villa’s bandit days shows that when hard pressed he invariably holes up in the mountains in the vicinity of Parral.”

“How many mules do you want?”


The General next day called for Tompkins and said, “Go find Villa wherever you think he is.” Tompkins departed with five days’ rations, five hundred silver pesos, and Troops K and M of the 13th Cavalry. On April 12 he halted near Parral, four hundred miles south of the New Mexico border. At all costs his problem was to avoid the wrong war with the wrong enemy. That meant staying friendly with the Federal cavalry, which by now was ominously arrayed along both sides of Pershing’s slender line of communications and had been scouting Tompkins himself all the way down from San Geronimo.

Tompkins entered the city and found it occupied by Carranza’s troops under a general named Lozano, who rode up and told him politely to get out. Simultaneously shopkeepers barred their doors, children left the streets, and citizens proceeded to revile the Americans verbally and with gestures. Tompkins retired slowly toward the outskirts. As he did so, Carranzistas massed on a hill to the south of town began outflanking his command. Firing broke out. In accordance with ancient folklore having to do with relative casualties suffered by U.S. and native troops (“ ‘I got one at 800 yards, Major.’ The Mexicans must have concluded that that kind of shooting was too good for them so they fell back …” etc.), the Carranzistas allegedly lost forty killed as against two Americans. But as many U.S. newspapers uneasily noted next morning, the first real collision of the campaign had been against our so-called friends.

There was another fight in May at Ojos Azules, when a squadron of the 11th Cavalry actually did engage part of the Villa band. This time the proportion of casualties reached mathematical infinity, for according to the record, we suffered not a single man killed or even wounded, while the Villistas “lost 44 killed and had a large number wounded.” The Americans had also been outnumbered five to one, it was said.

For several weeks the two columns and various detachments of the American army, including a dozen unhappy civilians who had been talked into driving trucks for the expedition, meandered south. No amount of money could hire a native guide. By June Pershing was hopelessly bogged down, while in Washington he was being knifed in the back by individuals who opined that he had mishandled everything. Mr. Wilson had become disillusioned. To Secretary Baker he spoke of “his shame as an American over the first Mexican War … his belief in the principle laid down in the Virginia Bill of Rights that a people has the right to do as they damn please with their own affairs.” Sadly he estimated that to pacify that huge nation, we would need “five hundred thousand men at least.”

Suddenly it was late spring, General Villa had recovered from his wound, and again he was leading his riders around the invader. U.S. newspaper and magazine reports had diminished; those which appeared were muted in tone. They spoke of the disciplinary action which was accomplishing its purpose, and of the disruption of Villa’s army; and in this there was truth, for Pershing had temporarily split the raiders into fragments. These fragments dared not attack the American army, now 12,000 strong, but they could coalesce as soon as the gringos withdrew. Fully 150,000 National Guard troops were now barracked at El Paso, Nogales, and Brownsville. Although forbidden to cross the border, they gave President Carranza something to think about. But in the heat and monotony of the summer, they did nothing but drill and languish and drink and curse the day they had been summoned to prepare for thrilling adventures in pursuit of Pancho Villa.

The next bombshell came from Carranza’s commander in the north, General Jacinto Trevino, who advised Pershing that the show was over, that U.S. troops would not be permitted to move south, west, or east. In other words, unless they went home or sat exactly where they were they would be considered at war with Mexico. Pershing replied that he would take orders only from his own government. “ DRIFTING TOWARD INTERVENTION IN MEXICO ” headlined the Literary Digest, and the Houston Chronicle observed that “the United States of America has no moral right to permit a people, living next door, to destroy itself.” The implication was clear enough. In Washington our General Staff put the final touches on plans for a full-scale invasion.

Trevino’s ultimatum was followed by a military shock, compounded (in the words of one colonel) by “one of the most amateurish performances of American professional troops … ever recorded,” plus the low cunning of General Villa. (His agents had deceived Pershing into believing that he could be taken at Carrizal. When part of the 10th Cavalry arrived there, Villa, a few miles away, was watching everything through binoculars.) The commander of the detachment, a Captain Boyd, had been told to engage Villa but to stay out of Carrizal. Upon nearing the town, Boyd noticed a large body of Federales taking up defensive positions, and Mexican infantry began flowing into entrenchments along the lefthand approach to the town. Several Mexican officers asked Boyd to leave, whereupon he moved his line several hundred yards forward. There followed further squabbling, during which the Mexicans worked themselves comfortably around both flanks, set up three machine guns, put more riflemen in an irrigation ditch, and waited for Boyd to make his move.

When finally he ordered his reluctant force across two hundred yards of open plain, he was killed almost instantly; so was his second in command, and so was the next lieutenant in line. Troop C’s left flank was turned. Troop K fell back. One machine gun was captured by the Negroes in a head-on rush. Many Americans were trapped, and what stunned the U.S. was not that ten of our men had been killed and ten wounded but that twenty-three had been captured. Worse yet, the defeat had been administered by Mexican regulars with whom we were supposedly in partnership. To North Americans, who generally assume that the presence of our troops on foreign soil is reassuring to the natives thereof, the incident proved what had long been suspected—that all “greasers” were treacherous, regardless of which army they belonged to.

Earlier, in a blistering 5,000-word note, President Carranza had demanded that all U.S. troops clear out of Mexico. To this Mr. Wilson wired back: “The United States cannot recede from its settled determination to maintain its national rights and perform its full duty in preventing further invasions …” Mr. Baker had then ordered the seizure of the international bridges over the Rio Grande. Somewhat alarmed, Carranza backed down, released the U.S. prisoners, and reiterated his intention of co-operating in the pursuit of the ineffable Villa. But who could any longer believe this frenetic jingo whose plain policy was to badger Uncle Sam so as to promote support for his feeble government?

Whatever it all meant politically, Pershing settled down to policing Chihuahua by districts, although it was not clear how this would chastise Villa or prevent further border raids—which, by the way, continued that summer. U.S. cavalrymen patrolled the countryside running centrally through the state (it was impossible to keep the mountains and desert under surveillance), became almost friendly with the peasants and landowners of the area, and awaited orders that would get them out of that godforsaken land.

Late in June Pershing retracted his expedition to 150 miles south of the border. Once he thought absent-mindedly of going home to his wife and family, and then with some pathos wrote a friend, “One never, never can get over it.” His command was now holding one rigid line from Columbus to Casas Grandes. That former town, once so somnolent, was his only supply depot and had become transformed into a frontier madhouse, as though gold (rather than death) had been struck on Main Street March 9. With nothing else to do, Pershing instituted a systematic training program. For seven months the Americans drilled on Mexican soil while Carranza boiled. “The hardest part of all,” observed Secretary of the Interior Lane, “is to convince a proud and obstinate people that they really need any help … that we do not want to take some of their territory …” The Mexican state of Sinaloa independently and with solemn formality declared war upon the United States. From Funston’s border headquarters came a call to the War Department for 65,000 additional National Guardsmen to stand off a possible invasion of Texas. Was the General serious?

U.S. newspapers screamed at Carranza for his “treachery,” while one cartoonist showed Uncle Sam facing Mexico with a rifle in his right hand and “civilization,” “education,” and “peace” in the other. The similarity to the Philippine insurrection was exact. But in Rio de Janeiro the Gazeta de Noticias noted: “The severity and contempt with which Washington looks upon the revolution of the neighboring countries are neither just nor Christian.” From the Pope in Rome emanated a plea to both sides to avoid war.

Wilson offered to arbitrate, whereupon a joint commission of Americans and Mexicans began talking in New London, Connecticut; Secretary Lane was chairman of the U.S. delegation. Months passed in bickering, and Lane was driven to assert that the impasse was all due to Mexico’s obstinate First Chief: “Carranza is obsessed with the idea that he is a real god and not a tin god, that he holds thunderbolts in his hands instead of confetti, and he won’t let us help him …” It was the same old story: these people preferred to operate in their own incompetent way; they didn’t seem to want to be helped; and Carranza kept insisting that we get out of Mexico once and for all, especially since any child could see that Pershing was never going to catch Villa. We were on the brink. If war should come, Theodore Roosevelt feverishly announced, he was ready to offer his private but nonexistent army of three brigades equipped with artillery, machine guns, and airplanes.

Came autumn, and a rumor that Pancho had organized a new army of 18,000 men. German small arms were reaching him via coffins and other absurd camouflage. Most of Pershing’s expedition (the “perishing expedition,” it was now being called) was encamped listlessly near Casas Grandes, fighting off swarms of flies and enduring high winds and dust storms, severe evening cold-snaps, and a morass of mud each time it rained. Recreationally there was nothing for the troops to do. And at last the Mexican-American commissioners came to conclusions which, one suspects, might have been reached at their first meeting. Pershing would withdraw. Normal diplomatic relations would be restored. U.S. troops would patrol the border, and the Mexican government would be held responsible for future raids on our soil.

Indubitably General Pershing was relieved; yet his so-called punitive expedition had punished nobody; Villa was still at large; despite admirable tact, Pershing had barely escaped full-scale war; and over one hundred U.S. battle casualties had been suffered. But he asserted in his memoirs:

After we had penetrated about four hundred miles into Mexican territory and overtaken Villa’s band … the increasing disapproval of the Mexican Government doubtless caused the administration to conclude that it would be better to rest content that the outlaw bands had been severely punished and generally dispersed, and that the people of northern Mexico had been taught a salutary lesson …

Still, Villa’s army had not been caught and brought to battle. The outlaws had hardly been punished. The common people of Chihuahua had had nothing to do with the affair and had learned, perhaps, a lesson somewhat different from the one Pershing had in mind. General Hugh Scott concurred, however, by stating that Pershing had “made a complete success … from the War Department’s point of view.” But if the United States border was secure, Pancho was back in action elsewhere with a vengeance. As late as January 7, 1917, he raided Santa Rosalia and killed 300 people, mostly Chinese and Federal soldiers, including an officer’s wife who, according to an eyewitness, “took a pot shot at Villa while he was killing off the Chinamen. The Chinese, trying to escape, would say, ‘Don’t shoot me standing; shoot me running.’ …”

On January 28 the War Department announced that Pershing’s expedition would withdraw. On February 5 the last American soldier shook the dust of Chihuahua from his boots.

The expedition may not be entirely brushed off as a failure. Since Carranza enjoyed little control over northern Mexico and could not stop the killing of U.S. citizens on U.S. territory, we could hardly be expected to fold our hands and piously accept our losses. Financially, Villa stood worse than before. Hundreds of his men had gone back to the farm. About a thousand U.S. officers had been given field experience, which they would utilize to grim advantage. The United States had proved that it was not out to grab territory. The expedition furnished last-minute tests and training for “Black Jack” Pershing. American national pride had been assuaged. On the other hand, we had manifested a harsh unilateralism, an alarmingly swift plunge into militarism, and an emotional instability counteracted only by Wilson’s refusal to kick Mexico when she was down. The cost of the adventure came to $130,000,000.

Pancho Villa made peace with the new Mexican government after the assassination of his arch-enemy Carranza in 1920 and retired in splendor to a 25,000-acre ranch near Parral. But now that he was no longer in contact with the masses, derogatory stories began to be told about his past; and this sarcastic rhyme, referring to two notorious massacres, was sung to plucked guitars in fly-specked taverns and over many a campfire:

Hurrah for Villa, boys! /Fix the machine guns./Listen, Francisco Villa/What does your heart tell you?/Don't you remember, brave one, /That you attacked Paredon?/Don't you remember, brave one,/That you took Torreon? 

On July 19, 1923, in his Dodge touring car, he visited his lawyer in Parral in order to dictate a new will.  Armed with two Colt .45's, Villa was at the wheel.  To his right sat a guard similarly equiped.  Another in the back seat carried a carbine.  As he proceeded slowly down the Calle de Gabino Barreda, eight riflemen cut loose at the car from ambush.  Almost instinctively the stricken Villa pressed the accelerator and roared toward his murderers. The Dodge struck a tree and turned over. With Villa sprawled in the dust, the gunmen kept firing until his body contained forty-seven bullet wounds. Then came the newspapermen, the snapshots of Villa and the death car, the sightseers, the public display of his body at the Hotel Hidalgo, the picture postcards …

For years many simple peones remained unconvinced, and swore that they saw him and his revolutionary bandit-riders sweep by their cottages at night. “No, he is not dead, senor; they only try to trick us …” The leader of the killing squad, Jesus Salas Barrazas, a congressman from Durango, had once been pistol-whipped by Villa in an argument over a woman. Sentenced to twenty years in jail, he was released after six months. In the Parral cemetery, Pancho Villa still rests under a small gray slab.


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