A hundred years ago this month, the nation was blindsided by the first act of terrorism on U.S. soil—at the hands of Mexican troops commanded by the revolutionary Pancho Villa.
It has been 100 years since the first act of terror on U.S. soil was committed by revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa. On March 9, 1916 Villa and more than 400 heavily-armed mounted bandits crossed the Mexican border and attacked Columbus, New Mexico. The Villistas caught the town of 350 inhabitants, plus a garrison of 553 troops from the 13th U.S. Cavalry, completely by surprise. “I was awake, they were asleep,” he later bragged, “and it took them too long to wake up.”
For almost two hours Villa’s men ransacked the town’s hotel, its few stores, and adobe houses before the cavalry chased them back across the border. Left behind on Columbus’s dusty streets lay eight dead civilians and 10 American soldiers, and several others wounded. The Villistas took greater losses, between one and two hundred men, some killed during a cavalry skirmish 30 miles deep into Mexico.
Villa’s raid was an act of terrorism and the first of its kind conducted on U.S. soil. Unprovoked, his men gunned down innocent Americans and destroyed their property. Although the death toll pales in comparison with the 9/11 attacks or the recent Paris mass shootings, the American public was stunned and demanded immediate retribution, fearing Villa was on a rampage with plans to massacre other border towns. President Woodrow Wilson, a reluctant warrior, was in the midst of a reelection campaign that pledged to keep America out of the war in Europe. A war with Mexico was now a possibility and he had to act.
Villa never said why he orchestrated the attack, but his hatred for America was no secret. He was angered that the Wilson administration formally backed Villa’s chief political rival, Governor Venustiano Carranza. Seeking revenge three months before the Columbus raid, his Villistas murdered 18 Americans on board a Mexico train. Wilson ignored the episode and did nothing.
Yet, a day after Columbus was hit, Wilson needed to look strong and ordered his new secretary of war, Newton D. Baker, to send an armed force into Mexico. A week later, a punitive expedition of more than 14,000 troops under the command of Brigadier General John J. Pershing, including aide Lieutenant George S. Patton, headed to Mexico in pursuit of Villa.
Today, Pancho Villa is more associated with a slew of Mexican restaurants that bear his name than his true legacy as a cold-blooded killer. Villa was not a folk hero as some would like to believe, but a violent terrorist whose actions remind us of the atrocities committed by ISIS a century later.
Excerpted from Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I by Mitchell Yockelson:
Pancho Villa and around four hundred men raided Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916, and tangled with the 13th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, who were garrisoned nearby. Villa supporters had been terrorizing Americans in Mexico and conducting border raids for the past year in retaliation for the U.S. backing of President Venustiano Carranza, with whom Villa was embroiled in a civil war. The day after Villa’s invasion, President Wilson “directed that an armed force be sent into Mexico with the sole purpose of capturing Villa and preventing any further raids by his band, and with scrupulous regard to the sovereignty of Mexico.”
Secretary of War Baker, who had just arrived in Washington and knew little about the Army’s field officers, asked his general staff to recommend an expedition leader. Army chief of staff Major General Hugh L. Scott and his assistant, Major General Tasker H. Bliss, put Pershing’s name forward, and Baker selected him. The other possibility was Major General Frederick Funston, a Medal of Honor recipient and commander of the Southern Department out of Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Funston outranked Pershing and seemed the obvious choice, but reports that he drank too much ruined his chances. Pershing also had more experience working directly with civilians than any other officer, and that comforted Baker.
Out of all his Army assignments, commanding the Mexican Punitive Expedition was the most difficult. Capturing Villa would be hard enough, considering the bandit knew the terrain better than Pershing and had many allies willing to protect him, but entering Mexico and not inciting its army into a full-scale war would be another challenge. Just after midnight on March 18, 1916, Pershing and the Mexican Punitive Expedition brought the U.S. Army into the modern era of warfare. Accompanying the 12,000 Regulars were motorized supply trucks, Signal Corps communication equipment, and some airplanes. Pershing split his army into two columns and headed toward the town of Casa Grandes, 100 miles south of Columbus. A supply base was established at Colonia Dublán and this is where Pershing made his headquarters.
Read the Remainder of the Article at The Daily Beast