At sunrise on the morning of March 9, 1916, the center of Columbus, New Mexico was a smoldering fire. Words of Pancho Villa's attack on the town were known by telegraph, making newspaper headlines throughout the nation. U.S. reacted with troops that arrived by train as the Army prepared to follow Villa into
THIS WAS COLUMBUS, N.M. PRIOR TO THE ATTACK.
HERE IS COLUMBUS AFTER THE ATTACK.
In order to understand the possible reasons that Pancho Villa had to attack Columbus, New Mexico it is important to review what happened in his life. In J. H. Tames, Asi Murieron Los Caudillos, the author describes Villa’s fugitive life. When Villa was young he shot a well-known Patron or Cacique, Don Agustin Lopez Negrete because he wanted to take advantage of his sister. From that moment on, Villa’s life changed dramatically. After Villa escaped he changed identity from Doroteo Arango to Pancho Villa in honor to his father.
Trouble between the United States and Pancho Villa began in the summer of 1915. Wilson had been watching the situation in Mexico very closely. At the Battle of Celaya, Villa was making an assault on the forces of Carranza. Led by General Alvaro Obregon, the forces of Carranza defeated Villa badly. Villa suffered a loss of some 14,000 men. Some say that Carranza's troops were using weapons that had been left by the Americans while in Veracruz. Villa's loss was so horrific that Wilson decided that the 'wait and see' time was no longer necessary. On October 21, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson extended official recognition to the faction of Venustiano Carranza as being the legitimate government of Mexico.
“On Villa’s part, the positive feelings he had toward the United States were replaced by bitterness at being held responsible for the actions of a furious officer only nominally under his command”. (O’Brien 86) Villa felt betrayed by his friend U.S. consul George Carrothers because he assured him that his government would support and come to the aid of his cause. When it did not happened, Villa realizes that his hope for holding on to power was steadily in decline. Ironically, Wilson chooses Venustiano Carranza as the lesser of two evils. The decision closes the border for Villa and his men not only allowing them to purchase weapons and ammunitions, as was the customer in years past. Now given the circumstances they had to rely on contraband and corrupt gun dealers like Ravel el Judio as he was called by Villa’s men or others like him fro their supplies. These are some Villa’s reasons for the rage he felt toward the U.S. and everything Carranza stood for.
In January of 1916 started what would ultimately lead to Pancho Villa’s invasion of Columbus, New Mexico. The two officers under his command, Pedro Lopez and Rafael Castro, decided to attack one of the trains that traveled through their area of operations knowing that most of the passengers were from the upper middle class, that included a group of 18 Americans fifteen of which worked for American Smelting and refining Company; without wasting a single minute they decided to shoot them as they sat, some killed as they tried to escape. All that could be heard was the shouting of Viva Villa! There was only one American survivor who gave scary details of the massacre to the local press. This incident happened 8 kilometers West of Santa Isabel, in the state of Chihuahua. Villa admitted to ordering attack, but always denied that he authorized the shedding of American blood.
Causes of the raid
In his book Pancho Villa Strong Man of the revolution, Larry Harris mentions that some historians have argued that president Wilson had encouraged Villa by supporting Mexican leader Carranza who had become Villa’s enemy. Wilson had allowed Mexican federal troops to use American rail roads to gain faster access to defend Agua Prieta on the Mexican border near Douglass, Arizona against Villa attack. Federal Troops responded and defeated the Villistas, Pancho Villa was furious at president Wilson. After that, Villistas stopped a train at Santa Isabel, Mexico and killed seventeen American mining engineers. Although villa was far away at the time and could not have communicated with his supporters, he would have known of his hard attitude toward Americans. However according to Frederich Kats in his article American Historical Review, Villa believed that a plan existed between Carranza and president Wilson to make Mexico depend on the U.S governmentfor support. Although a strong theory suggests that there was conspiracy among Standard oil and other U.S interests to empower a new leader that would favor U.S. policy.
In contrast, Tames stays in his book Asi murieron los Caudillos that the reason for the Columbus raid was that in October 19th President Wilson recognized constitutionalism as threat to the government of Venustiano Carranza. In order to assume this, one must understand that it was Carranza who sent Villa to attack the American territory of Columbus.
Another theory behind the Columbus raid focuses on German involvement in Mexico, in La Frontera (History of the Mexican American frontier) authors claim that German interests had hoped to create distraction along the border and had assigned a German officer, Dr Lyman Rauschbaum, on the Villa staff as a secretary and bookkeeper. Then he could have convinced Villa that the State Bank of Columbus had cheated him of 10,000 dollars. German instigators may have urged Villa to attack United States and start a border war. However, the complete Mexican-German connection occurred after the Columbus raid when the Mexican government sent a memo that proposed economic and military corporation to rid Mexico of Pershing’s troops. Authors with different version such as historians Charles H. Harris and Louis R Sadler have uncovered evidence that the U.S army hired Japanese nationalists as spies to move among Villistas to give Villa a slow acting poison.
In Insurgentes Mexico Reed is sympathetic with the revolution, he describes Villa as a legend or Mexican Robin Hood who was granted until he was captured and executed.
Reed explains that Pancho Villa frequently visited and lived in El Paso “and it was from there that he set out in April, 1913, to conquer Mexico with four companions, three horses, two pounds of sugar and coffee, and a pound of salt”. (Insurgentes Mexico 1914). He also describes Villa as a charismatic leader who recruited 10,000 men in five months and became a devoted leader who would guide the forgotten man of Mexico the Peon to comfort and plenty. The author also describes that seven months after leaving El Paso on stolen horses, villa and his men had become such an important military force that the federal Mexican army had evacuated the northern providence of Chihuahua and he won strategic victory almost by default. In contrast, there are evidences that show Villa as a bandit. A close friend of Villa, Jesus Paez, was wounded in Columbus and wrote two years after the raid, this man explained that Villa initiated the raid from a distance he stated the following:
After Villa got the started on their murderous
task he departed far enough away to be out of
danger. He always rode a fine horse, had good
clothes, and had a fine saddle. His men were
ragged, hungry, and dirty, and their horses and
mules were half starved and had sores under
their saddles the full length.
(Larry Harris, Strong man of the revolution)
In addition to this paragraph there are some testimonies from people that participated with Villa stating during court that they had no choice but to join Villa’s band or watch their own houses burning.
In order to understand why, if any possibility did exist, President Woodrow Wilson did allow the attack on Columbus, New Mexico to happen, one must look into the situation of a President and the World War that was happening at the same time, it would become easier to see the possibilities of such an event occurring. This, if true, should not put blame on President Wilson. Rather, one should ask why it happened.
Prelude to the attack
General John J. “Black Jack” Pershings, commander of the U.S. forces at Fort Bliss, was monitoring all information concerning Villa’s intentions, but refused to divide his forces fearing that strengthening one position would weaken another. Soon, all doubts were silenced when on the morning of march 9th under the cover of darkness, Villa and his men crossed the international boundary at 4:20 A.M. and began the raid of Columbus. Surprising the American Garrison, under the command of Col. H.J. Slocum and Major Frank Tomkings, when most of their men were asleep in their barracks. The men under the command of Lt Candelario Lopez burned and looted the city and the forces under Lt’s Pablo Lopez, Beltran and Castro attacked the American forces. The men under Cervantes penetrated unopposed into the heart of the city killing anyone who stood on their way. “Within minutes, the undefeated town was ablaze, and eight U.S. civilians lay dying, riddled with bullets”. (O’Brien 88) After kicking the door open to the commercial Hotel they searched it desperately looking for Ravel who was out of the town at the time. L. Burkhead the postal administrator left the hotel with his wife and kids through a back door just before the hotel collapsed in flames. Arthur Ravel who was 16 years old at the time, witnesses this carnage only because the two men assigned to accompany him to his dad’s store were shot by the town folk. “Villa’s men proceeded with such methodical precision that it was clear they had scouted the city before the raid” (O’Brien 88) When the American forces returned fire they inflicted heavy casualties on the bandits one of them being Lt. Pablo Lopez, the author of Santa Isabel massacre; who was bounded on both legs.
These man paid a high price for the audacity of their leader. Final casualties were: 167 dead, 13 captured and many more wounded. Although 60 men from the 13th cavalry persuaded Villa into Mexican territory, the lack of water and ammunition prompted their return. As the fire smoldered, many citizens of Mexican descent left fearing reprisal by the local community. After the raid Villa retreated into the fastness of Sierra Madre in western Chihuahua, having accomplished his objective.
American troops pursue Villa’s forces into Mexican territory. “The Pershing Expedition”
According to O’Brien’s in Pancho Villa, On Thursday February Villa began mission “Peliaguda” when he orderer Mayor Juan Muñoz to gather 400 of his most trusted menon the hacienda of San Jeronimo. Later he met in private with Lieutenant’s Martin Lopez, Pablo Lopez, Francisco Beltran, Candelario Cervantes and commissioned an additional 100 men to the command of Joaquin Alvarez, Bernabe Cifuentes and Ernesto Rios.
The commander of the 13th cavalry in Columbus received several reports that Villa was in the area and planed to cross the border and attack. Although officers knew it, they did not give importance to the fact because they though that if he would cross, he would probably go to Washington to plead with the U.S. government to stop the aid to Carranza.
On March the 8th several newspapers from El Paso, Texas reported that Villa was encamped near Las Palomas, Chihuahua and received confirmation that he had ordered the execution of two Americans captured a few days earlier.
THIS VILLA PICTURED WITH HIS
FELLOW FIGHTERS IN THE CITY OF
JUAREZ IN 1911.
Importance of the raid in the U.S. and Mexican relations
The importance of the raid is defined in two mainstream theories. The first one deals with the raid as a political tool for Villa’s future legacy in Mexico. After the raid Pancho Villa became a leader that could enter into any city and recruit men to fight for his cause. In other words he used the raid to become a true caudillo of the revolution. Now from a military perspective he drove a wedge between the U.S government and the Mexican government, which led the later to halt all economic aid. From the people’s perspective the raid was an opportunity for Mexican pride that had not been felt since Santa Ana defeated the Texans at the Alamo. The raid and pseudo-victory, continued to open doors for Villa in years to come. Ironically this arrogant pride led to his eventual downfall. Tales of Villa’s life and assassination continue to interests different historians. His armed men rode through Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango and Sonora without being stopped and his name became a synonymous with Mexican revolution.