Say the words “September 11” and every American instantly knows what you are referring to. The same is true for “Pearl Harbor.” Most Americans vaguely know that during the War of 1812 the British shelled Fort McHenry and burned down the White House. But mention the words “Columbus, New Mexico” and you will almost certainly draw blank stares. Yet on this day in 1916, Mexican revolutionary leader José Doroteo Arango Arámbula—better known to history as Pancho Villa—led a surprise attack on Columbus that left eighteen Americans and eighty Mexicans dead. Within days, nearly 7,000 U.S. soldiers crossed the border into Mexico in what would become one of the more dismal adventures in U.S. military history: the “Punitive Expedition” to hunt down Villa.
The events in Columbus, New Mexico had a back story. It began five years earlier when Porfirio Díaz was pushed out as president (more accurately, dictator) of Mexico after thirty-five years in power. (Díaz is credited with uttering the line, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!”) His ouster ushered in years of political instability as Mexico went through several leaders and was wracked by revolutionary currents.
At one meeting with the American ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, the president of Mexico placed a third chair in the circle and announced to the ambassador that a friend was sitting there. The friend was invisible, Madero explained, but there nonetheless.
In early 1913 after less than two years in office, Madero was shunted aside by his leading military officer, General Victoriano Huerta. The general drank, and drank often; brandy was his preferred drink. (By 1916 he would be dead from cirrhosis of the liver.) He subsequently had Madero and his vice president shot, possibly at the behest of Ambassador Wilson. Huerta had suggested to Wilson that perhaps he should exile Madero or send him to an insane asylum. The ambassador’s response was ambiguous; Huerta “ought to do that which was best for the peace of the country.”
Madero’s murder outraged the incoming U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, who was not related to Henry. (The tradition of inaugurating American presidents on January 20 did not begin until after the passage of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933.) Once in office, President Wilson refused to recognize Huerta’s government and worked to push him out of power. (A future TWE Remembers will discuss how Wilson’s zeal to teach Huerta a lesson would yield another low point in U.S. foreign policy—the Tampico Incident.)
President Wilson got his wish in August 1914 when Huerta was ousted by Venustiano Carranza, a Madero follower and a former governor of the Mexican state of Coahuila. But Carranza soon found his rule challenged by his former ally, Pancho Villa, who had led the “Division of the North” in fighting against Huerta loyalists.
Villa at first had Carranza on the defensive. In December 1914, Villa’s forces briefly took control of Mexico City before being driven back north. Wilson thought that Villa might be friendly to U.S. interests, so he withheld formal recognition of the Carranza government. Villa in turn hoped that Wilson’s refusal to recognize the Carranza government would help his cause. He was soon disappointed, however. Wilson was increasingly consumed by events in Europe, and he wanted a way out of his confrontational policies toward Mexico. Carranza, as he put it, “will somehow have to be digested.” In October 1915, the United States did just that, formally recognizing his government.
Villa viewed Wilson’s decision as a “betrayal,” especially after Washington allowed Carranza’s troops to travel on U.S. railroads through New Mexico and Arizona in pursuit of Villa and his men rather than cross the northern Mexican desert by horseback. Villa quickly devised a new strategy. He would seek to provoke the United States into attacking Mexico, thereby discrediting Carranza. He put his plan into effect in January 1916. As Ferrell tells the story, Villa’s troops:
Met a Mexican Northwestern train at Santa Ysabel on January 11, 1916, carrying seventeen young American college graduates who had just come into Mexico from California under a safe conduct from Carranza to open a mine. Villa killed sixteen of them on the spot.
Villa spared one of the young Americans so he could tell the story to his countrymen.
But news of the Santa Ysabel massacre didn’t trigger any U.S. retaliation. So Villa tried something more audacious. In the predawn hours of March 9, 1916, Villa’s men raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, three miles north of the border. A regiment of the U.S. Army’s 13th Cavalry was encamped at the town, and its munitions depot was a target of the raid. Despite being surprised by the attack, the U.S. troops quickly regrouped and returned fire—at one point setting up a Benet-Mercier machine gun in front of the town’s one hotel. The fighting, as well as the fires set by Villa’s men, left the town in ruins.
By the end of the day Wilson had ordered General John J. Pershing to cross into Mexico to hunt down Villa. The incursion would have been an act of war, except that Carranza had reluctantly consented to it; he essentially had no other choice. He did, however, extract a face-saving concession: Mexico had the right, at least in theory, to pursue bandits across the border into the United States.
The Punitive Expedition began with much enthusiasm and moral righteousness in Washington. It proved in practice, like most of Wilson’s policies toward Mexico, to be a political and diplomatic blunder. Pershing’s troops traipsed more than 300 miles through northern Mexico without setting eyes on Villa, who knew the unfriendly terrain like the back of his hand and was a hero to the local people. Critics back in the United States began to refer to the incursion as the “Perishing Expedition.”
Rather than cut his losses, Wilson did what at least two presidents after him would do: He surged more troops into Mexico. Soon there were more than 12,000 U.S. soldiers in Mexico. Carranza understandably wanted them all to go home. Even though General Pershing assured Washington that “the natives are not generally arming to oppose us,” in June 1916 U.S. forces clashed with the Mexican army, leaving a dozen Americans and forty Mexicans dead. Within days, Wilson had ordered nearly 150,000 National Guard troops to the border. War seemed likely.
Wilson’s stubbornness and self-righteousness, which would become evident to all in the battle over the Treaty of Versailles, partly explains why he continued to dig his hole deeper rather than stop shoveling. Politics also played a part—1916 was a presidential election year. Like many presidents who would come after him, Wilson did not want to hand an election issue to his opponent by looking weak on Mexico.
But events on the other side of the Atlantic forced Wilson’s hand. With relations with Germany worsening, and the likelihood of an American entry into World War I growing, he finally ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops in early January 1917. The last U.S. soldier left Mexico on February 5, 1917. Less than four weeks later, the American public would learn about the Zimmermann Telegram.
Today Columbus, New Mexico is home to about 1,800 people. It lies thirty-five miles south of Deming, New Mexico and sixty-five miles west of El Paso, Texas. You can find it by taking New Mexico State Highway south from I-10 or New Mexico State Highway 9 from El Paso. Should you ever visit Columbus, be sure to check out Pancho Villa State Park.