Pancho Villa’s Attack on Columbus
By Gary Glynn
All Rights Reserved
Dawn had not yet broken when the raiders crossed the border into New Mexico on March 9,1916. Hundreds of men clung wearily to their saddles as the sounds of horses’ hooves, jingling harness@ es, and the creak of saddle leather broke the early morning silence. At the head of this irregular army rode Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the charismatic and brutal Mexican revolutionary. Villa and, his men were headed for the isolated American town of Columbus, a small army encampment containing, cache of arms and ammunition. While the revolutionary and his men rode across the border, the 400 11 residents of Columbus slept on, unaware of the terror about to descend on their community.
Short and mustachioed, Villa was perhaps the most colorful of the many personalities who dominated the Mexican Revolution. Often charming, occasionally magnanimous, he could also be ruthless. Only 18 months earlier he had commanded the powerful Army of the North, which controlled much of northern Mexico. Then a series of debilitating military defeats at Celaya; Leon, and Agua Prieta reduced his army to a fraction of its original size, exhausted his horses, and depleted his bank accounts. With much of his power lost, Villa could no longer be considered a viable candidate for the Mexican presidency. In October 1915, United States President Woodrow Wilson officially recognized Villa’s archrival, Venustiano Carranza, as Mexico’s legitimate ruler.
Villa, who for years had astutely cultivated the support of many important United States citizens and officials, felt betrayed. He turned against the United States with a vengeance and directed his anger at Americans both inside and outside Mexico. On January 10, 1916, Villa’s men stopped a train at San Ysabel in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Its passengers included 18 American engineers and an American mining manager. The Villistas murdered all the Americans, except for one who managed to escape. The incident caused international outrage and brought the United States and Mexico to the brink of war. To make matters worse, German agents who wanted to keep the United States from entering World War I on Britain’s side promised to supply Villa with arms, money, and support if he could inflame tensions between Mexico and the United States and distract American attention from the war in Europe. But Villa cared less about geopolitical considerations and more about obtaining fresh horses, ammunition, and the new recruits that a successful attack against the United States would bring.
By early March, Villa’s raiders had been riding hard for days, and many had dropped out during the long, grueling ride north. Only about 500 of Villa’s toughest veteran fighters remained. They wore civilian clothes or tattered uniforms, with crisscrossed bandoleers of ammunition across their chests. They had snatched only a few hours sleep in the last few days and had eaten nothing except beef seared over an open flame. Nevertheless, Villa and his officers still pushed the men on relentlessly. Most of the riders remained unaware that Villa intended to cross the border and carry the terror and bloodshed of the Mexican Revolution into the sovereign territory of the United States.
Columbus, New Mexico, was about three miles north of the Mexican border. “Afflicted with windstorms and rattlesnakes; neither electricity nor telephone service had reached it,” wrote John J. Pershing biographer Richard O’Connor. Most of the houses were built of adobe, although the two hotels and the railroad station were wooden frame buildings. Railroad tracks bisected the town roughly from east to west, while the main street ran north and south. At the southern end of town lay Camp Furlong, garrisoned by Colonel Herbert J. Slocum’s 13th Cavalry Regiment. Pancho Villa’s presence along the border did not come as a complete surprise to the residents of Columbus. Since late February the border area had buzzed with rumors that he intended to head north. Although Villa did his best to disguise his intentions, word reached Columbus on March 8 that he intended to cross the border.
Patrols of the 13th Cavalry spent a fruitless night searching along the border area, and the soldiers were worn out and ready for bed when they returned to Camp Furlong. Tired of chasing rumors, few thought that Villa would dare to openly attack Columbus. Events would soon prove them wrong. On March 8, Villa sent two scouts across the border to a point where they could spy on the town. The scouts inaccurately reported to Villa that only about 30 American soldiers were presently in Columbus. Although many of the 553 soldiers were either on patrol or posted at outlying ranches, some 200 soldiers were in Columbus as the raiders approached.
Just north of the border, Villa split his forces into two columns. One detachment had orders to stampede Camp Furlong’s horses towards Mexico, while Villa instructed the other column to loot the post office, banks, and downtown businesses. Villa, who had been universally condemned for the murders at Santa Ysabel, did not want to be seen in Columbus and so remained with his horse– holders and rearguard on the outskirts of town. His men infiltrated the town’s southwestern area without incident, using a deep drainage ditch for cover. The Villistas may have coerced a local Mexican resident into pointing out the homes of the 13th Cavalry’s officers, who lived in civilian houses scattered throughout the residential district. The raiders quickly fanned out. Small groups of Villistas were assigned to each officer’s house, while other gunmen slipped into Camp Furlong itself.
Lieutenant John P. Lucas, commander of the Machine Gun Troop, lived on the outskirts of Columbus. At approximately 4:15 A.M. he awoke to the sound of riders surrounding his house. Lucas drew his pistol and waited in his underwear as the Villistas tried to break in. At the same time, a large group of Villa’s men stormed into the center of town with guns blazing and shouts of, “Viva Villa! Viva Mexico! Muerte a los Americanos!” Startled awake, soldiers and civilians alike found armed raiders outside nearly every door. Once the shooting began, Lieutenant Lucas heard the riders surrounding his house gallop off, and he quickly threw on his clothes and dashed outside, barefoot. He managed to locate two of his men in the pre-dawn darkness, and they fought their way to the guard shack, just northwest of the fort, where a lone sentry, who had sustained a bullet wound in his arm, defended the regiment’s four French-designed Benet-Mercie machine guns housed there. The lieutenant and his two men grabbed a machine gun and turned it on the Villistas, but it jammed after a few shots. They finally returned fire with a second machine gun, which they set up astride the railroad tracks. Within a few minutes the rest of the machine gun troop arrived with the remaining two guns.
The raiders seemed to be everywhere in the inky darkness. Hand-to-hand fighting raged through the army mess shacks and in the hospital, where orderlies and cooks preparing breakfast defended themselves with pots of scalding water, axes, and a single shotgun used to hunt small game. While the scattered American officers tried to rally their men, the raiders methodically ransacked and looted nearly every building. Terrified civilians ran for the shelter of the nearby brush or huddled inside their houses, praying they would not be discovered. One woman stuffed a pillowcase in her child’s mouth so that the baby would not cry out, nearly suffocating him in the process. On the main street, one of the Villistas shot down James S. Dean, the town’s grocer and owner of the Hoover Hotel. The raiders riddled Dean’s hotel with gunfire and doused his grocery store with kerosene and set it on fire. But the Commercial Hotel saw the scene of the worst terror. The nine guests there awoke to the sound of shots and the thud of Villistas on the stairs. One guest, a quick thinker, threw a wad of bills and coins at the raiders’ feet and escaped out of his window while the Mexican peasants scrambled for the money. The raiders dragged hotel manager William Ritchie and the remaining male guests downstairs, relieved them of their valuables, then gunned them down. Mrs. Ritchie, her daughter, and several other women had their rings roughly pulled from their fingers. Instead of shooting them, Villa’s men poured kerosene over the dry floorboards of the hotel and applied a match. The hotel caught fire so quickly that the raiders ransacking the rooms were nearly engulfed in the flames. The women trapped upstairs would surely have perished if not for two local men, who rushed in and helped them escape through the upstairs windows.
As the firing continued, Lieutenant James P. Castleman assembled Troop F The soldiers made their way towards the middle of town, where the lieutenant deployed them near the railroad tracks to protect the Columbus bank and the remains of the business district. Many of the 13th’s senior officers found themselves cut off from their commands, including Captain Rudolph Smyser. When Villa’s men surrounded his house and tried to break in, Smyser fired his .45 at the front door, killing one of the invaders. The captain hustled his wife and children out of the back door and ran for the stable. There they barricaded the door and lay on the floor as the raiders fired bullets and thrust knives through the flimsy walls. Once the Villistas moved on, Smyser and his family made a break for an area outside town. Lieutenant William A. McCain, his wife, daughter, and orderly also escaped into the brush, where Captain George Williams joined them. Discovered by one of the raiders, McCain and Williams desperately beat the man to death with pistol butts. Once Captain Smyser found a safe place for his wife and children, he returned to the burning town, as did McCain and Williams, to join the growing battle for control of the downtown area.
The soldiers of the 13th Cavalry were at first stunned by the sudden onslaught and suffered a number of casualties. Eventually though, light from the burning buildings helped the troopers spot their quarry, and Lieutenant Castleman’s men began to drive the invaders from the center of town. Flames from the burning hotels illuminated a group of Villistas seeking shelter alongside one of the adobe mess shacks, and Lieutenant Lucas and his machine-gunners cut them down. The soldiers then turned their sights on the Villistas fleeing across the tracks. Shocked by the unexpected resistance, the raiders began to pull out of town. By 7:30 A.M. Villa’s men were riding furiously for the border, taking with them 80 high-quality horses, 30 mules, and a substantial amount of loot from Columbus stores.
Villa, still on the outskirts of town with his reserve, cursed his men as they retreated south. Colonel Slocum and Major Frank Tompkins stood atop Cootes Hill, the town’s only high ground, and watched the Villistas retreat. Tompkins asked the colonel for permission to pursue them, and a few minutes later he galloped towards the border with Captain Smyser and 32 men of H Troop following. Alerted by the shooting and the flames from Columbus, Troop G, which had been posted at the border, attacked the strung-out column of Villistas, killing 18. Tompkins’ force, now augmented by Lieutenant Castleman and half of F troop, joined the running fight. Caught up in the heat of the pursuit, Tompkins crossed the border without permission from either U.S. or Mexican authorities, although he did send one of his men back to Columbus to ask for instructions.
The soldier returned with a note from Colonel Slocum that read, “Use your own judgment.” Tompkins chose to continue the chase. Villa’s rearguard put up a stubborn defense, mounting three counter-attacks. Tompkins received a slight wound in the knee and had his hat shot off his head. Bullets also grazed Captain George Williams, and several of his men had their horses shot from under them. By noon Tompkins realized he and his men were about 15 miles inside Mexico. With their ammunition and water nearly exhausted, the American troops turned back. On the return trip they passed the bodies of dozens of dead Villistas scattered along the retreat route. The soldiers recovered many horses and mules, two of Villa’s precious machine guns, and some of the spoils looted from local stores.
In Columbus, daylight revealed that 8 soldiers and 10 civilians lay dead and another 30 of the town’s residents were wounded amid the smoking ruins. Every house had been hit by gunfire, with scarcely an unbroken pane of glass left in town. Soldiers were busily searching homes in the Mexican quarter of Columbus for Villista stragglers. According to one eyewitness, “The real horror lay in the streets and on the sidewalks. Villa’s men who had fallen lay dead and dying. Some twitched, some mumbled, most were sprawled in the abandoned posture of death. Except for an occasional curse, they were left ignored.” An estimated 100 Villistas were killed during the raid and the subsequent pursuit. By the time Tompkins and his men returned to Columbus, word of the raid had spread across the country. Although Villa’s men had cut the telegraph wires running east and west, they had missed the wire linking Columbus with Deming to the north. Telegraph operator Susie Parks managed to send word of the battle while the bullets were still flying.
The news that a foreign army had invaded the United States for the first time since the War of 1812 caused panic along the U.S.-Mexican border and anger throughout the nation. The New York World stated, “Nothing less than Villa’s life can atone for the outrage.” Newton D. Baker, who had taken on the position of U.S. secretary of war on the same morning as the Columbus raid took place, found himself in the middle of a firestorm. In his first action in office, Baker announced that the United States would send a Punitive Expedition to Mexico to catch Villa. Underestimating the revolutionary’s legendary ability to elude pursuit, President Wilson’s White House announced that Villa would be captured by, “a swift, surprise movement.”
Within a week, General John J. Pershing and almost 5,000 troops entered Mexico, soon followed by another 2,000, in pursuit of the raiders. The U.S. Punitive Expedition into Mexico so inflamed tensions with Mexicans of every political persuasion that war seemed imminent. On May 9 President Wilson mobilized more than 5,000 National Guardsmen from Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico to protect the boundary between Brownsville, Texas, and San Diego, California. On June 18, he called out the remainder of the state soldiery to further defend the border. Pershing and his men scoured the Chihuahua countryside for almost a year in a futile attempt to bring Villa to justice. The revolutionary traveled in terrain he knew well and enjoyed the strong support of the local people. During that time, Villa and his men battled against Carranza’s government forces.
General Pershing and his troops finally left Mexico in 1917 as tensions with Germany brought the United States to the brink of war. With the distinct possibility that the U.S. would enter World War I, Secretary of War Baker and Chief of Staff Hugh Scott didn’t want American troops tied up in Mexico. Although the Punitive Expedition had failed to bring Villa to justice, its use of airplanes and motorized vehicles proved an invaluable training opportunity as the army prepared for a much larger conflict in Europe.
In 1920, provisional Mexican president Adolfo de la Huerta granted Villa a large hacienda near Parral. The revolutionary lived there until his death. On July 20, 1923, Villa and his bodyguards left Parral to return home after conducting business in the town. As his car slowed down to turn at an intersection, a group of ambushers opened fire on the vehicle, killing Villa instantly. The assassins were never apprehended. After the Columbus raid, the army transformed the New Mexican town into General Pershing’s headquarters and a massive supply depot and military camp for National Guard troops. Little evidence of that buildup or of the Villista attack remains today, but ironically, the site where Camp Furlong stood is now called Pancho Villa State Park. Apparently villains draw more tourists than do heroes.