Chasing Pancho Villa

pancho villa

Francisco “Pancho” Villa

The United States carefully watched the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910.  By 1914, various factions in Mexico were vying to remove the Mexican President Victoriano Huerta from power.  Two former allies, Venustiano Carranza and Francisco “Pancho” Villa turned against each other after Huerta resigned.  By the end of 1915, forces loyal to Villa had been driven by Carranza into the northern mountains of Mexico.  The United States under President Woodrow Wilson formally recognized the Carranza government.  This decision almost led the United States and Mexico into a full-scale war.

Villa responded to Wilson’s support for Carranza by targeting U.S. citizens.  His men assassinated seventeen Americans on a train at Santa Isabel in Mexico.  This infuriated the American public.  However, he did not stop there.  On March 9, 1916, Villa and his men crossed over the border to the small town of Columbus, New Mexico near a U.S. Army outpost, killing an additional eighteen Americans.  Villa was pursued back into Mexico by American forces before their supplies were exhausted and they had to abandon their pursuit.  It was the first time since the British attacked during the War of 1812 that a foreign army invaded United States soil.

President Wilson responded by ordering U.S. Brigadier General John “Black Jack” Pershing to capture Villa and put an end to his incursions.  Pershing led a punitive expedition that ultimately involved approximately 11,000 American soldiers and other personnel.  What followed was eleven months of Pershing chasing Villa throughout northern Mexico.

american soldiers.mexico

American soldiers in Mexico

The American presence in Mexico for that long a period of time had consequences. Venustiano Carranza had little interest in helping the Americans capture Villa.  On April 13, 1916, soldiers in Carranza’s army attacked American soldiers at Parral, killing an American soldier and wounding another.  Fourteen Mexicans were killed.  On June 21, 1916, a more ominous and deadly encounter occurred when soldiers of the Mexican National Army attacked an American scouting party at Carrizal.  This left 12 Americans dead, 10 wounded and 24 captured.  At least 30 Mexicans were killed.

Tensions were high between the United States and Mexico.  By mid-June of 1916, President Wilson called out 110,000 National Guard troops for border service as a show of force against Mexico, although none of these men were used in the search for Villa.  Rather than a war between the two countries that neither side wanted, cooler heads prevailed.  Villa’s forces were depleted due to casualties and desertion so he did not pose the same threat as when the operation started.  The United States had a more pressing problem.  World War I was raging in Europe and, although the United States was not directly involved, the military’s focus began to shift.

By February 5, 1917, the mission in Mexico ended.  All American soldiers were out of Mexico and only small forces were maintained along the border to prevent further incursions. Pancho Villa was never captured.

For America, the Mexican Punitive Expedition opened new chapters in its history.  It marked the introduction of a new technology, the airplane.  The First Aero Squadron saw action for the American military for the first time.  Another first for the American military was the use of motorized vehicles, mostly trucks, during the expedition.  Both technologies had issues, as the roads in Mexico made it difficult for the trucks to maneuver and the high winds along the mountains made it difficult for the planes to fly.

John Pershing went on to command the American Expeditionary Force in World I.  Many men who served under his command in Mexico joined him in Europe, including a young lieutenant named George S. Patton who went on to great fame as a general in World War II.

The turmoil in Mexico did not end when the Americans left.  Venustiano Carranza became the president of Mexico on March 11, 1917 but immediately faced new rivals.  He was assassinated in 1920.  Pancho Villa reached an agreement with the new leader of Mexico, Adolfo de la Huerta to peacefully coexist.  However, Villa was assassinated at his ranch in Parral, Mexico on June 20, 1923.

Recommended Reading:

The United States Armed Forces and the Mexican Punitive Expedition:  Parts 1 and 2 by Mitchell Yockelson

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A Real British Invasion

America Enters The Great War

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