Battle of Columbus (1916)
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The Battle of Columbus, the Burning of Columbus or the Columbus Raid, began as a raid conducted by Pancho Villa's Division of the North on the small United States border town of Columbus, New Mexico in March 1916. The raid escalated into a full-scale battle between Villistas and the United States Army. Villa himself led the assault, only to be driven back into Mexico by elements of the 13th Cavalry. The attack angered Americans and President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Pancho Villa Expedition in which the US Army invaded Mexico in an unsuccessful attempt to capture General Villa.
After the 1915 Battle of Celaya, where Villa sustained his greatest defeat, the Division of the North was in shambles, wandering around northern Mexico foraging for supplies. Lacking the military supplies, money, and munitions he needed in order to successfully pursue his war against Mexican President Venustiano Carranza, Villa planned the raid and camped his army of an estimated 500 horsemen outside of Palomas on the Mexican side of the border. The reasons for the raid have never been established. At their camp, Villa and his men waited for his returning patrols.
After the return of Villa's patrols, who told him that only about thirty soldiers garrisoned Columbus, Villa moved north. He launched a two-pronged attack on the town on March 9 when most of the town's population was asleep, along with most of the garrison. After they entered the town at 04:15, shouting "¡Viva Villa! ¡Viva México!" and other phrases, the townspeople awoke to an army of Villista cavalry burning their settlement and looting their homes. The Camp Commander, Colonel Herbert Slocum had been advised the day before that Villa and his soldiers were on the move against Columbus. This warning was given by Juan Favela, the foreman of a ranch near Palomas (3 miles south), who had seen them headed north the day before the attack. The warning was ignored. After dismissing Favela, Colonel Slocum left the Camp for Deming (32 miles north) to catch the train into El Paso to attend an "officers call".
Despite being taken by surprise, the Americans quickly recovered with the soldiers grabbing a machine gun and their Springfield rifles and running to defensible positions around the Camp. The town's garrison consisted of a 330-strong detachment of the 13th Cavalry. In addition, many of the townspeople were armed with rifles and shotguns. Many residents took refuge in the two story brick schoolhouse. Eighteen of the defenders and nearly eighty of the attackers were killed.
Villa's men looted many houses and burned them; fighting civilians that were defending their homes. It is not known if Villa was with the raiding party at any time. To observe the action, Villa, his commanders, and about two dozen other men took up position on Cootes hill overlooking Columbus where some acted as sharpshooters to fire upon the town. The Villistas fought the pursuing American troops and civilians until a bugler sounded the order to retreat. In the absence of Colonel Slocum, the already wounded Major Frank Tompkins led forces which pursued Villa's forces into Mexico and inflicted heavy losses on them. Major Tompkins was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal and the Distinguished Service Cross in 1918 for this action.
In spite of Villa proclaiming that the raid was a success by evidence of captured arms and equipment as well as dozens of horses and mules from the town, which included over 300 rifles and shotguns, 80 horses, and 30 mules, the raid was a tactical disaster for him with ill-afforded casualties which numbered over 100 of his force which had consisted of 400 to 500 men. Mexican casualties were confirmed to be at least 67 killed in action plus about 13 more who died from wounds, over 100 non-fatally wounded whom escaped. Six were taken prisoner and tried; one was acquitted and five were convicted and executed by hanging. The dead Villa soldiers were dragged south of the stockyards, soaked with kerosene and burned.
Despite a fight of more than an hour and the burning of several buildings, American casualties were much smaller than Villa's. Eight soldiers and ten civilians were killed and six soldiers and two civilians were wounded. The United States government wasted no time in responding. The Battle of Columbus was a direct cause of the Pancho Villa Expedition, a punitive expedition led by General John J. Pershing to track down and capture or kill the attackers, including Villa. In the search, the Army used Jenny airplanes for reconnaissance and trucks to carry supplies (both firsts for the Army). They scoured portions of northern Mexico for six months but Villa was not found. In April 1917, when the United States entered World War I, and under intense diplomatic pressure from the Mexican government, these troops were withdrawn from Mexico and sent to France.
In commemoration of Pancho Villa's attack on Columbus, the State of New Mexico Parks Commission established Pancho Villa Historical Park and its museum in Columbus, near Cootes hill across the Palomas road from the site of Camp Furlong.
- Huachuca Illustrated, vol 1, 1993: Villa's Raid on Columbus! New Mexico
- Valor awards for Frank Tompkins | Military Times Hall of Valor
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- Montfort, Bill. "Pancho Villa State RV Park" on the Columbus, New Mexico website
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- Katz, Friedrich. "Pancho Villa and the Attack on Columbus, New Mexico," American Historical Review 83#1 (1978), pp. 101-130 in JSTOR
- Rakocy, Bill (1981) Villa raids Columbus, N.Mex., Mar. 9, 1916 Bravo Press, El Paso, Texas, OCLC 7629090
- White, E. Bruce and Francisco Villa, "The Muddied Waters of Columbus, New Mexico," The Americas 32#1 (July 1975), pp. 72-98 in JSTOR
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