Pancho Villa Expedition
|Pancho Villa Expedition|
|Part of the Mexican Revolution, Border War|
Cartoon by Clifford Berryman reflects American attitudes about the expedition
|Commanders and leaders|
| John J. Pershing
George A. Dodd
| Pancho Villa
The Pancho Villa Expedition—officially known in the United States as the Mexican Expedition and sometimes colloquially referred to as the Punitive Expedition—was a military operation conducted by the United States Army against the paramilitary forces of Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa from March 14, 1916 to February 7, 1917 during the Mexican Revolution 1910-1920.
The expedition was launched in retaliation for Villa's attack on the town of Columbus, New Mexico, and was the most remembered event of the Border War. The expedition had one objective: to capture Villa dead or alive. Despite successfully locating Villa and defeating the force under his command, Villa himself escaped American forces and the operation came to a close.
Trouble between the United States and Pancho Villa had been growing since 1915, when the United States government disappointed Villa by giving its official recognition to Venustiano Carranza as the official government of Mexico. Feeling betrayed, Villa began attacking American property and citizens in northern Mexico.
Villa usually kept his men well below the border to avoid direct confrontation with the United States Army forces deployed to defend the border. But at about 4:00 am on March 9, 1916, Villa's troops attacked Columbus, New Mexico, and its detachment of the 13th Cavalry Regiment, killing ten civilians and eight soldiers, and wounding two civilians and six soldiers. The raiders burned the town, stole horses and mules, and seized machine guns, ammunition and merchandise, before fleeing back to Mexico.
However, Villa's troops had suffered considerable losses, with at least sixty-seven dead and dozens more wounded. About thirteen of these later died of their wounds, and five Villistas taken prisoner by the Americans were executed. The attack may have been caused by a merchant in Columbus who supplied Villa with arms and ammunition. Villa had paid several thousand dollars in cash for the weapons, but the merchant refused to deliver them unless he was paid in gold.
On March 15, 1916  on orders from President Woodrow Wilson, Major General John J. Pershing led an expeditionary force of 4,800 men into Mexico to capture Villa. On March 19, a Curtiss JN-3 airplane of the 1st Aero Squadron began conducting an aerial reconnaissance of the area.
Pershing divided his force into two "flying columns" to search for Villa, making his main base camp at Casas Grandes, Chihuahua. Because of disputes with the Carranza administration over the use of the Mexico North Western Railway to supply Pershing's troops, the United States Army employed a trucks to convoy supplies to the encampment where the Signal Corps set up wireless telegraph service from the border to Pershing's headquarters. This was the first use of (non-rail) (Radio Tractors) motor vehicles in a U. S. military operation and provided useful experience for World War I.
The first battle between the Villistas and the soldiers took place on March 29, 1916, at San Geronimo Ranch, near the town of Guerrero. After a long march through the Sierra Madre, Colonel George A. Dodd and 370 men of the 7th Cavalry, launched a cavalry charge.
During the five-hour battle, over 75 of Villa's men were killed or wounded and he was forced to retreat into the mountains. Only five of the Americans were hurt, none of them fatally. The battle is considered the single most successful engagement of the expedition and it was the closest Pershing's men came to capturing Villa.
On April 12, 1916, about 100 men of the all-black 13th Cavalry were attacked by an estimated 500 Mexican troops as they were leaving the town of Parral. Colonel Frank Tompkins knew that his outnumbered Buffalo Soldiers could not win a conventional engagement; but in a running battle he and his men were able to reach a fortified village nearby while repulsing Mexican cavalry charges at the same time. Two Americans were killed in the fight and another six were wounded and 1 soldier missing, the Mexicans lost between fourteen and seventy men, according to conflicting accounts. One report claims 1 known Mexican civilian wounded and 40 Mexicans killed.
Colonel Dodd and the 7th Cavalry fought another engagement on April 22 with about 200 Villistas, under Candelaro Cervantes, at the small village of Tomochic. As the Americans entered the village, the Mexicans opened fire from the surrounding hills. Dodd first sent patrols out to engage the Villistas' rear guard, to the east of Tomochic, and after they were "scattered" the main body was located on a plain, to the north of town, and brought into action. Skirmishing continued, but after dark the Villistas retreated and the Americans moved to in Tomochic. The 7th Cavalry lost two men killed and four wounded, while Dodd reported his men had killed at least thirty Villistas.
The next battle was on May 5, at a ranch near Ojos Azules. Six troops of the 11th Cavalry and a detachment of Apache Scouts charged Julio Acosta and his 100 Villistas in what Friedrich Katz called the "greatest victory that the Punitive Expedition would achieve." Without a single casualty, the Americans killed forty-one Villistas and wounded many more. The survivors, including Acosta, were dispersed, but they later regrouped to continue fighting the Mexican government.
While the 11th Cavalry was engaged at Ojos Azules, dozens of Mexican raiders, under a Villista officer, attacked the towns of Boquillas and Glenn Springs, Texas. The Mexicans won at Glenn Springs against a squad of just nine 14th Cavalry soldiers, while at Boquillas they robbed the town and took two captives. U.S. Army sent a punitive expedition to Coahuila to free the captives and regain the stolen property. On May 12, Colonel George T. Langhorne and two troopers from the 8th Cavalry rescued the captives at El Pino without a fight, and three days later a small detachment of cavalry encountered the raiders at Castillon. Five of the Villistas were killed and two wounded; the Americans had no casualties.
On May 14, Lieutenant George S. Patton, 8th Cavalry, raided the San Miguelito Ranch, near Rubio, Chihuahua. Patton, a future World War II general, was out looking to buy some corn from the Mexicans when he came across the ranch of Julio Cárdenas, an important leader in the Villista military organization. With fifteen men and three Dodge touring cars, Patton led America's first motorised military action, in which Cárdenas and two other men were shot dead. The young lieutenant then had the three Mexicans strapped to the hood of the cars and driven back to General Pershing's headquarters at Colonia Dublán. Patton is said to have carved three notches into the twin Colt Peacemakers he carried, representing the men he killed that day. General Pershing nicknamed him the "Bandito".
The Villistas launched an attack of their own on May 25. This time a small force of ten men from the 7th Cavalry were out looking for stray cattle and correcting maps when they were ambushed by twenty rebels just south of Cruces. One American corporal was killed and two other men were wounded, though they killed two of the "bandit leaders" and drove off the rest.
On June 2, Lieutenant James A. Shannon and twenty Apache scouts fought a small skirmish with some of Candelaro Cervantes' men after they stole a few horses from the 5th Cavalry. Shannon and the Apaches found the rebels' trail, which was a week old by then, and followed it for some time until finally catching up with the Mexicans near Las Varas Pass, about forty miles south of Namiquipa. Using the cover of darkness, Shannon and his scouts attacked the Villistas' hideout, killing one of them and wounding another without losses to themselves. The rebel who died was thought to be the leader as he carried a sword during the fight.
Another skirmish was fought on June 9, north of Pershing's headquarters and the city of Chihuahua. Twenty men from the 13th Cavalry encountered an equally small force of Villistas and chased them through Santa Clara Canyon. Three of the Mexicans were killed and the rest escaped. There were no American casualties.
The last engagement of the Mexican Expedition was fought on June 21 when American forces, including elements of the 7th Cavalry and the African-American 10th Cavalry, were defeated by Carrancista soldiers at the Battle of Carrizal. Captain Charles T. Boyd and ten of his men were killed with 10 wounded while another twenty-four (23 soldiers and 1 civilian interpreter) were taken prisoner (and later released to the United States). The Mexicans did not do much better; they reported the loss of twenty-four men killed and forty-three wounded, including their commander, General Félix Uresti Gómez. When General Pershing learned of the battle he was furious and asked for permission to attack the Carrancista garrison of Chihuahua. President Wilson refused, knowing that it would certainly start a war.
While the expedition did make contact with Villista formations, killing two of his generals and about 160 of his men, it failed in its major objectives, neither stopping border raids—which continued while the expedition was in Mexico—nor capturing Villa. However, between the date of the American withdrawal and Villa's retirement in 1920, Villa's troops were no longer an effective fighting force, being hemmed in by American and Mexican federal troops and suffering money and arms blockades on both sides of the border.
National Guard service
United States National Guard units from Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico were called into service on May 8, 1916. With congressional approval of the National Defense Act on June 3, 1916, Guard units from the remainder of the states, and the District of Columbia, were also called for duty on the border. On June 18, President Wilson called out 110,000 National Guard for border service but only one regiment of the National Guard, the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, served in Mexico with Pershing's Expedition. The bulk of the National Guard troops would cross the border into Mexico but were used mainly as a show of force. They spent most of their time training.
Nonetheless, activities on the border were far from dull. The troops were on constant alert as border raids were still an occasional nuisance. The Mexican Expedition was an excellent training environment for the officers and men of the National Guard, who were recalled to federal service later that same year for duty in World War I. Many National Guard leaders in both World Wars traced their first federal service to the Mexican Expedition.
- May 5, 1916: Glenn Springs Texas. 3 US Soldiers & 1 Civilian killed; 8 US soldiers wounded. Mexican casualties are believed to be two killed and unknown number of wounded.
- June 15, 1916: San Ygnacio, Tex. 4 US soldiers killed and 5 wounded. 6 Mexicans killed
- July 31, 1916: Fort Hancock, Texas. 1 US Soldier and 1 Civilian Customs Inspector killed and 1 soldier wounded. 3 Mexicans killed and 3 captured by Mexican Govt troops.
The bulk of American forces were withdrawn in January 1917. Pershing publicly claimed the expedition was a success, though he complained privately to his family that President Wilson had imposed too many restrictions, which made it impossible for him to fulfill his mission. He admitted to having been "outwitted and out-bluffed at every turn" and wrote that "when the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate. Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs."
Pershing was permitted to bring into New Mexico 527 Chinese refugees who had assisted him during the expedition, despite the ban on Chinese immigration at that time under the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese refugees, known as "Pershing's Chinese", were allowed to remain in the U.S. if they worked under the supervision of the military as cooks and servants on bases. In 1921, Congress passed Public Resolution 29, which allowed them to remain in the country permanently under the conditions of the 1892 Geary Act. Most of them settled in San Antonio.
Order of battle
United States Army:
|A graphical timeline is available at
Timeline of the Mexican Revolution
Company A, First Arkansas Infantry, in a "skirmish line" near Deming, New Mexico, during the 1916 Mexican Expedition
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