Battle of Columbus (1916)
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 Regiment stationed at the town. The attack angered Americans and President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Punitive 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 patrols told him that only about thirty soldiers garrisoned Columbus, Villa moved north. In actuality the garrison from the 13th Cavalry Regiment stationed at Camp Furlong, adjacent to Columbus, consisted of the headquarters troop, machine gun troop, and four of the seven rifle troops deployed to patrol the border, totaling in all 12 officers and 341 men, of which approximately 270 were combat troops.
Villa divided his force into two columns, most of which approached the town on foot, and launched a two-pronged attack on the town in the dark early on March 9. Most of the town's population was asleep, along with most of the garrison, when they entered Columbus from the west and southeast at 04:15, shouting "¡Viva Villa! ¡Viva México!" and other phrases. The townspeople awoke to an army of Villistas burning their settlement and looting their homes. The commander of the 13th Cavalry was Colonel Herbert Jermain Slocum. He had been advised the day before that Villa and his soldiers were on the move, possibly against Columbus, in three conflicting reports from Mexican sources. One warning was given by Juan Favela, the foreman of a ranch near Palomas (3 miles south in Mexico), who had seen them headed north the day before the attack. Amidst many such reports that had proved false, the warning was ignored as unreliable, although the troop at the Border Gate was reinforced and all three troops in the field were ordered to step up patrolling of the 65-mile long border. However U.S. soldiers were forbidden to reconnoiter inside Mexico and thus unable to check reports of Villa's whereabouts.
Despite being taken by surprise, the Americans quickly recovered. Soon after the attack began, 2nd Lt. John P. Lucas, commanding the 13th Cavalry's machine gun troop, made his way barefooted and alone from his quarters to the camp's barracks. He organized a hasty defense around the camp's guard tent, where his troop's machine guns were kept under lock, with two men and a Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié machine gun. He was soon joined by the remainder of his unit and 30 troopers armed with M1903 Springfield rifles led by 2nd Lt. Horace Stringfellow, Jr. The troop's four machine guns fired more than 5,000 rounds apiece during a 90-minute fight, their targets illuminated by fires of burning buildings. In addition, many of the townspeople were armed with rifles and shotguns. Many residents took refuge in the two story brick schoolhouse.
Villa's men looted and burned many houses, 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. Major Frank Tompkins, commanding the regiment's 3rd Squadron and acting as its executive officer, asked and received permission from Slocum to pursue the withdrawing Mexicans. Disregarding the rules of engagement, he led two troops 15 miles into Mexico in pursuit of a force approximately six times the size of his, engaged Villa's rear guard four times, and inflicted heavy losses on them before running low on ammunition and water. 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 from the camp, which included over 300 rifles and shotguns, 80 horses, and 30 mules, the raid was a tactical disaster for him with ill-afforded casualties of from 90 to 170 dead from an original force that had numbered 484 men, including at least 63 killed in action and at least seven more who died from wounds during the raid itself. Of those captured during the raid, seven were tried; of those, one sentence was commuted to life in prison; and six were convicted and executed by hanging. Two were hung on June 9, 1916; four were hung on June 30, 1916. Sixty-three dead Villa soldiers were dragged south of the stockyards, soaked with kerosene and burned.
The United States government wasted no time in responding. The Battle of Columbus resulted in the creation of the Punitive Expedition led by General John J. Pershing to track down and capture or kill Villa or disperse the attackers. In the operation, the Army used Curtiss 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 January 1917, with the United States likely to enter World War I soon, and under intense diplomatic pressure from the Mexican government, these troops were withdrawn from Mexico.
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.
- Louis Sadler, New Mexico State University, in forward to 1996 reprint of Chasing Villa. Pershing's report gave the figure as 485.
- Tompkins, Col. Frank (1934, 1996). Chasing Villa: The Last Campaign of the U.S. Cavalry, High-Lonesome Books, Silver City, New Mexico. ISBN 0-944383-39-4, p. 44
- Huachuca Illustrated, vol 1, 1993: Villa's Raid on Columbus! New Mexico
- "Slocum Blameless For Columbus Raid. Secretary of War Announces No Stigma Rests on Conduct of Post Commander. Inspector Makes Report. Funston Says Mexican Scout Misled Colonel. Pershing Defends His Subordinate". New York Times. August 1, 1916. Retrieved 2013-12-20.
Colonel H. J. Slocum of the Thirteenth Cavalry has been exonerated by the Secretary of War of blame in connection with Francisco Villa's raid on Columbus, N.M., last March. Colonel Slocum was in command of the American troops stationed at Columbus, and there has been a great deal of unofficial criticism of the apparent circumstance that his forces were surprised by the Villistas. ...
- Tompkins, pp. 50-52
- Valor awards for Frank Tompkins | Military Times Hall of Valor
- Pershing's report on the Punitive Expedition listed 90 killed on March 9. Tompkins reported 67 found dead in the town, five more hanged, and from 75 to 100 killed in the pursuit. Other histories place the Villista killed variously in the 70—80 range.
- James W. Hurst: Pancho Villa and Black Jack Pershing. The Punitive Expedition in Mexico. Praeger Publishers, Westport 2008, ISBN 978-0-313-35004-7, S. 21-30.
- Huachuca Illustrated, vol 1, 1993: Villa's Raid on Columbus, New Mexico
- James W. Hurst, The Villista Prisoners of 1916-17 Yucca Tree Press (Las Cruces, NM 2000)
- Montfort, Bill. "Pancho Villa State RV Park" on the Columbus, New Mexico website
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- Braddy, Haldeen (1965) Pancho Villa at Columbus Texas Western College Press, El Paso, Texas, OCLC 2235175
- De Quesada, Alejandro (2012) The Hunt For Pancho Villa; The Columbus Raid and Pershing's Punitive Expedition 1916-17. Osprey Publishing. Osprey Raid Series #29. ISBN 978-1-84908-568-7
- Finley, James P. (1993) "Buffalo Soldiers at Huachuca: Villa's Raid on Columbus"] Huachuca Illustrated: a magazine of the Fort Huachuca Museum Vol. 1, Part 12 online
- 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