Key Point: The United States wanted to capture Villa and put and end to any border raids. Patton was a Lieutenant at the time and served in that effort.
Lieutenant John P. Lucas of the 13th U.S. Cavalry was sound asleep in a small adobe shack in Columbus, New Mexico, on the night of March 9, 1916, when he was abruptly awakened by the unmistakable sounds of men and horses passing outside his window. It was 4:30 am in the small desert town three miles from the Mexican border. Mexico was in the throes of a bloody revolution, and the 13th Cavalry was there to make sure that the violence did not spill over into the United States.
Lucas quickly rose, stumbling in the darkness, and peered through the window into the inky void. His sleepy eyes confirmed what he had heard—a large number of horsemen were coming into town. It was still dark, but Lucas caught sight of one of the horsemen, who was wearing a black sombrero. There was no doubt in the lieutenant’s mind that the intruders were Pancho Villa’s men, and that Columbus was under attack.
The lieutenant groped blindly for his pistol, moving into the middle of the room facing the door. Adrenaline coursing through his veins, Lucas fully expected the approaching Villistas to break in and finish him off. He was determined not to go down without a fight. With luck, he could take one or two with him.
A nearby commotion saved the lieutenant’s life. As the raiders approached Post No. 3, not far from the 13th Cavalry headquarters at Camp Furlong, they were challenged by the sentry on duty, Private Fred Griffin of Troop K. In answer, a Villista shot Griffin in the stomach, mortally wounding him. Staggered by the blow, Griffin raised his 1903 Model Springfield rifle and killed three raiders before dying himself.
There was now no need for secrecy. Someone in the darkness cried, “Vayanse adelante, muchachos!” In response, the raiders spurred their horses forward with shouts of “Viva Villa!” and “Muerte a los gringos!” The Columbus raid had begun. Although small in scale, the predawn raid was to loom large in the troubled history of relations between the United States and its tumultuous neighbor to the south, sparking an American military response that would nearly lead to war between the two nations.
The Mythical Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa, whose real name was Doroteo Arango, was the central figure in the drama, and the raid and subsequent events cannot be fully understood without an exploration of Villa’s character. Villa was a larger-than-life figure whose legend resonates in both countries to this day. But Villa the man is hard to separate from Villa the myth—a myth partly based on fact but also, ironically, the product of American newspapers and motion pictures.
American attitudes toward Mexico were an uneasy mixture of idealism and condescension. Bad relations between the two nations dated as far back as the 1830s and 1840s, when Texas rebelled against Mexico, instigating the Mexican War and resulting in the loss of a sizable chunk of the latter’s territory to the United States. Antagonism continued into the 20th century as a string of impotent Mexican leaders failed to bring order to their fractious nation.
In 1910, rebels led by Francisco Madero ended the 30-year-long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, commencing a new period of unrest and uncertainty as different political factions jockeyed for power. Three years later, General Victoriano Huerta ousted Madero in a coup, killing his rival in the process. Huerta was scant improvement over his predecessor; flagrant corruption continued to plague the country. Rebel forces rallied around charismatic leaders such as Emiliano Zapata in the south and Alvaro Obregon, Venustiano Carranza, and Pancho Villa in the north.
President William Howard Taft closely monitored the chaotic situation in Mexico, sending 16,000 troops to the border in 1911 to safeguard American citizens (and American business interests). When Woodrow Wilson succeeded Taft as president in March 1913, he refused to recognize Huerta’s government. Instead, he dispatched additional naval forces to Tampico and Veracruz to protect American interests there and prevent weapons from flooding into the country from abroad. Mexicans understandably saw Wilson’s actions as blatant meddling in their internal affairs. Anti-American hostility increased.
Tensions reached a boiling point on April 9, 1914, in Tampico, when a group of American sailors from the USS Dolphin were seized by Mexican authorities after they mistakenly entered a restricted area in search of supplies. Although an embarrassed Huerta swiftly ordered their release and issued a formal apology to the United States, Wilson reacted by sending additional naval forces to the Mexican coast to monitor the worsening situation.
Two weeks later, a German ship loaded with arms for Huerta approached Veracruz. Wilson immediately ordered Marines to occupy the port city. Some 800 American Marines and sailors stormed ashore and fought their way into the center of town. Bitter street fighting continued throughout the day, claiming 17 American lives and another 61 wounded, while nearly 200 defenders were killed, further inflaming hostility toward the United States throughout Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
The Carranza Regime Takes Power
In July 1914, Huerta resigned. Four months later, Wilson pulled his forces out of Veracruz and threw his support behind the opposition Carranza government. But Carranza faced continued opposition from his top subordinates—Zapata, Obregon, and Pancho Villa. Zapata and Villa soon broke with each other over the proper conduct of the war, and by 1915, Villa and Obregon were mortal enemies as well. It looked at first as though Villa, the fabled Centaur of the North, held all the cards. But Obregon threw his support behind Carranza and decisively defeated Villa at Celaya that April.
Although Carranza often filled his speeches with anti-American rhetoric, he seemed a more stable choice than the discredited bandit chief, and in October 1915 the United States officially recognized Carranza and his regime as the legitimate rulers of Mexico. The Wilson administration materially aided Carranza by allowing Mexican troops to use American railroads and cross through U.S. territory to reinforce the government outpost at Agua Prieta. The additional reinforcements tipped the balance in favor of government forces. Villa launched three waves of attacks on Agua Prieta, only to be repulsed each time with heavy losses.
The once-proud Division of the North was virtually destroyed. Most survivors either surrendered or simply drifted home. Pancho Villa still remained at large, hiding in the hills with a few hundred hard-core followers. When Villa heard that Wilson had recognized Carranza, he flew into a towering rage, swearing revenge. Incidents along the border increased to the point that some American hotels began advertising that their establishments were bulletproof.
American Interests on the Mexican Border
Meanwhile, American border states—particularly Texas—grew more and more alarmed at the increasing violence along their southern boundaries. Mexican bandits—some Villistas, some not—regularly crossed into the United States to rob, assault, and kill American citizens. From July 1915 to June 1916, there were some 38 such raids, resulting in the deaths of 37 Americans. In response, Americans along the border formed vigilante groups that preyed on unoffending Mexican Americans. One group shot 14 Mexican Americans and placed their bodies along the roadway as a warning. Some of the fabled Texas Rangers were also guilty of random atrocities. To stop both the border raids and the escalating violence of both sides, President Wilson and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan ordered General Frederick Funston, head of the Army’s Southern Department, to dispatch more troops to the border.
There were numerous silver and copper mines in Sonora and Chihuahua, most of them owned and operated by American concerns. These mines, crucial to the Mexican economy, had been shut down due to revolutionary violence. As a sign that they were firmly in control, Carranza and Obregon declared Sonora and Chihuahua pacified and encouraged residents and foreign workers to return. Taking them at their word, the American Smelting and Refining Company dispatched engineers to reopen the Cixi Mine in Chihuahua.
On January 9, 1916, 17 mining officials and engineers aboard a train on the Mexico North Western Railway were stopped by Villa’s men near Santa Ysabel. The bandits took the Americans off the train, lined them up, and shot them in the head one by one. One Texan feigned death, crawled into a patch of mesquite bushes, and managed to escape. News of the slaughter so enraged citizens in El Paso that Army commanders had to declare martial law to prevent American vigilantes from crossing into Mexico and extracting revenge.
Battle in the Streets of Columbus
But Villa was not done with the gringos he felt had betrayed him. He started to plan for a raid on a border town, although at first Columbus, New Mexico, was just one of many possible targets. According to some accounts, his intelligence was faulty. His spies told him Columbus had only 30 American soldiers in it—the number was closer to 350. Villa’s motives have been endlessly debated, but probably he wanted to provoke a war between the United States and Mexico that ultimately would lead to Carranza’s downfall. If his men could get their hands on some loot, weapons, and a few horses, so much the better.