Tonight we ride!
Tonight we ride!
We’ll skin old Pancho Villa and make chaps out of his hide
Shoot his horse Siete Leguas and his 27 brides
Tonight we ride, boys
Tonight we ride!
Francisco Villa’s rage left him virtually unhinged. By the end of 1915, the vaunted Division del Norte had been swept away in a blood-red tide and his command had been reduced to a hard core of loyalists a rag-tag cadre of men and boys they conscripted at the muzzle of a gun.
Villa blamed the United States, which had recognized his hated rival Venustiano Carranza’s faction as the legitimate government of Mexico and had materially assisted the Carrancistas in defeating the Division del Norte at the border city of Agua Prieta. The bandit in Villa knew only one way to quench his fury: he sought revenge.
In January 1916, a troop of Villitas led by the fanatically loyal Col. Pablo Lopez stopped a train near Santa Isabel, southwest of Chihuahua City. Aboard was a contingent of Americans, mostly mining engineers, who were on their way to reopen a silver mine that had closed down during the peak of the civil war.
Lopez ordered the Americans off the train, cursing and taunting them, telling them they ought to ask U.S. President Woodrow Wilson for help, or perhaps appeal to Carranza for protection. He had them lined up on the tracks and detailed a couple of young Villistas to shoot them down with their Mausers.
It was a brutal scene, recalled by a Mexican who was on the train:
“The Americans lay on the ground, gasping and writhing in the sand and cinders. The suffering of the Americansd seemed to drive the bandfits into a frenzy. ‘Viva Villa! They cried, and ‘Death to the gringos!’ Colonel Lopez ordered the ‘mercy shot’ given to those who were still alive, and the soldiers placed the ends of their rifles at their victims’ heads and fired, putting the wounded out of their misery.”
Eighteen Americans were slain in what can only be described as a terrorist attack. The Wilson Administration didn’t not act, reluctant to get embroiled in a confrontation with Mexico while the possibility existed that the U.S. would be pulled in to the Great War in Europe.
Within a few months, Villa would force Wilson’s hand.
In the deepest dark of the morning of March 9, 1916, Villa and some 485 men slipped across the border and infiltrated the small burg of Columbus, New Mexico. It has never been determined with absolute certainty why Villa chose to attack Columbus. Perhaps he thought he could hijack arms from the U.S. forces stationed at nearby Camp Furlong, and the prospect of loot was certainly enticing to his wretched little army. It has been surmised that he also wanted revenge on a merchant named Sam Ravel who may have double-crossed him on an arms deal. Witnesses said that the Villistas searched for Ravel, inquiring after him by name and briefly taking hostage his young brother Arthur. Perhaps he was seeking to kill some Americans and provoke a U.S. invasion that would send patriotic Mexicans flocking to his tattered banner.
There are theories that German agents-provocateurs goaded Villa into an attack in order to get the U.S. tied down in Mexico. While there’s no doubt that that was a strategic aim of the Germans, they seem to have been putting their bets on Carranza (the Zimmerman Telegram). I’ve never seen any convincing evidence that the Columbus Raid was a German plot.
Whatever the strategic purpose, the attack on Columbus was a dismal failure. Ten civilians were killed and eight soldiers from Camp Furlong died repelling the attack. The defenders killed 67 Villistas in town, mostly after Lt. John Lucas and his men set up four French Benet-Mercie light machine guns and hosed down the streets — illuminated by fires set by the rampaging Villistas — with some 20,000 rounds of .30-06. (This despite several jams. The Benet-Mercie was a notoriously finicky piece-of-crap). Another hundred or so Villistas were slain as the fire-eating Col. Frank Tompkins pursued the retreating Villistas into Mexico.
Faced with an attack on U.S. soil, President Wilson had little recourse but to retaliate. He sent General John J. Pershing at the head of a Punitive Expedition to capture or kill Villa.
As with later strategic manhunts, the effort to track down an elusive enemy on his home ground proved futile. Despite hard campaigning, some close calls and the occasional skirmish that added to the Villista body count, the cavalry never quite caught up to Pancho Villa. Despite Carranza’s grudging acceptance of their presence, U.S. troops got no cooperation and a good deal of hindrance from their Carrancista counterparts. In fact, the biggest battle during the whole campaign was a nasty scrap at the city of Carrizal, between American forces and Carrancista troops. Damn near sparked a real war with Mexico. The Germans must have been licking their chops.
But nobody wanted a war, so tensions ratcheted down. The Punitive Expedition pulled back, and finally out of Mexico at the beginning of 1917 — just in time for the U.S. to declare war on Germany and send Pershing “Over There” at the head of the American Expeditionary Force.
The Punitive Expedition was declared a success — sort of:
“Despite the failure to kill or capture Villa, he was never again a serious threat to the security of the U.S. border states. Pershing succeeded in scattering Villa’s forces, killing 203, wounding 108, and capturing 19 of the 485 Villistas who had attacked Columbus… Even when (Villa) reappeared at the head of a reconstituted army in the fall of 1916, he never dared to approach U.S. forces nor to attack Americans in Mexico, in spite of his bellicose threats.”
Well… I guess. But Villa did come roaring back to life, aided in no small part by resentment of the Yanqui invaders. For a while, Villa’s revolutionary star was on the ascendant again. His forces controlled most of the Chihuahuan countryside and he was able occasionally to mount successful attacks on urban centers. He waged a savage war of reprisals with the Carrancista general Pancho “The Rope” Murguia, notorious for dangling captured Villistas from the trees lining the avenues of Chihuahua City. Villa was no less savage. When the citizens of the town of Nampiqua, once loyal, betrayed the location of an arms cache, Villa retaliated by allowing his fighters to engage in a mass rape of the town’s women — something that he never would have countenanced in his glory days as commander of the Division del Norte.
Gradually, Villa’s near-mad rage burned itself out. By 1920, Obregon and Carranza had fallen out and Obregon had had Carranza turned out of power and then murdered. Villa was willing to negotiate a truce.
He was granted a hacienda called Canutillo in the state of Durango, where he maintained a substantial private bodyguard. A mellower Villa enjoyed developing a state-of-the-art agricultural colony and spending time with his many children by his many wives. But old enmities finally caught up to him. Driving back to Canutillo from a wedding in Parral, Villa was ambushed and shot full of holes, along with several members of his personal staff.
The man who arranged and led the hit pleaded guilty — and served three months of a seven-year prison sentence. The fix was in, and the fixer was most likely Alvaro Obregon, el Presidente and the Last Man Standing in the Mexican Civil War. (He wouldn’t stand forever though; in 1928, he was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic who was outraged at the anti-clerical Obregon’s rough treatment of the Church. Shot five times in the face. They all went down hard).
How to assess Francisco Villa? I believe he was a sincere revolutionary, who sought to elevate the status of a people crushed under the oppression of a truly brutal economic system and a political tyranny. He was a near-genius insurgent leader, who failed utterly when the politico/military demands became more sophisticated and complex. A genuine freedom fighter, he was also a terrorist and, as the inexorable logic of terrorism demands, he sank into an abyss of cruelty that alienated him — for a time — from his own people as well as his enemies.
I see him less as a hero or a villain than as a violent force of nature — and always a colorful, deadly, badass Frontier Partisan warrior.