The Battle of Columbus (1916)


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"A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops."

—General John J. Pershing

The desert sun beat down on Pancho Villa as he rode at the head of his rebel army.

Dust swirled around the march of 500 men making their way north to the U.S. border. The sting of betrayal by the Americans festered inside Pancho like a bullet wound.

Just six months ago, Villa had been the darling of the U.S. media.

He regaled reporters with tales of his victories against Mexico's dictator Huerta, recounting raids and ambushes over jugs of tequila.

The Americans loved Villa's swagger. They sent him guns and ammunition, applauding his revolution. General Pershing even shook his hand, grinning for the cameras.

But the Yanquis had turned their backs on Villa.

Pershing’s government cut deals with his rivals now, with the Venustiano Carranza regime.

Villa’s victories had made him too popular, too defiant of U.S. interests. The newspapers that once praised him now called for his demise.

As Villa rode past standing sentinels, he remembered finding the remains of his men, massacred near Celaya by Carrancista soldiers wielding brand new American-made weapons.

Villa clenched his fist around his rifle.

If the border stayed open for Carranza while closed to him, the Americans would pay.

That night, Pancho Villa stood on the ridge gazing down at the U.S. town of Columbus, New Mexico.

Lamp lights twinkled innocently in the darkness.

A low whistle signaled his men were in position, waiting for dawn and Villa’s order to attack. He would strike swiftly at the heart of the country that now scorned him as a bandit. The raid would be brutal, teaching the Yankees a lesson they would never forget.

As the first rays of sun peeked over the horizon, Villa raised his pistol and bellowed the word his men longed to hear: “¡Adelante!”

Their vengeful cries split the morning air as they charged wildly down the ridge, the famous revolutionary leading them toward the unsuspecting town below.


Photo of Pancho Villa
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In the fragile web of alliances and rivalries during Mexico's revolution, the United States tried to play the middle ground between the warring factions. But its diplomatic maneuvering succeeded only in earning the ire of the mercurial northern commander Francisco "Pancho" Villa.  

In the early 1910s, the U.S. provided Villa aid and supplies for his guerilla campaign against Mexico's leader, Victoriano Huerta.

However, by late 1915, the Americans shifted their support to Venustiano Carranza, recognizing his followers as Mexico's legitimate government.

This policy reversal infuriated Pancho Villa, who felt profoundly betrayed.  

The Wilson administration allowed Carranza's forces to transport weapons via U.S. railroads to fight Villa's Division of the North.

Making matters worse, the border stayed open for Carranza while being closed to Villa.

Such preferential treatment by the Yanquis toward his most hated rival pushed Villa to retaliate.

Rather than directing his wrath at Carranza's troops, he instead planned a strike across the U.S. border itself.

Villa likely viewed raiding Columbus, New Mexico in March 1916 as righteous punishment of the Americans for turning their backs on him diplomatically.

However, without his personal testimony, historians cannot completely confirm why Villa lashed out at the U.S. in this infamous attack. The causes for Pancho Villa's grievances prior to the Columbus Raid remain partly steeped in mystery.


U.S. troops marching toward Columbus
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In the pitch darkness of early morning on March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa and his men approached Columbus, New Mexico entirely undetected.

The small U.S. Army garrison was utterly unprepared for the assault to come. Numbering only 300 men, the 13th Cavalry Regiment expected no trouble from across the border.

They were unaware Villa had expertly reconnoitered the town's vulnerabilities weeks prior.

Without adequate scouts or patrols, the American camp slept soundly as 1,500 raiders encircled them.

Villa's men achieved complete surprise in their dawn attack, occupying half of Columbus before the first alarms were raised.

Awakened by rifle shots and war cries, the U.S. cavalry scrambled to muster any defense.

But they were hopelessly disoriented, allowing the raiders to torch homes and stores largely unrestrained.

For several dire hours, panicked residents fled for their lives while villistas looted and burned much of the town.

Not until sunrise did the Army finally launch an organized counterattack. The delayed response was costly, with parts of Columbus left in smoking ruins.

For want of adequate vigilance, the Army let the enemy strike them unawares and paid dearly.


Mexican revolutionaries with machine guns
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While surprised initially, American forces in Columbus eventually turned the tide against Pancho Villa's raiders by deploying sophisticated weaponry unfamiliar to the villistas.

As cavalry charges floundered in killing zones of trenches and barbed wire, U.S. machine guns rained leaden death on the Mexicans.

Most devastating of all was one of the Army's first attempts at mechanized warfare—the Benet-Mercie machine gun mounted on an improvised armored car.

This early "tank" afforded the Americans unmatched mobility and protection.

Villa's men found their rifles and pistols ineffective against its steel plating.

And they had no answer for the shielded, water-cooled heavy machine gun blazing away from the armored car's turret.

Scything through the enemy ranks, this combination of machine gun and armor proved critical in repelling the Columbus Raid. Though taken by surprise, the Americans adapted quickly to overcome Villa's incursion with both innovation and firepower.

The armored car and Benet-Mercie presaged a new era of mobile mechanized warfare that would later dominate battlefields worldwide.


Trench warefare in the Battle of Columbus (1916)
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The success of Pancho Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico owes much to his expert employment of trench warfare.

Rather than rely solely on swift cavalry charges, Villa prepared for a protracted assault, digging networks of concealed trenches within 300 yards of American positions.

These provided vital cover and mobility to the villistas as they approached before dawn on March 9, 1916.

Sheltered in shallow trenches, Villa's men stealthily surrounded the U.S. Army camp, achieving both secrecy and proximity.

The trenches then served as assault platforms from which to launch a coordinated surprise attack.

Later, when American reinforcements arrived, the Mexican trenches afforded Villa's men protective cover from machine gun fire and cavalry charges.

By borrowing concepts of trench warfare from the Europeans on the Western Front, Villa maximized both the element of surprise and resilience of his raiders.

The digging of concealed trenches was integral to the villistas inflicting early damage on Columbus before their ultimate retreat.

Villa's tactical creativity posed stiff challenges for American forces unprepared for these innovations imported from the battlefields of the First World War.


Dead soldiers after the battle of Columbus
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The fighting during the Battle of Columbus (1916) proved intensely bloody for both sides, leaving over 100 dead when the smoke cleared.

At least 18 U.S. soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice defending Columbus against Villa's raid.

Army reports indicate that American bodies were found riddled with bullets and shrapnel, bearing ghastly wounds.

The villistas fared even worse, with conservative estimates placing their dead at over 100 men.

According to eyewitness accounts, some Mexican corpses were charred beyond recognition by the Armored car's machine guns or shredded by cannon fire.

The bodies of the slain were in such horrific condition that many could not be identified.

American authorities brought in doctors and fingerprint experts to distinguish nationality and identities, with limited success.

So extreme was the mutilation that proper burial was impossible; the dead of both sides were placed in mass graves rather than individually interred.

For a small border skirmish, the fighting at Columbus was shockingly lethal. When the cost was tallied, the Battle's brutality became clear, with nameless and ruined bodies buried in pits—dark testament to the slaughter's intensity.


Pancho Villa's near death experience
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Leading his men into the teeth of American firepower at Columbus, Pancho Villa escaped death by the narrowest of margins.

Contemporary accounts suggest that Villa was wounded during the heat of combat.

According to observers, he suffered shrapnel injuries from an American artillery shell that exploded nearby. Villa was apparently struck by metal fragments in the head and torso, though his wounds were relatively minor.

The most lasting damage was dealt to Villa's forehead, where the spray of shrapnel gashed him above his left eye.

Although the wound itself healed, it left Villa permanently scarred.

For the rest of his life, the rebel commander bore a visible knot of scar tissue on his brow—a reminder of his close brush with death at Columbus.

The forehead scar served as indelible proof that Villa had fought alongside his men and sampled the hellish maelstrom of combat.

Having narrowly avoided a martyr's demise, the mark on Villa's temple became part of his legend. For good or ill, the American artillery had put their permanent stamp upon the storied Mexican revolutionary.


The Punitive Expedition on horseback
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Stung by Villa's assault on Columbus, President Wilson dispatched over 10,000 troops into Mexico seeking vengeance.

Under the command of General John J. Pershing, this "Punitive Expedition" aimed to hunt down and capture or kill Pancho Villa himself. However, despite nearly a year of pursuit, Pershing failed to accomplish his objective.

From March 1916 to February 1917, Pershing's forces trekked hundreds of miles deep into Mexican territory searching for Villa.

Skirmishes occurred between the Americans and both Villa's rebels and Mexican federal troops, resulting in casualties on both sides.

Pershing employed new technologies such as aircraft and motorized transport, but Villa always eluded the dragnet. Neither cunning nor force of arms could deliver Villa into American hands.

Outrage over the Columbus Raid went unassuaged.

Evading Pershing's clutches, Villa succeeded in dealing a blow against the United States and escaping the consequences.

It was an embarrassing result for the Americans.

The Punitive Expedition illustrated the limits of U.S. power and Pershing's frustration made Villa a legend. Though bloodied, Villa emerged culturally ascendant, a defiant symbol against Yankee imperialism.

For Pershing, only bitterness remained at his failure to catch the man Columbus had made into a folk hero.