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War on the Border

Villa, Pershing, the Texas Rangers, and an American Invasion

A dramatic account of the “Punitive Expedition” of 1916 that brought Pancho Villa and Gen. John J. Pershing into conflict, and whose reverberations continue in the Southwestern US to this day.

Jeff Guinn, chronicler of the Southwestern US and of American undesirables (Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Manson, Jim Jones) tells the riveting story of Pancho Villa’s bloody raid on a small US border town that sparked a violent conflict with the US. The “Punitive Expedition” was launched in retaliation under Pershing’s command and brought together the Army, National Guard, and the Texas Rangers—who were little more than organized vigilantes with a profound dislike of Mexicans on both sides of the border. Opposing this motley military brigade was Villa, a guerrilla fighter who commanded an ever-changing force of conscripts in northern Mexico.

The American expedition was the last action by the legendary African-American “Buffalo Soldiers.” It was also the first time the Army used automobiles and trucks, which were of limited value in Mexico, a country with no paved roads or gas stations. Curtiss Jenny airplanes did reconnaissance, another first. One era of warfare was coming to a close as another was beginning. But despite some bloody encounters, the Punitive Expedition eventually withdrew without capturing Villa.

Today Anglos and Latinos in Columbus, New Mexico, where Villa’s raid took place, commemorate those events, but with differing emotions. And although the bloodshed has ended, the US-Mexico border remains as vexed and volatile an issue as ever.

Prologue Prologue
Columbus, New Mexico, March 8–9, 1916

On Wednesday afternoon, March 8, in 1916, thirty-seven-year-old Pancho Villa crouched on a low hill about a mile south of the U.S.-Mexican border. A morning dust storm had left him and his exhausted followers coated with sand, but during the last few hours the air cleared and so Villa had an excellent view as he trained his binoculars four miles to the northeast. For several long minutes, Mexico’s most notorious rebel leader studied the American border town of Columbus, a desolate New Mexico hamlet described by one U.S. soldier stationed there as “a cluster of adobe houses, a hotel, a few stores, and streets knee-deep in sand, [which] combined with the cactus, mesquite and rattlesnakes of the surrounding desert were enough to present a picture horrible to the eyes.” Columbus was home to perhaps five hundred hardscrabble civilians—approximately a fifty-fifty mix of Anglos and Hispanics—and a military camp whose officers and enlisted men faced daily the impossible task of guarding a sixty-five-mile stretch on the American side of the sievelike border against rustlers and other unwelcome interlopers. But to Villa, desperate after several overwhelming defeats against Mexican government forces and massive desertions reduced his once mighty army from about forty thousand to a few hundred, the unsightly little place represented opportunity.

Five months earlier, the U.S. had formally recognized the regime of patrician Venustiano Carranza, Villa’s archenemy and the man whose forces decimated Villa’s in battles throughout 1915, as the official government of Mexico. President Woodrow Wilson and his advisors made the decision despite their collective dislike of the prickly Carranza, a haughty Mexican nationalist who constantly criticized every American diplomatic and military effort to suppress danger to U.S. citizens from Mexico’s apparently endless civil revolution. That fighting threatened not only American citizens along the northern side of the border, but also the property of many politically influential U.S. owners of sprawling ranches and flourishing factories and mines on Mexican soil. In contrast, Villa repeatedly proved himself to be a firm American friend, acting in 1914 as the sole voice among Mexican leadership in support of America’s months-long occupation of Mexico’s vital port city of Veracruz, protecting American-owned property in Mexico, and even withdrawing his troops from a border town battle against the Carrancistas when gawking American spectators from the U.S. side ventured too close and found themselves in danger from stray shots. But in October 1915, during Villa’s own time of greatest need, Wilson recognized Carranza, going so far as to immediately ferry Carrancista reinforcements on U.S. trains to the border battle site of Agua Prieta, where Villa was decisively defeated. He and his few surviving followers fled into the mountains of northern Mexico, while Carranza crowed that his longtime antagonist was gone for good. In his rocky exile, Villa realized that, in his current, desperate circumstances, he could no longer hope to defeat Carranza by force of arms.

With all apparently lost, Villa recognized an opportunity to regain popular support by appealing to his countrymen’s deep-seated animosity toward the United States of America. Though a 1900 census indicated that only 16 percent of the country’s population could read and write, virtually every citizen resented America’s remorseless acquisition of Mexican land. Through war, purchase, and outright coercion, over half of Mexico’s original territory now belonged to the U.S. Even the potential for American soldiers crossing their border again enraged most Mexicans, especially the multitude of powerless poor who relied on a sense of national honor as their basis for self-esteem.

Villa began declaring that the yanquis were returning, this time with Carranza’s blessing because, in return for U.S. diplomatic recognition, military assistance at Agua Prieta, and bribes, he’d already sold them Mexico’s remaining northern states. The lie resonated with many Mexicans; all that was needed for them to fully believe, and to actively turn on Carranza, was for American soldiers to come again; then Villa would have Carranza neatly trapped. The American-anointed leader would have to demand that the invaders leave at once, even use Mexican troops in an attempt to force them out, or else grudgingly accept their presence. If he chose the former, his alliance with the U.S. would likely crumble, and with it any chance of receiving American bank loans and additional business investments that were badly needed to bolster the sagging Mexican economy. Yet if Carranza didn’t immediately expel the American soldiers, he’d be perceived as a gringo lackey. Either way, Villa would make clear that while Carranza must in some way be complicit with this latest invasion—America picked him as Mexico’s leader, after all—Villa hated the gringos just as much as every other proud Mexican did. Public outrage against Carranza and the U.S. could do for Villa what his once mighty forces could not.

On January 10, 1916, Villista fighters blocked a rail line and stopped a train outside Santa Ysabel in northern Mexico, forced a party of American passengers to disembark, and summarily executed all eighteen, leaving their stripped, mutilated bodies for the vultures. The U.S. was predictably outraged. President Wilson sent stern messages to Carranza, demanding that the Mexican head of state use all his resources to pursue, capture, and punish the murderers, and warning that if Carranza could not protect American citizens in Mexico, the United States would. But despite the massacre, American troops did not come.

Apparently, mass murder of their countrymen in Mexico wasn’t enough to bait the yanquis in. Given his consuming hatred of the U.S., Villa was willing to attempt even bloodier provocation—slaughtering U.S. citizens on the American side of the border. It would be the ultimate insult. Surely the gringo soldiers would come south to avenge that. It was a matter of choosing the appropriate American border town, one sufficiently isolated so that the Villistas could enjoy a head start on pursuers, and certainly a location adjacent to Villa’s own massive northern Mexican home state of Chihuahua—he and his men were familiar with every hiding place in its sprawling deserts and craggy mountains. In Chihuahua, they could elude pursuers indefinitely, while the Mexican people built up sufficient rage against yanqui invaders to renounce Carranza and flock to Villa, the newly resurrected hero who dared to stand up to America.

Columbus, New Mexico, thirty miles from any other U.S. town and just two miles north of the Mexican border crossing point of Palomas, seemed perfect. It had a bank to rob, stores to pillage, and Americans to kill. For two dreadful weeks, Villa led his followers there through mountain and desert, enduring anticipated swirling dust and unexpected torrential rain, subsisting mostly on corn and bits of dried beef, stumbling for hundreds of rugged miles. Villa suffered as much as his men—one witness recalled him barely able to ride, swaying glassy-eyed and openmouthed on the back of his plodding mount. About half of his 485 troops were reluctant conscripts, given a choice of joining or facing immediate execution. Villa’s loyal followers kept watchful eyes on them, warning that if any deserted, Villa would “hang their families from the trees.” The conscripts weren’t told where they were going or what would happen when they got there. That information was closely held among Villa and his most trusted officers.

To better avoid discovery, the Villistas traveled mostly at night in several separate bands, but sometimes they encountered cowhands and ranchers. Mexicans were temporarily held prisoner, then released, but gringos were killed, with the exception of a white woman and a black cowboy, who were forced to come along. When the Villistas were a day or so away, Villa sent spies ahead to scout Columbus—Mexicans crossed the border to go there all the time, often on business, sometimes just to visit friends. The spies reported that Columbus was ripe for attack. There weren’t many soldiers in town, fifty at most, perhaps even fewer, which suggested to Villa that the Columbus Army camp was a small border station rather than anything more militarily substantial. His force of nearly five hundred would overwhelm such paltry resistance. The spies even provided a rough Columbus town map, indicating the locations of the bank, railroad station, hotels, and various stores as well as the military barracks, stables, and other structures.

Yet on the afternoon of March 8, studying Columbus through his binoculars, Villa reconsidered his intended target. Almost everything he observed appeared ideal, especially the lack of guards on the town perimeter. Though the Villistas had done their best to maintain a stealthy approach, during the past several days they hadn’t been able to capture everyone they’d encountered. Some riders eluded pursuit, and it was only logical that at least one or two had warned Mexican government officials at Palomas or even the yanqui soldiers in Columbus that an armed, aggressive band of rebels was in the vicinity. Between the hill where Villa and some of his officers crouched and Columbus were four miles of flat, slightly sloping valley, bisected approximately midway by a flimsy barbed wire fence marking the border and a rough road running north–south between Columbus and Palomas. Besides a thimble-like hill on the southwest edge of town, there was no cover for assailants to approach Columbus unseen if anyone was watching for them. Anticipating such lookouts, Villa already planned a night attack, though even then in the wide, flat space between him and his target, a single inadvertent whinny of a horse or clink of metal on rock would give away the Villistas’ presence.

The lack of sentries was an unexpected advantage—unlikely as it seemed, the gringos apparently had no idea that Villa and his men were near. But Villa was troubled by another observation. His spies swore that only a few dozen yanqui soldiers were stationed in Columbus. But it appeared to the rebel leader that many more milled about in the Army camp on the southeast quadrant of town. How many, he couldn’t tell, but Villa knew that his worn-out troops couldn’t defeat a substantial U.S. force. Abruptly, he told his officers that the raid on Columbus was too risky. They would find some other American border town to attack, one with fewer soldiers. Columbus was not the Villistas’ initial target. In late January, Villa had called off a similar attack across the border into Texas when he determined that the odds were not sufficiently in his favor.

Villa’s subordinates rarely disputed their leader’s decisions, but they argued about this one. The spies were certain about the limited number of soldiers in town; Columbus could be overrun and looted in a very short time, perhaps as little as two hours. Villa resisted for a while, then instructed some of his officers to ride closer and reconnoiter. When the riders returned, they swore the spies were right. There were very few soldiers, and victory was certain. After more discussion, Villa was persuaded. They would attack during the night after all, in the dark hours before dawn when the unsuspecting gringos were groggy with sleep.

About 10 p.m., Villa and his captains led their men north. At one point they halted when lights appeared, chugging toward Columbus from the east—it was a train from El Paso, which paused briefly at the town depot, apparently to disembark passengers, then rumbled away. Another halt was necessary when the Villistas reached the barbed wire border fence. Palomas, the designated Mexican crossing point guarded by a handful of government troops, lay about two miles east. The fence was meant more as a border indicator than a barrier. Villa’s men clipped the wires, bent them to the side, and passed through, leaving a few of their number there to provide covering fire if rapid retreat became necessary.

Once beyond the fence, the Villistas turned east to the Columbus–Palomas road, easing their exhausted mounts along a deep, man-made ditch on the side rather than on the road itself. Although there were no clouds, a minimal quarter-moon left the night virtually pitch-black, and the temperature was cool but not cold. As they drew near to town, Villa whispered final instructions—the main body of men would divide into two columns, one striking the Army camp, the other racing into Columbus’s modest business district. Both wings would loot, burn, and kill. At this time, ammunition was passed out to the conscripts. They’d previously carried unloaded guns, to discourage insubordination or desertion. Some men were selected to remain in place at the base of the stumpy promontory just west of town, holding some of the horses. Villa said he’d place himself there, too, along with a minimal bodyguard, so he could observe and issue additional orders if necessary. Columbus was silent, defenseless.

A clock hanging outside the train depot read a few minutes after 4 a.m. when Villa hissed, “Vámanos, muchachos”—“Let’s go, boys”—and the assault began.
Photograph by Eduardo Fierro SVC

Jeff Guinn is the bestselling author of numerous books, including Go Down Together, The Last Gunfight, Manson, and The Road to Jonestown. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and is a member of the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (July 1, 2021)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982128869

"The Mexican borderlands in the early 20th century are a history buff’s dream: violent, romantic, epic in scale, a little bit crazy, and featuring an astounding cast of larger-than-life historical characters. Out of this striking raw material Jeff Guinn has fashioned a riveting and supremely entertaining narrative. I highly recommend it.”

– S. C. Gwynne, author of New York Times bestsellers Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell

"Engagingly written. . . . Mr. Guinn’s deft writing makes War on the Border an enjoyable primer on Mexican-American relations in the latter years of the 19th-century and during the Mexican Revolution, as well as an adequate introduction to Mexican political intrigues of the time." 

– Peter Cozzens, The Wall Street Journal

"A tightly focused history of the relations between the U.S. and Mexico in the early 20th century . . . A riveting account of a dynamic period featuring larger-than-life characters and plenty of drama and suspense."

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A lively, intricate narrative of America’s early-twentieth-century conflicts with Mexico, including the nearly year-long Punitive Expedition. . . . A rich examination of a thorny clash within the Mexican government and a quietly damning indictment of American foreign policy at a time when the U.S. expected Mexico to capitulate to every demand."

– Chris Vognar, Texas Monthly

"General 'Black Jack' Pershing’s 1916 pursuit of Pancho Villa into Mexico has, unfortunately, long occupied a dusty and overlooked corner of history. Let us now give thanks that Jeff Guinn has written a stirring book that promises to be the classic treatment of this hair-raising time and place. This is a terrific tale of valorous advances and feckless blunders, of brilliant commanders and greedy knaves, and every page crackles with high adventure."

– Doug J. Swanson, author of Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers

"Jeff Guinn has focused on a memorable period of border history -- the decade (1910-1920) of the Mexican Revolution. A gifted writer, Guinn is able to explain a complex situation peopled with larger-than-life figures."

– Charles H. Harris III, coauthor of The Texas Rangers in Transition: From Gunfighters to Criminal Investigators, 1921–1935

"Guinn brings the U.S.-Mexico conflicts of the early 20th century to vibrant life in this superior history. . . . A riveting introduction to a lesser-known chapter in American history."

– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Guinn gives us a riveting account of one of the most dynamic periods in U.S.-Mexican relations. His captivating narrative is a result of his strong source materials and nuanced storytelling. This is a great read for both the academic and non-academic audiences alike."

 

– Miguel A. Levario, author of Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy

"Engagingly written. . . . Mr. Guinn’s deft writing makes War on the Border an enjoyable primer on Mexican-American relations in the latter years of the 19th-century and during the Mexican Revolution, as well as an adequate introduction to Mexican political intrigues of the time." 

– Peter Cozzens, The Wall Street Journal

More books from this author: Jeff Guinn