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Pancho Villa's Raid on Columbus, New Mexico: Centennial Commemoration

The little hamlet of Columbus, New Mexico, thirty odd miles from Deming and three miles from the Mexican village of Palomas buzzled yesterday with reenactors, celebrities, historians, military history buffs, TV, newspaper and film crews. Over 2,000 people from all walks of life came to commemorate a momentous event that happened just over 100 years ago. A group of one hundred Villista reenactors on horseback met at the border with reenactors of the U.S. Cavalry and rode into Columbus to throngs of cheering spectators. The granddaughter of General George S. Patton, who received his first combat experience in the Punitive Expedition as a second lieutenant and aide to General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing, greeted the crowds. Helen Patton read a letter from Sandra Pershing before the sang "America the Beautiful" and paid respect during the Mexican national anthem. A great great grandson of Pancho Villa in a show of friendship and peace between the United States and Mexico, shook hands and hugged. Mayor Philip Skinner and U.S. representative Steve Pearce posed with Pancho Villa (the reenactor), Helen Patton, Francisco Antonio Villa Alcazar for pictures, briefly joined by Francisco I. Madero (a spitting image of the real president of Mexico).

Pancho Villa, flanked by his lieutenants riding into Columbus. To the right of Villa. President Francisco I. Madero.

Pancho Villa, flanked by his lieutenants riding into Columbus. To the right of Villa. President Francisco I. Madero.

On March 9, 1916, at around 4:00 am (we know that because the clock at the train station permanently froze at 4:11 am as a result of a bullet lodged in its works), close of 500 Villista raiders rampaged the city, shot panicked residents who ran for cover, ransacked the bank, local hardware store and looted the grocery shop. The local camp Columbus with three hundred soldiers of the 13th cavalry regiment as well awoke to the whizzing bullets of the Mexican raiders. Luckily for the soldiers, the Villistas mistook the stables for sleeping barracks. After initial chaos, the cavalry quickly set up a defensive line with machine guns. The attackers set the commercial district of the town on fire. After a ninety minute fire fight the soldiers repelled the raiders. Still, eight soldiers and nine civilians, among them the owner of the Commercial Hotel and several guests as well as the grocer, died. The raiders lost close to one hundred in the attack and subsequent retreat with American cavalry in hot pursuit.

Helen Patton in the company of U.S. army reenactors driving a 1917 Dodge parades by the cheering crowd 

Helen Patton in the company of U.S. army reenactors driving a 1917 Dodge parades by the cheering crowd 

The raid on Columbus triggered a massive military response from the United States. Within days thousands of troops, eventually topping 10,000, assembled in the little desert town and entered Mexico under the command of John J. Pershing in pursuit of Villa and his troops. Pancho Villa remained an illusive target over the next nine months, despite being wounded and many of his lieutenants captured or killed. Yet, the Punitive Expedition marked a turning point not only in relations with Mexico (as Villa had intended), but also in the First World War. By July 1916, virtually the entire U.S. army and reserve descended upon Mexico and the border region (as German secret agents had intended). Despite the public and many historians judging the Punitive Expedition a colossal failure, American soldiers had received nine months of combat experience or at least training, the army was well equipped, and newest technology such as trucks, motorcycles, and airplanes had catapulted the U.S. military into the mechanized age.

From left U.S. Representative Steve Pearce, Pancho Villa, Francisco Antonio Villa Alcazar, and Mayor of Columbus Philip Skinner

From left U.S. Representative Steve Pearce, Pancho Villa, Francisco Antonio Villa Alcazar, and Mayor of Columbus Philip Skinner

Columbus, New Mexico, and the events of the year 1916 shaped the world as we know it. Despite German agents supporting Villa's conviction that the U.S. intended to trample on Mexico's  sovereignty in an unholy alliance with President Carranza, the plan to create a war between Mexico and the United States badly backfired. When American troops finally entered the European battlefields under the command of John J. Pershing in 1918 on the side of the Allies,  the German military did not last but another nine months before it capitulated. The outcome of the World War was by no means predetermined, as many historians have argued. In a separate peace with Russia after the October Revolution, the German Empire threw its entire military on the western front. Had there not been fresh, well-equipped, and trained U.S. soldiers to stop the advances, who knows what the outcome of the world conflagration would have been. 

The Great Great Grandson of Pancho Villa shaking hands with the Granddaughter of General George S. Patton

The Great Great Grandson of Pancho Villa shaking hands with the Granddaughter of General George S. Patton

It was here, in little Columbus, New Mexico, in March 100 years ago, that the fate of the German military efforts in the First Wold War was sealed. 

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The Road to Columbus: The Pan-American Conference Rubber Stamp

The week before the Pan-American Conference would render its final decision on the recognition of a new Mexican government, Villa’s most powerful representatives met with Robert Lansing on October 5. Although Sommerfeld does not appear to have joined Manuel Bonilla, Roque González Garza, and Enrique Llorente, he undoubtedly maintained close contact with the group and helped prepare the meeting. The Secretary heard the delegation’s arguments, their professions of imminent military successes, of being the only guarantors of constitutional order, and their claim of having support from the majority of Mexico’s factions. The Mexican negotiators emerged discouraged. There was nothing they could have said to change the decision of the American president. Pancho Villa himself spoke to reporters on October 8, ominously threatening that recognition of Carranza’s faction “would bring revolution after revolution, and revolution in its worst forms. Existing conditions in Mexico are bad enough, but if Carranza be recognized, those conditions would become tenfold worse…” 

Chief of the Army, Major General Hugh Lenox Scott at his desk.

Chief of the Army, Major General Hugh Lenox Scott at his desk.

If anyone should doubt as to who would be initiating those revolutions, he vowed: “I am here in Juarez, but this􀀃􀂈􀂃􀂔􀀃􀂃􀂕􀀃􀀌􀀃􀂕􀂊􀂃􀂎􀂎􀀃􀂉􀂑􀀃􀂐􀂑􀂔􀂖􀂊 is as far as I shall go north... Here I shall fight and here I shall live..." The conference reconvened on October 9 as expected. Robert Lansing told reporters after a three-hour session at the State Department, “The conference, after careful consideration of the facts,
have [sic] found that the Carranza party is the only party possessing the essentials for recognition as the de facto government of Mexico, and they have so reported to their respective Governments.” The 􀂏􀂇􀂐􀂖U.S. government officially extended an invitation to the "􀀃de facto Government of Mexico, of which General Venustiano Carranza is the Chief Executive,” on October 19, to exchange diplomatic representatives.

American battleships raised the Mexican flag and fired a twenty-one-gun-salute in the harbor of Veracruz. General Scott, clearly disgusted, commented, “The recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of the man who had rewarded us with kicks on every occasion… I did what I could to prevent this but was not powerful enough. I had never been put in such a position in my life.” Despite the many claims that Villa was wholly unaware of these developments, the American decision did not surprise the revolutionary chieftain. He knew that realities on the ground, his losses to the Carrancista forces, had precipitated the American decision.

What he had not anticipated, however, were the swift actions with which the Wilson administration now pursued his complete annihilation. The State Department issued an embargo for arms and munitions on October 20 against any faction in Mexico other than the recognized government. Returning to the old days of having to smuggle arms and munitions across the border, Villa suffered another devastating blow. It would not be the last.

General Scott, as well as most Mexicans who had supported the unity government idea, could not understand how the Wilson administration could have reversed its policies from June 2, when President Wilson appealed to all factions to come to the table or else – to October, when Carranza became the de facto president of Mexico. President Wilson “did not reveal his intentions then [when General Scott met him in the end of August] but he recognized Carranza in a few months... I never knew why. I asked officers of the State Department, junior to the secretary [likely Leon Canova], why such a thing had been done and they said they did not know… That information has always made the President’s step even more of a mystery to
me.” President Wilson never explained his motivations, even to his closest associates. Like most mysteries, this one created a host of speculative conspiracy theories but that also would have grave consequences for the United States. What did the Carranza faction concede to the American government to sway the President’s opinion?

It did not take much for a manipulating mind such as Sommerfeld’s to reinforce the suspicion that Wilson’s decision was the result of secret concessions from the First Chief Carranza. Even General Scott suspected that something unseemly must have happened. Typical for Sommerfeld’s modus operandi, he did not leave any overt fingerprints on the campaign that convinced Pancho Villa beyond doubt that such a secret agreement indeed existed. Instead, he used Miguel Díaz Lombardo, Manuel Bonilla, Roque Gonzales Garza, Felipe Ángeles, and others close to Villa to convey the message.

Read Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War or hang on until the next step on the Road to Columbus is revealed.

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The Road to Columbus: The Plan de San Diego

Despite Carranza’s victories on the battlefield in the summer of 1915, the situation in Mexico seemed to deteriorate by the day. Reports from Mexico City filled newspaper columns with tales of starvation, looting, and chaos. The Mexican-American border was on fire, as well. The deteriorating situation at the border stemmed from what became known as the Plan de San Diego. Issued in the town of San Diego, Texas in January 1915, the plan called for an uprising of the Mexican-American populations in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California against the “Yankee tyranny.” Among other stipulations, the manifesto included passages that alarmed American officials who first saw a copy of the plan in the end of January 1915.

First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, Venustiano Carranza

First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, Venustiano Carranza

Objective number 5 read: "It is strictly forbidden to hold prisoners …they shall be shot immediately without any pretext." 

Number 6: “Every foreigner [i.e. any non-Chicano in the states to be liberated from the Yankee tyranny] who shall be found armed and cannot prove his right to carry arms, shall be summarily executed…”

Number 7: “Every North American [sic] over sixteen years of age shall be put to death…”

While local sheriffs carefully watched the mood among the Mexican-American population, not much happened as a result of the plan until June 1915. “Bands of outlaws” raided ranches throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley within weeks of President Wilson putting pressure on the Mexican revolutionary factions in his ultimatum of June 2, 1915. Propaganda, spread through agents of the Carranza administration, proclaimed a “Texas Revolution,” an uprising that called for Mexican-Americans freeing themselves from the “shackles of Anglo supremacy.” The first American, an eighteen-year-old farmhand, died from the bullets of a Chicano raider in the end of July. During July and August hundreds of attacks occurred, some of which had nothing to do with the revolución de Texas but undoubtedly, people took advantage of the situation to settle old scores. Short of personnel and hesitant to get involved, the U.S. army reluctantly reinforced the overwhelmed Texas Rangers and local law enforcement authorities in September. Raiders not only robbed banks, shops, and ranches but also blew up railroad bridges and cut telegraph lines. The Mexican Revolution finally seemed to be spilling over into U.S. territory in a deadly and disturbing way.

Some American newspapers quickly blamed the disturbances on German agitation. These suspicions seem to have pressured Secretary Lansing and possibly also President Woodrow Wilson to find a solution for stabilizing Mexico as quickly as possible. Lansing wrote in his diary, “Germany does not want one faction dominant in Mexico; therefore we must recognize one faction as dominant in Mexico… It comes down to this: our possible relations with Germany must be our first consideration; and all our intercourse with Mexico must be regulated accordingly.” While German archives do not reveal any obvious financing or organizing of the border troubles, there are indications that the Secret War Council, and Heinrich Albert in particular, could have been involved. Maurice Leon, a member of the French embassy in Washington who handled financial and legal affairs for the Allies, suggested to the U.S. State Department two days after Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico in the spring of 1916, “heavy sales of German marks on Wall Street ‘seem to point to the possibility that Villa and his band not only received a part of their proceeds, but also that the great part is to be utilized to induce Mexican ‘leaders’ to oppose by force [U.S.] operations to suppress border outlawry.”

This allegation is partly correct. The head of the Secret War Council™, Heinrich Albert, and the German government, indeed, engaged in heavy trading to prop up the devalued German Mark. However, although not impossible, there is no indication in Albert’s financial records that any of these funds went to Mexico. Historians Harris and Sadler’s research, as well, shows that on the surface the unrest was conceived, organized, and financed through the Carranza administration in Mexico. However, there are links to German agents that have been overlooked. German agents had infiltrated the Carranza administration. While Sommerfeld organized munitions supplies for Villa at the same time that he supported the efforts of the U.S. State Department to wrest important concessions from the revolutionary chieftain, German agent Arnoldo Krumm-Heller toured South Texas on behalf of Carranza (and the German Kaiser) to incite the Mexican-American population into revolt. 

The Pan-American Conference reconvened on September 18, 1915. The decision to recognize Carranza framed the assembly. As a member of the administration, General Scott knew firsthand that President Wilson had adjusted his views despite the “pig-headedness” of the victorious Mexican leader, Carranza. A week before the conference and the day after Villa’s forces lost control over the important railroad hub of Torreón and retreated north, General Scott, alarmed by Villa’s deteriorating negotiation power, rallied the pro-Villa faction. “I told Bonilla and Llorente to get busy now to combat this Carranza propaganda here [that Villa was beaten] and regain the standing for Villa that has been lost… I told [Felix] Sommerfeld the same thing and urged him to do it. …I do not know what we can do further as I have done everything I can think of.”

Scott’s dread was well justified. Two days before the Pan-American delegates reconvened on September 15, the State Department ordered all U.S. consuls out of Mexico. Americans residing in Sonora and Chihuahua received word to get out, as well. British and French officials also scurried to safety on the American side of the border. No one really knew what to expect from Villa once he realized that he had been outfoxed. Although Secretary Lansing had notified the press that Carranza would be recognized, some members of the Pan-American Conference, possibly through the last-minute efforts of Díaz Lombardo, Gonzalez Garza, Bonilla, Llorente, and Sommerfeld, refused to give their agreement. Rather, the group’s announcement on September 18 proclaimed that whichever faction was deemed militarily stronger by the middle of October would be recognized as the de facto government.

Meanwhile, the unrest on the border took on crisis proportions. Carrancista irregulars engaged soldiers of the 12th Cavalry in Brownsville, Texas, on August 3rd, leaving one soldier dead and two wounded. Mexican raiders engaged the 3rd Cavalry and Texas Rangers again in Brownsville on September 6 in a shootout that left two Mexicans dead. U.S. authorities involved in battling the uprising and arresting the organizers behind the revolución de Texas left no stone unturned. Dozens of Mexican-Americans faced arrest and detention. Reprisals by the local Anglo population and the Texas Rangers raised the specter of a race war. As the battle for diplomatic recognition intensified in Washington and New York, so did the war in Texas. By the time the raids ended in October, six Anglos and approximately three hundred Mexicans and Mexican-Americans had died. 

The raids ended as suddenly as they had started. They stopped on October 1, 1915, shortly after the American government announced that it would recognize Carranza’s faction as the legitimate government of Mexico. General Funston reported to his superiors in Washington on
October 13 that “it had been ten days since the last hostile shot had been fired.” Historians Harris and Sadler concluded in their analysis of the uprising, “once Carranza withdrew his support, the insurrection in Texas collapsed like a punctured balloon… Viewing Mexican- Americans as a useful fifth column, Carranza skillfully played on their hopes and fears as a means of exerting pressure on the United States. When his [Carranza’s] policies shifted [and those of the United States], they were cynically abandoned… The Plan left a legacy of racial tension in south Texas that has endured to the present.” Carranza once more resurrected the Plan de San Diego in the summer of 1916, when, indeed, the United States and Mexico marched to the brink of war. And again, this time only partially achieving his objectives, Carranza shut down the unrest.

Read more on the Mexican Front in the Great War.

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