General Pershing's Mexican Expedition to capture Pancho Villa predates his World War I career
The small American town of Columbus, New Mexico, was the site of a major event 100 years ago today. On March 9, 1916, spurred by events in the Mexican Revolution, General Francisco "Pancho" Villa's forces attacked the camp of the 13th Cavalry Regiment. In reaction to this attack, President Woodrow Wilson appointed General John Pershing as commander of a U.S. Army expeditionary force that was to capture Villa and police the U.S.-Mexico border. Called the Punitive Expedition at the time, this was just the beginning of a lengthy search for Villa that never resulted in his capture, now known as the Mexican Expedition. It took place March 14, 1916, to February 7, 1917.
Why did Villa attack? It's complicated, but here's a quick summary. The Mexican Revolution was an uprising that impacted the social, economic, and political life of both Mexico and the United States. The United States had become heavily invested in Mexican mining, railroads, and oil operations and protected these investments through military and political interventions in Mexico. In support of their people, Mexican revolutionary leaders sought land reforms and the nationalization of these operations. At one time, President Wilson supported Villa and then later withdrew support. Angered by the reversal, Villa attacked.
According to an article in Prologue magazine, published by the U.S. National Archives, "Why Villa chose Columbus as a target for his most daring raid is unclear. The small town had only one hotel, a few stores, some adobe houses, and a population of 350 Americans and Mexicans." His Villistas had made other attacks, for example assassinating U.S. citizens aboard a Mexican train, but it was the Columbus attack that moved President Wilson to take military action.
For the anniversary of this event, we'd like to share some objects from the museum's collection that relate to the Mexican Expedition and the Mexican Revolution.
On February 5, 1917, the expedition officially ended. Though Villa was never captured, General Pershing's men were exposed to military training. The author of the Prologue magazine article points out that "Many of the same men who served with Pershing in Mexico accompanied him to France."
After General Pershing's forces left, the Mexican Revolution continued. Between 500,000 and one million Mexicans fled the violence and turmoil of the revolution and immigrated to the United States in search of work and safe living conditions. Decades later, in the 1960s, revolutionary leaders such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa became inspiring symbols in struggles for social equality and political rights for many Mexican Americans.