General Pershing's Mexican Expedition to capture Pancho Villa predates his World War I career

By Magdalena Mieri
Dozens of soldiers on horseback stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder. Mountains visible in background. Desert sand.

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.

Brochure for "Mexican National R.R." with symbol of lion and eagles, US and Mexican flags, and fancy scrolls and design elements. "Solid Trains."

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.

Cover of rectangular, black/grey album. Text in gold: "Troop A 1st Ohio Cavalry Mexican Border Service July 4, 1916-March 1st 1917"

Black and white photo of many white camp tents among mountain landscape with trees. Men stand among them in groups.

U.S troops stand with guns and scrutinize two Latino men

Dozens of soldiers on horseback stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder. Mountains visible in background. Desert sand.
Soldier in uniform on a horse. Black and white photo. In distance, a few more soldiers on horses. Desert sand.
General John Pershing is better known for his leadership during World War I, but the authors of this post find the part of Pershing's military career spent in Mexico very interesting. Pershing's command was closest to Columbus, New Mexico, when the attack happened. His forces were to include "two columns that included infantry, cavalry, field artillery, engineers, the First Aero Squadron with eight airplanes, field hospitals, wagon and ambulance companies, and signal detachments," according to the article in Prologue magazine. Photos in the collection of the Library of Congress include shots of American soldiers preparing to depart on "scouting expeditions" by plane, baking bread in "field kitchens," and posing on motorcycles.
Photo of brown, tall boots. Thin laces. White identification tag.
Photo of khaki colored coat. Closes down the center with five gold/brown buttons. Four pockets on front, each closed with a button. Collared.
Color photo of a circular medal. Ribbon is green, yellow, and blue. Medal shows a cactus-like plant and dates 1911-1917.

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.

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. Magdalena Mieri is director of the Program in Latino History and Culture and Special Initiatives. Patri O’Gan and L. Stephen Velasquez contributed to this post. Patri O'Gan is project assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History. L. Stephen Velasquez is associate curator in the Division of Home and Community Life. Learn more about the Mexican Revolution from Edsitement and the Library of Congress