The Foxhole View
Where Military History Touches the Second Amendment
Pancho Villa’s 1916 Raid Was First Ground Invasion of the U.S. Since the War of 1812
By Don Hirst
Just over 100 years ago, what was then called “The Great War” and became World War I in later years, raged across Europe and the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean. But America was at peace — for a while. Then, without warning, the United States suffered a major shock when a small New Mexico town was attacked by foreign invaders in the dark of the night on March 9, 1916.
The attack, by hundreds of members of Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army, was a shocking wake-up call for America. The raid on Columbus, New Mexico, was the first ground invasion of the United States since the War of 1812. It also demonstrated how ill-prepared the nation was for war.
The basics of the attack were simple. According to an Army news release marking the 100th anniversary of the battle, the raid happened like this: “Under the command of the rebel Gen. Francisco “Pancho” Villa, more than 400 Mexican revolutionaries from nearby Chihuahua looted businesses, shot citizens and set fires in the small American border town.
“There were casualties on both sides,” the Army noted. The Mexican invaders killed 10 civilians plus another eight soldiers, members of the 13th U.S. Cavalry from nearby Camp Furlong, but the Villistas lost even more. The Army said that U.S. soldiers and American civilians “killed as many as 90 and wounded 13 revolutionaries.”
According to the National Park Service, the citizens of Columbus and the soldiers at Camp Furlong were caught totally by surprise. The invaders set fire to the town’s center and commercial district, causing citizens to flee. Some took refuge in an adobe hotel and a brick schoolhouse, which were relatively bulletproof and offered substantial protection.
It took a while for the soldiers at Camp Furlong to respond to the attack. The National Park Service’s account of the fight says that keys to locks safeguarding munitions apparently were lost, requiring the locks to be smashed. Furthermore, there were some jamming problems with the Army’s machine guns.
“Finally, after an hour and a half of fighting, the U.S. troops were able to respond to the attack with murderous crossfire,” the National Park Service said, “and the Villistas withdrew. Much of Columbus was in flames and 18 Americans and approximately 80 Mexicans lost their lives.”
The battle ended when a Mexican bugler sounded the call to retreat from the soldiers and armed civilians who were attacking them. Maj. Frank Tompkins, commander of the 13th Cavalry’s 3rd Squadron, asked for — and was granted — permission to pursue the invaders. He followed them about 13 miles into Mexico, engaging the rear guard several times and inflicting heavy casualties on them. Tompkins later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism.
By some accounts, the Army machine guns fired 5,000 rounds or more apiece at the invaders. The Army also had help from the citizens of Columbus. In a prime example of the importance of the right to keep and bear arms, as guaranteed by the Second Amendment, the townspeople had the means to help defend themselves. Civilians, armed with rifles and shotguns, also engaged Villa’s men. Furthermore, contemporary newspaper reports said that armed civilians later joined forces with troops that moved in to protect the town.
The aftermath of the attack led to the area being flooded with available military forces. Thousands of troops converged on Columbus and airplanes from Fort Sam Houston, Texas, joined them. The planes, from the 1st Aero Squadron, established America’s first airbase, located to the town’s southeast, according to the National Park Service.
America’s anger at the invasion was not long in coming. The American people wanted revenge and President Woodrow Wilson soon complied. Without the approval of the Mexican government, he ordered Gen. John J. Pershing to lead forces into Mexico to capture Villa and prevent additional attacks on American towns.
“Black Jack” Pershing led his force of 10,000 men on an 11-month expedition into Mexico, according to the National Park Service. Finally, in early 1917, President Wilson ordered Pershing to withdraw. Villa was still at large, but the expedition was anything but a waste of time and manpower.
It revealed shortcomings in the nation’s military readiness for war and also provided the building blocks to prepare for the battles that soon were to come when the United States entered World War I in April 1917. Just as he led the 1916 hunt for Villa, Pershing became the top commander of U.S. forces who deployed to Europe to fight in World War I.
“Pershing’s expedition has been dubbed the last of America’s 19th century wars and the first of those in the 20th century because of its reliance on motorized power and airplanes, rather than on the horses that were used in previous military endeavors,” the National Park Service noted. “As a result, equipment modernization and mechanical specialization during the time of the 1916-1917 expedition proved essential to U.S. military success during WWI.”
That fortunate result of the foray into Mexico was more than a coincidence, too. Wilson, who campaigned for a second term under the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” knew that peace couldn’t last in the face of Germany’s campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. He also knew how ill-prepared America’s military forces were to face a battle-hardened enemy in major warfare.
So Wilson used the Mexican effort as a training ground to upgrade America’s military preparedness for battle. It certainly helped. While the United States was far from ready to fight Germany when we declared war, those previous efforts, sparked by the Columbus raid, made the nation readier than it would have been.