Return to U.S. Involvement in the Mexican Revolution Previous Section: From the Convention of Aguascalientes to Pancho Villa’s Attack on Columbus, NM

The U.S. had difficulty accepting the Mexican Revolution, particularly because so much private property was confiscated and not returned. In 1920, the Republicans took over the government and were more inclined to listen to private business interests than their Democratic counterparts. Consequently, the U.S. did not resume diplomatic relations with its southern neighbor until the Bucareli Agreements in 1923.

The Pershing Expedition

In March 1916, Villa and a small group of followers attacked Columbus, New Mexico in an attempt to push the U.S. into war in Mexico. Villa claimed that Carranza was secretly conspiring with President Wilson. If true, that would almost certainly reduce Carranza’s popularity inside Mexico. The U.S. responded by sending troops led by General John H. Pershing over the border in search of Villa. Although Carranza publicly decried U.S. involvement, he did little to stop the mission, because he wanted Villa captured. His incarceration would help attract foreign investors to Mexico and help the economy of northern Mexico.

The expedition was largely unsuccessful. Most Mexicans disliked U.S. troops invading their villages, and refused to help them. Carranza’s popularity among the civilians declined considerably with his acceptance of U.S. involvement, although Villa’s popularity did not rebound.

During the expedition, Villa took a bullet below the knee, and sought shelter in a cave near Ciudad Guerrero. He was unable to travel, and he stayed hidden for several months. When Villa was well enough to move, he quickly started acquiring troops to continue his mission against Carranza. Although his popularity was low, and he subjected many civilians to force, he managed to conquer the city of Chihuahua temporarily in September 1916. He freed several of Orozco’s most important generals, and with less than 1,000 troops, he outsmarted the 9,000 troops of then-current governor General Francisco Treviño.

Telegrams. 0541M (Shelving # in Manuscripts), Diaries, Notebooks, and Address Books, Box 7, Folder 2 (c.a. 1916) and Folder 3 (c.a. 1917-1919). John J. Pershing Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. mm 79035949

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General Pershing and the Invasion to Find Pancho Villa

Some historians believe Villa thought the Columbus raid would force the U.S. to invade Mexico, inciting a strong nationalist backlash and break with Carranza, which Villa would use to regain control over Mexico. Woodrow Wilson, running for reelection in 1916, knew that World War I would involve the U.S. and did not want to divide U.S. troops to alienate voters with a two front war. Yet, he had to punish Villa. So, on 10 March, he ordered a small expeditionary force, the Punitive Expedition, to find Villa and destroy his army. In one week he gathered some 5,000 men (officers and enlisted cavalry, infantry, artillery) and an air squadron of 8 planes, and marched into Mexico on 16 March. U.S. soldiers thought capturing Villa would be easy and President Wilson hoped a quick success in Mexico would encourage the public to enlist before the U.S. officially entered World War I.

Carranza publicly held an anti-U.S. position, but allowed U.S. troops to use Mexican trains and to resupply themselves with packages addressed to private individuals, not army units. By the end of the month, the U.S. expeditionary force had marched 350 miles south into Mexico, but Villa always eluded Pershing’s expedition, creating anti-U.S. sentiment and popular support for his cause in northern Mexico. Many townspeople drove U.S. citizens out with stones and shouts of “Viva Mexico” and “Viva Villa.” Many Carrancistas sympathized and helped the expedition catch Villa. For example, the Carrancista governor of Chihuahua, Ignacio Enríquez Jr., argued that President Wilson had resisted U.S. intervention and claimed that Pershing had not “invaded” Mexico, but was following a mutual aid treaty that allowed troops to cross the border in pursuit of bandits.

Yet some Carrancistas supported Villa against the U.S. On 16 March, the day the expedition crossed the border, a large group of Carrancistas found Villa in a small town. They let Villa gather supplies, and leave without capture, but the next day, another group found Villa and attacked. Villa won the battle, although outnumbered, captured their weapons, and renewed his war against Carranza. Carranza sent thousands of troops to Chihuahua supposedly in response to Villa, but also in case of war with the U.S. On 23 March 1916, the U.S. War College proposed the “occupation and pacification of Mexico,” with 250,000 U.S. soldiers to hold key northern states in Mexico while the Navy blockaded southern ports. Villa captured three Carranza-held towns on 27 March, but was hit in the knee and could not ride. His army was disbanded and he hid out until he had recovered. By April, U.S. troops wanted to leave Mexico, and so Wilson tried to get Carranza to agree to protect U.S. property and give the U.S. the right to intervene economically or militarily at any time. Carranza refused. After two months, Villa had recovered and raised an army to oust Carranza and the U.S. On 15 September 1916, Villa decided to attack the city of Chihuahua and release troops Carranza had ordered arrested. Villa led a mere 2,000 men, and entered a city held by over 9,000 troops. Villa released the prisoners with no casualties and his legend was reborn. During the next four months, Villa won great victories and in late 1916, Pershing and Carranza both acknowledged that Villa had reconquered Chihuahua. Pershing’s troops moved slowly across the border and were gone by February 1917, a year and $130 million later. Not only did Pershing not capture Villa, but the revolutionary leader was in a better position than before the invasion.

Pershing’s official press release on the status of the Punitive Expedition released in April 1916. The report is optimistic and explains how Villa’s troops had been dispersed and how Villa himself was severely wounded in battle and on the brink of death. The report is taken from Pershing’s Papers on the Punitive Expedition in the Manuscript Division of the Library on Congress. Also included is a political cartoon published in the New York Herald on 26 November 1916, after Villa made his astonishing comeback. The cartoon portrays the expedition as more punitive towards the U.S. than to Mexico, with Pershing tied to a cactus and subject to Villa’s maniacal amusements.

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New Technologies of the American Invasion

President Wilson ordered Pershing to use new technologies such as planes, automobiles, and radio in Mexico to test their potential usefulness in World War I. His troops came to Mexico well equipped, employing the first air force consisting of eight planes, and the first motorized supply chain for his cavalry. Pershing understood that no one knew the territory as well as Villa so he considered using planes to conduct aerial reconnaissance to locate Villa’s troops. The U.S.’s Curtiss JN-2 planes, bought in 1914, were too old, unstable, and ill-equipped to climb the 12,000 ft. minimum altitudes of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Chihuahua. Pershing quickly discovered that the planes could not top the foothills to check in with his men at Cumbre Pass. When they took off again, the wind blew the engine off and took out a wing. The plane crashed less than fifty feet away from where it had taken off. A second pilot ran out of gas and crashed some 20 miles to the south, but when he returned to the crash site three days later, he discovered that local residents had stripped it of every useable piece of metal and wood. A third pilot also ran short of fuel, landed in an unknown area, but found one of Pershing’s truck convoys and refueled the plane. He then flew about halfway when he had to refuel a second time. He stopped at a second U.S. convoy to refuel, but as he took off the airplane’s wing clipped a fuel drum and was too damaged to fly.

On 22 March, the squadron commander sent two pilots up to Cumbre Pass to contact cavalry troops. The planes reached the lowest corner of the pass when heavy winds forced them back. The commander requested ten new planes of 130 horsepower engine minimum by five different companies with spare parts, navigational equipment and additional landing gear, but Washington refused to ok the expense. Pershing assigned the remaining five planes courier roles, but two more planes went out of service. Pershing subsequently ended all use of the air force in Mexico.

While air support was not particularly effective, Pershing used motorized trucks with more success. He combined the defensive strategies learned in the Indian Wars with the speed and ease of transport offered by motorized vehicles. He divided his troops into small, but highly mobile units of approximately 20 men each. These units tracked Villa’s known hideouts and the cities he was rumored to have recently visited. Pershing dreamed of an armored car, mobile, yet strong enough to withstand open fire from enemies. The Army Corp of engineers developed the world’s first armored vehicle before the U.S. entered World War I.

Two newspaper articles talking about Pershing’s employment of trucks and planes in Mexico. Pershing collected the papers and kept them in the files from which he prepared his memoirs about his military career. Other new technologies employed by Pershing’s troops included the motorcycle, portable ovens for baking bread, radios, and portable telegraphs. Pershing also used machines guns and mounted canons to devastating effect in the few encounters between Pershing and Villa’s forces. He tested all of these technologies in Mexico first because President Wilson and the army chiefs of staff wanted to make sure out all their new equipment worked in the field before using it in Europe. Underwood and Underwood, the photographers commissioned to accompany Pershing’s troops through Mexico, took the following photographs.

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Pershing and Medical Advancement in Mexico

Brigadier General John J. Pershing marched into Mexico with two ambulance companies and two field hospitals, which were understaffed and had less equipment. Field doctors treated the easily curable and temporarily fixed the worst of the wounded. Those needing more care went to the larger, better-equipped hospital at Columbus, New Mexico. Cases that could not be handled at Columbus went to Ft. Bliss, the Army headquarters hospital with full laboratories for testing and tables for complex surgeries. Pershing’s medical corps knew advanced medical techniques. Medical Corps officers learned preventative medicine, microscopy and abdominal surgery, logistics, supplying, and accounting. Highly efficient, well-trained, enlisted “sanitary officers" worked as backups. Pershing encouraged his medical officers to experiment with new techniques and soldiers often saw doctors for dysentery and sexually-transmitted diseases. Doctors insisted that men going into Mexico be vaccinated against typhoid and other tropical diseases beforehand and issued quinine pills to prevent malaria. Army medical staffs insisted on cleanliness and sterilization, inspecting food sources, kitchens and staff. They regulated latrines, removed horse manure, opened the first delousing stations, and required that troops travel with lye soap. They introduced the Lyster Bag, which treated water with a bleach-like compound that killed bacteria, but tasted strange. Troops preferred the Darnell Filter, which removed sediment and treated the water with multiple chemicals. Thanks to its success in Mexico, water filtering became standard during World War I.

Pershing focused on reducing sexually transmitted diseases. Reformers wanted to ban prostitution, but Pershing felt troops would look for sexual release from Mexican women if U.S. prostitutes were unavailable. Pershing opened a prostitution camp, called the “Remount Station”, a short distance from Colonia Dublán. Soldiers bought a half hour for $2.00 to enter with a certificate that they were disease free. At the end of their time, they would be chemically cleansed, inspected and released with the information on their health certificate. Pershing strongly advocated using rubber condoms, distributing them among soldiers first in Mexico and during World War I, and his troops consistently showed significantly lower rates of infection.

Although motorized ambulances did not prevent disease, they significantly reduced battle fatalities. The first such ambulances appeared during the second half of Pershing’s expedition; they maintained U.S. lines of communication and kept the troops supplied. Motorized ambulances reduced the amount of time needed to evacuate troops to full care facilities, and blunted the impacts of the roads, making trips significantly more comfortable and safe. With these vehicles, it was even possible to haul x-ray machines and basic laboratory equipment allowing for preliminary blood work analysis in the field.

These images show the 7th Field Hospital at Casas Grandes and the Ambulance Corp driving into Mexico at the beginning of the Expedition. The column consists of both covered wagons and automobiles, though trucks are not shown in the photograph.

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Pershing’s Successes

Pershing established his base at Namiquipa, a small town already hostile to Villa because he had forcibly recruited 118 of its men into his army to fight at Celaya and again at Columbus. Pershing offered the villagers education and training programs, established a local constabulary, and experimented with new institutional forms and training tactics. Local guides led Pershing to a cache of Villa’s munitions, which were turned over to the town and the Carrancistas.

Pershing also found the Namiquipa troops who had participated in the attack on Columbus and sent them to the U.S. to stand trial. However, when they arrived in Columbus, they were met with hostility throughout Luna County. Although the U.S. transferred them to the Grant County Jail in Silver City, they were tried in Luna County and sentenced to death. President Wilson tried to get their sentences commuted; only one man, a Carrancista, ultimately faced life imprisonment.

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George S. Patton

Many of the U.S.’s most famous commanders began their careers as part of Pershing’s Punitive Expedition. George S. Patton, who was a lieutenant when he served in Mexico, was one of this group. George Patton, born 11 November 1885 in San Gabriel, California, attended the Virginia Military Institute and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1909. In 1912, he ran the first modern pentathlon for the summer Olympics and won 5th place overall; in early 1916, Lieutenant Patton served as General Pershing’s personal aide.

When Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, Patton, who had served on border patrol in Texas and New Mexico, felt personally attacked. On 14 May 1916, Pershing assigned Patton three Dodge Brothers’ touring cars and a mission. Patton was to buy corn to use as fodder for U.S. cavalry horses. Patton headed out with ten men from the U.S. 6th Infantry Regiment and ran into Villista commander Julio Cárdenas with two men. The U.S. soldiers attacked the Mexican insurgents, shooting well after the Mexican men were dead. The bodies were so torn apart that nobody knows who killed whom. The U.S. troopers picked up the Mexicans’ mutilated bodies, tied them to the roofs of the touring cars, and continued on to buy the corn. Mission completed, Patton returned to Pershing and showed him the corpses. Some do not believe the incident ever happened, but there were reports filed with Pershing and photographs of Patton and the touring cars. Patton continued to serve as Pershing’s personal aide in Europe during World War I, where he was promoted to captain and given command of the first U.S. Automobile Cavalry Unit in France.

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Chasing Villa in Music

In contrast to corridos, U.S. popular music focused on raising morale and garnering popular support for the U.S. intervention in Mexico. Soldiers abroad could hear music while in the field and know they had support back home. At this time the Pershing invasion greatly influenced the shift in popular music. Music focused on the details of Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico and attempted to lift morale when troops couldn’t find the Mexican insurgent. Many broadsheets (sheet music distributed for play at home) express the feelings of Americans in “So I Left that Girl Behind Me to Answer the Call” and “Watchful Waiting.”

“So I Left that Girl Behind Me to Answer the Call,” with lyrics and music written by M.G. Wittman (M1645 .W 1916) was published on 26 August, 1916 and reflects public impatience with General Pershing’s lack of success. The first verse states, “I’m here to tell you Savvy, that you ain’t all the gravey and Uncle Sammy’s patience is getting mighty low.” The song says the army is “at the bat” and will capture Villa soon.

“Watchful Waiting,” with lyrics and music written by Mrs. Leania Dimmitt Osborn (M1645 .O 1916) was published in 1914 and shows American popular opinion surrounding the Tampico incident and how music was used to rally support for U.S. involvement. “Mexico, where Huerta had charged you know, Of the troops that insulted our flag down in Fort Tampico. United States had been watchful waiting, but now came this sudden blow, And the order was giv’n to the Boys in Blue, Be off to Mexico.”

Here you can see the covers of a few broadsheets of the music about the Pershing Invasion. The artwork was designed to appeal to buyers’ patriotic aesthetics and to encourage people to support the U.S. army. President Woodrow Wilson hoped that a quick success in Mexico would increase the military’s approval rating and encourage higher levels of enlistment.

Broadsheets of music about the Pershing Invasion. Mexican Border Songs Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. M1645 .L 1916, M1645 .B 1916, M1645 .W 1916

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Order Has Its Advantages

Mexican refugees fleeing the revolution arrived in the United States in search of protection from the violence of the Mexican Revolution, the ensuing chaos forced states to grant protection to its citizenry and its new residents. But states could not always kept the violence of the Mexican Revolution away from their side of the border as seen when Pancho Villa and his men came to Columbus, New Mexico in 1916 and left 17 dead (7 soldiers and 10 civilians). The Mexican Revolution’s fervor compelled the United States to take action against aggression on the borderlands. This led to the Pershing expedition to find Villa and the passage of the 1917 Immigration Act to bring security to its people and their livelihood.

In individual states, laws and regulations to keep order along the border became a top priority. It became difficult for states to know whether the new settlers were intent on insurrection or not. The new settlers began to feel threatened and the new laws ostensibly made to protect the population split communities.

Mexican immigrants fought back. They formed the first human rights groups in the southwest such as El Primer Congreso Mexicanista (1911) in San Antonio, Texas, which would protect immigrants against unfair labor practices, poor wages, inhumane living conditions, and legal strains. This led to the formation of Mexican American organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) which are still active today and operate for all Hispanics in the U.S.

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New Immigrants Try to Assimilate

From 1910-1914, Mexican refugees came to the United States at a good time to find work. The new immigrants helped with harvests and worked on the assembly lines of manufacturing plants. The United States government and the states made laws to help Mexican immigrants both economically and socially. At this time Americanization schools appeared in heavily populated migrant towns to help with their transition. These schools taught many classes, including those on English and on hygiene. These schools not only helped immigrants feel more at ease, but provided companies with a more productive labor force.

Living in the United States and assimilating made it easier for Mexican immigrants to preserve their autonomy in these towns. America’s promise of a better future meant these immigrants traded a small portion of their culture as migrant neighborhoods within industrial towns such as Isleta in El Paso, Texas, and barrios Logan, Delhi, and Artesia in Santa Ana, California, and implanted themselves throughout the Southwest. In the north, districts formed around railroad yards and meat packing factories on the Southside of Chicago. These barrios became centers of Mexican connection and self-sufficiency as well as supplying future U.S. labor.

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The Zimmermann Telegram (February and March 1917)

Many Mexicans favored Germany in World War I because it had never invaded Mexico, compromised Mexican sovereignty, or claimed Mexican territory. Spain, France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., in contrast, were guilty of all three. Others favored the U.S., since it was so close, but most Mexicans were relieved that the U.S. was fighting in Europe and leaving Mexico alone.

By 1917, no exports could leave Germany nor supplies come in to feed the people and the Army. The Germans had to resume unrestricted submarine activity and hoped it could find partners in the Western Hemisphere to divert U.S. attention. Arthur Zimmermann, the German Foreign Secretary, sent Carranza a proposal: if Mexico would ally with Germany, Germany, upon winning the war, would return to Mexico all the territories it lost in the Mexican-American War, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and the Gadsden Treaty (Tratado de La Mesilla). The British intercepted the message and gave it to the U.S. After the telegram was published, the Senate declared war against Germany in April 1917.

Carranza decided that Mexico could not challenge the U.S., and that Germany was too far away to assist it should the U.S. retaliate. Carranza rejected the proposal and Mexico declared itself neutral.

This political cartoon shows a hand with a knife carving out Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, which are labeled “For Mexico.” The cuff indicates the owner is a German official. Appropriately titled “Hand carving up a map of the Southwestern U.S.,” it was drawn by Clifford Kennedy Berryman and published March 1917 in the Washington Evening Star.

[Hand carving up a map of the Southwestern United States.] Clifford Kennedy Berryman. Published in the Washington Evening Star, March 1917. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-USZC4-13594 (color film copy transparency)

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Return to U.S. Involvement in the Mexican Revolution Previous Section: From the Convention of Aguascalientes to Pancho Villa’s Attack on Columbus, NM