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Mexican Revolution and US Intervention

Timothy Neeno Articles
Mexican Revolution and US Intervention
Revolutionary War in the Caribbean
The French Intervention in Mexico
Nomonhan: The Second Russo-Japanese War
The Mexican Revolution and US Intervention 1910-1917 
By Timothy Neeno, M.A.


The young lieutenant and his squad of men advanced through the arid Chihuahuan scrub toward the adobe walled ranch house. All was quiet. There was a chance that a top Villista commander was inside. The lieutenant and two men moved up along the north end of the building. Six others took the south side. As the lieutenant came around the corner to the east side, three men on horses dashed around out of the gate, coming straight at him. The horsemen wheeled, only to find the rest of the Americans coming around the southeast corner of the house. Turning again, they charged toward the lieutenant. A crack shot with a pistol, he fired, shooting a horse in the belly and wounding its rider in the arm. The lieutenant ducked back around the corner to reload his pistol, emerging again just as a second rider swept down on him. The lieutenant fired again, shooting the horse in the hip. The rider fell, and then rose up, aiming a pistol. He was just ten yards away, when the cavalry men with the lieutenant brought him down. A third rider was galloping away, only to be picked off by the American riflemen.

The first rider had dragged himself back into the hacienda. The lieutenant and his squad followed into the patio, and one soldier picked him off as he ran along a wall. They approached the wounded man, who suddenly raised a pistol, only to be felled at close range. Inside, the Americans found several old people, who confirmed that one of the men was indeed Julio Cárdenas, a general in Pancho Villa’s army. The young lieutenant smiled. It was May 14, 1916. Lieutenant George S. Patton, Jr. had made a name for himself.

La Decena Tragica

From 1910 to 1920 Mexico was torn by revolution and civil war. Nearly a million Mexicans lost their lives, more than in the American Civil War. Many more emigrated to the American Southwest, changing the demographic makeup of the region. An American army in transition from horse cavalry to airplanes and motorized transport, found itself in pursuit of an illusive and wily foe. How did this war come about, and how did the US get involved?

From 1877 to 1910, Mexico was under the iron rule of one man, Gen. José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori. Porfirio Díaz had brought order to Mexico. He expropriated Church lands, opened Mexico to foreign investment, and encouraged the development of commercial agriculture and the building of railways and industry. In many ways, the Porfiriato brought prosperity to Mexico. But this prosperity was not equally shared. The Díaz regime worked with the hacendados, powerful, semi-feudal landowners, to seize land held communally by Native Americans, to add to their estates. Just 3% of the population owned 95% of arable or grazing land in Mexico. Too many rural Mexicans were penniless sharecroppers, trapped in debt peonage; while Gen. Díaz and his henchmen ruthlessly stifled all dissent.

But in 1908, now aged 77, in an interview with an American journalist, Díaz casually promised that there would be elections. Mexico began to buzz with excitement. In 1910, Francisco Madero, an aristocratic land owner, declared his candidacy for the presidency, on a program of democratic reform. But Díaz went back on his word, arrested Madero and 6,000 of his followers, and on election day declared himself the winner by an overwhelming majority. Madero however, soon escaped and fled north to San Antonio, where he issued a manifesto, calling for the overthrow of the dictator. It was November 20, 1910. The Mexican Revolution had begun.

Not only did the United States share a 2,000 mile border with Mexico, American businessmen had taken advantage of the apparent prosperity and stability of the Porfiriato to invest in Mexican, railroads, mining, oil fields and plantations. By 1910 there were 75,000 US expats south of the border, and Americans had nearly $1 billion invested in Mexico. Standard Oil and other American oil companies were developing the Tampico oil fields along the Gulf coast. Americans owned 27% of the arable land in Mexico and 45% of its industry. As Mexico erupted into chaos, those investments were threatened.

By the spring of 1911, northern Mexico was in all out rebellion. The Norte had always been the part of Mexico most open to unrest. It was farthest from the central authority in Mexico City, and was shielded by mountains and deserts. Potential rebels could also smuggle in arms in from the US. While Díaz’s army on paper boasted 35,000 men, it could only muster half that. Officers padded the payrolls and stole openly. What soldiers Díaz could put in the field were miserable conscripts, often convicts, paid the equivalent of 17 cents a day. Though Díaz hurriedly bumped their pay to 40 cents a day, he could not prevent the rebels from advancing.

In March, President Taft sent 30,000 troops to San Antonio to keep an eye on the border. Formed into an experimental Maneuver Division, the troops were part of an American Army in transition. Officers struggled to coordinate a heterogeneous mix of units that had never operated in the field above a regimental level before; while experimenting field radios, airplanes, and such cutting edge innovations as inoculating their men for typhus and making them bathe twice a week. The Army had only just recently been put under a General Staff, and even such a relatively modest deployment was a major test of the new Army’s organization.

By May 10, 1911, the rebels had secured control of Ciudad Juárez, opposite El Paso, Texas. They could now bring in weapons unhindered from the States. Díaz, seeing the writing on the wall, resigned on the 25th, and fled to France. But his parting words are worth noting: “Madero has unleashed a tiger; let’s see if he can ride it.”

Madero did face enormous challenges. In November, 1911 a grim faced Native American revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, issued his Plan de Ayala, calling for land reform, and began a rebellion in the impoverished southern state of Morelos. In the north an ambitious general, Pascual Orozco, led a rebellion backed by the hacendados and mine owners of Chihuahua, and was only put down with difficulty. Nonetheless, Madero held on.

But to survive Madero needed the military; and on February 9, 1913 a clique of generals attempted a golpe de estado, a coup, in Mexico City. One, Gen. Bernardo Reyes, attempted a direct assault on the Presidential Palace and was shot dead; but another, Gen Felix Díaz seized the Ciudadela, the city arsenal, and defied Madero. Thus began La Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days. Madero raced to bring up loyal troops, giving command of the troops in the city to Gen. Victoriano Huerta. With some sharp fighting, Huerta had the rebels pinned down in the Ciudadela. But Huerta had ambitions of his own.

Huerta found a friend in US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson. Wilson was President Taft’s appointee and believed that American interests in Mexico would best be served by a strong dictator along the lines of Díaz. At this key juncture, Taft, a Republican, had just been voted out in November, 1912, and was now a lame duck. This made Henry Lane Wilson, the man on the spot, enormously powerful. Wilson opted against Madero. On February 12, backed by the German, Spanish, and British ambassadors, Wilson demanded that Madero cease his operations against the rebels. Forcing a cease fire, on the 18th Wilson brokered a deal between Huerta & Gen Díaz at the US Embassy. Madero was arrested and forced to resign. Huerta declared himself president on the 20th, and late the next night Madero and his vice president were riddled with bullets outside of Lecumberri Prison by Huerta’s Rurales, rural mounted police, “while trying to escape”.

If Ambassador Wilson thought that now Mexico would return to the old days of stability, he was wrong. Rebellions soon erupted across Mexico, once again especially in the North. The Maneuver Division had been disbanded in August, 1911, after the fall of Gen. Díaz. Now, in February, 1913, Taft, as part of War Plan GREEN, sent another combined arms force, the newly formed 2nd Division, to Galveston; and a detachment of the Atlantic Fleet to Veracruz, the main port of Mexico.

This was the situation President Woodrow Wilson confronted when he took office in March, 1913. Huerta proved to be a murderous tyrant. He pushed aside Felix Díaz, had his men murder the Governor of Chihuahua, shut down the Mexican Congress, and arrested 85 of its members, while violence swept the country.

Incident at Iturbide Bridge

Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had been elected as a progressive minded reformer. As President of Princeton, he had modernized the university. As Governor of New Jersey, he had stood up to the state’s corrupt political machine. Now he wanted to bring order and elected government to America’s Latin neighbor. He summarily ordered Ambassador Wilson home, and point blank refused to recognize the Huerta regime. This was something new. The general practice at the time was that if there was a revolution in a country, the rebels were usually automatically recognized by the Great Powers if they controlled the capital and had the power to enforce order. Wilson brought a new, moral component into the equation. Huerta doubtless saw this as the basest kind of gringo treachery. Didn’t President Wilson understand that Mexico needed to have order imposed from above? Hadn’t Díaz’s troubles began when he even talked of elections? Hadn’t the Americans made a deal?

Huerta’s position worsened. On March 28, 1913, Governor Venustiano Carranza de la Garza of the northern Mexican state of Coahuila defied Huerta, issuing his Plan de Guadelupe, calling on Mexicans to overthrow the dictator. The rebels coalesced around Carranza as the Constitutionalist Army. Five days before Carranza’s proclamation, a fiery rebel, who had fought in the first revolution to overthrow Díaz, slipped out of El Paso, Texas and crossed south over the Rio Grande into Mexico with 8 followers to begin his own revolution. Born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, he is better known by his nomme de guerre - Francisco “Pancho” Villa.

Within a day, Villa was joined by 11 more men. By the end of the year he was in command of an army, the Division del Norte, and master of the state of Chihuahua. In this period Villa’s relations with the US were good. Villa and Gen. Obregón, Carranza’s top commander, met with the US Army on a number of occasions in the spring of 1914. One such session took place in March at Fort Bliss, Texas, with Brig. Gen. John Pershing. The Americans were keeping channels open to the rebels, while still refusing to recognize Huerta.

Events came to a head at the Gulf port of Tampico, in April. On April 3, Villa’s Division del Norte took Torreón, the strategic hub of northern Mexico. The Constitutionalistas rapidly pushed toward Tampico, the center of Mexico’s oil industry, and home to the second largest colony of American expats outside of Mexico City. Gen. Ignacio Morelos Zaragosa, Huerta’s commander in Tampico, had only 2,000 men to hold the city, and was rapidly forced back into the city itself. All this time Rear Adm. Henry T Mayo, commander of the Atlantic Fleet’s 5th Division, maintained strict neutrality, as the fighting grew nearer.

On the morning of April 9th, Mayo sent a whaleboat from the USS Dolphin, his temporary flagship, up the Pánuco River to a warehouse to retrieve some fuel oil. It was a routine mission. So unconcerned were the men that they did not bother to arm themselves. But the situation for Huerta’s Federales was worsening.

They had been pushed back to the Iturbide Bridge, over the Pánuco River, at the northern edge of the city. As the whaleboat approached the bridge, nervous Federal troops stopped the Americans at gunpoint and made them come ashore. The Mexicans didn’t speak English and none of the Americans spoke Spanish. The soldiers marched the outraged Americans to their commanding officer, who immediately apologized and released them. But the damage was done. An apology was not enough, declared Adm. Mayo. There was to be a 21 gun salute, and the American flag was to be hoisted over the port. Huerta had the officer in charge at the bridge arrested, but balked at the humiliation of having the flag raised over Mexican territory. Wilson in turn issued an ultimatum.


The Tampico Incident might seem trivial today, but at the time it was no laughing matter. There was no U.N. back then. There was not even a pretense that nations were somehow equal. There were Great Powers, with warships and battalions of marines to protect their interests, and then there was everyone else. In a very real sense Adm. Mayo’s battleships in Tampico harbor, with the British and German warships beside them, were international law, the only law, in a country in revolution. This kind of gunboat diplomacy was standard procedure at the time.

It was also an excuse. Mexico, like most Latin American countries at the time, was heavily dependent on its exports, and, in an age before computers, its government counted on the income from customs duties, one of the few kinds of taxes easily collected in those days. By threatening a blockade, a bombardment, or an occupation of Mexico’s ports, Wilson was in a position to put enormous pressure on Huerta, while if Huerta backed down, the loss of prestige might be equally devastating.

Representatives from Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the ABC Powers, tried to mediate at Niagara Falls, Canada. But then Wilson received intelligence that changed the picture. A German merchant ship, the Ypiranga, was due into Veracruz from Havana on the April 21, with a cargo of arms. The prospect of Huerta being backed by German weapons galvanized Wilson, and he radioed Rear Adm. Frank F. Fletcher, commanding the 1st Division of the Atlantic Fleet at Veracruz, to act at once.

At 11:00 AM, Fletcher began landing a battalion of Marines and bluejackets from the gunboat Prairie on the wharf in Veracruz harbor. By 11:30 the 787 sailors and Marines had seized the customs house, the post and telegraph offices, the railway terminal, the Terminal Hotel and the US consulate. The Mexican commander, Gen. Gustavo Maas, had two under-strength regiments - 1,000 men, plus another 300 hastily armed civilian volunteers. This was enough to give the Americans a fight, but Maas had nothing to match the 12 inch guns aboard the two US battleships, the Florida and the Utah, in the harbor. After an angry phone conversation with the American consul, Maas acted. He sent a 100 men from the 19th Regiment northwest up Avenida Independencia, parallel to the harbor, and screened by buildings from the American guns, directly toward the American consulate. He then threw open the gates of La Galera Military Prison, armed the inmates with Mausers, and sent them and the volunteers, stiffened by regulars of the 18th Regiment, up Avenida Cinco de Mayo, parallel to, and one block inland, from Independencia. Maas then received orders from Mexican Minister of Defense, Gen. Blanquet, not to resist, but it was too late.

At 12:30 PM the shooting started. The Americans had set up a wig wag station on the roof of the Terminal Hotel, signaling Adm. Fletcher aboard the USS Prairie with flags. A bluejacket sending signals fell dead from a sniper’s bullet. The cadets at the Mexican Naval Academy joined in spontaneously, firing at the picket boats unloading supplies on the dock. The Prairie responded with her three inch guns as firing erupted through the port. Of the seven men in the signaling detachment on the roof of the hotel, three were killed or wounded, but they kept communications with the ship open.

By 4:00 PM Maas had pulled back to Tejería, 10 miles inland. The Marines held their immediate objectives, at the cost of 4 dead and 20 wounded. But the rest of the city was in the hands of the patriotic citizens/armed mob. Sporadic sniping went on in the darkness, as drunken convicts looted stores and houses. That night, 3,000 Marines of the 1st Advanced Base Regiment arrived, commanded by Col. Lejeune , including a young Lieutenant Vandegrift, who was to command the Marine landing at Guadalcanal 28 years later. Four more battleships of the Atlantic Fleet arrived as well, fresh from Hampton Roads.

Fletcher had hoped that he could accomplish his official mission, keeping the Ypiranga from unloading her cargo of arms, by merely securing the port facilities. In fact, the Ypiranga had merely dropped off the arms at another port nearby. The arms were not German after all, but Remington arms, including machine guns, bought in the US by Huertista agents and shipped to Hamburg to divert suspicion. But it no longer mattered. Fletcher’s force would not be secure now unless they held the whole city. At 8:30 AM he renewed the assault.

The fighting in places was fierce, particularly at the Naval Academy, where the cadets, led by Commodore Manuel Azueta resisted bitterly. When a force of bluejackets under Captain E.A. Anderson of the New Hampshire stupidly approached the Academy marching in formation, they were caught in a fusillade of rifle and machine gun fire and pinned down. They were rescued by the heavy guns of the cruisers Chester and San Francisco, supported by the Prairie, that blasted down the walls of the Naval Academy.

The Marines fought house to house, hacking their way through brick walls with pickaxes to avoid the open streets; securing the city block by block. By nightfall, April 24, the city was in their hands. In four days of fighting 17 American sailors and Marines were dead, and another 63 wounded. The Mexicans lost between 126 and 300 killed, and at least 195 wounded. Among the wounded was 18-year old Lieutenant José Azueta, the son of the commandant of the Naval Academy. Twice wounded on the first day of the battle, he fought at a machine gun before being taken from the battlefield to his home. When offered treatment by Adm. Fletcher’s personal surgeon, he refused as long as the Americans were occupying the city. He died of his wounds on May 10, Mexican Mothers’ Day.

Fletcher was swiftly reinforced by the 5th US Infantry Brigade from Galveston, including a young Captain Douglas MacArthur. The Americans now had Huerta’s regime by the throat, but they had problems of their own. Once the city was taken the people of Veracruz ceased to resist, but Mexico had a law, on the books since the French invasion of 1863, that forbade Mexican officials from aiding an invader on penalty of death. The entire Veracruz civil service now went on strike, and the Americans had to find a way to run a Mexican city of 50,000 people without them. The city’s water supply was also vulnerable. There was a pumping station at Tejería. If the Huertistas destroyed it, they could render Veracruz uninhabitable. The expedition, now under the command of Army Brigadier Gen. Frederick Funston, backed by the guns of the American navy, was strong enough to smash any Mexican force that came within range, but Funston did not have the transport to push far inland. Intelligence information was spotty at best. There were demonstrations against the occupation in Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala and elsewhere, as protests poured in from across Latin America. Every one of the rebel factions condemned the occupation; interestingly, except Villa. Pancho Villa, the rebel most dependent on arms from the United States, remarked simply that it was Huerta’s bull that had been gored.

Viva Villa

The situation in the rest of Mexico had been changing rapidly. After Villa took Torreón, he was in a position to push south toward Mexico City. Instead Carranza sent him east, to take Saltillo. Saltillo was important, but it notably put Villa farther from Mexico City than Carranza’s loyal follower, Álvaro Obregón. Carranza was in a dilemma. Villa was an able field commander, but Porfirio Díaz and Huerta had also been able commanders, and had used it as a way to shoot their way into power. So now Carranza insisted that Villa move on Saltillo, and threatened to cut off his supplies of ammo and coal for his supply trains. Villa instantly knew what this meant. This may have been another reason why Villa wanted to keep channels open with the Americans for the present.

On June 23, Villa, now with 20,000 men, captured Zacatecas, Mexico’s main source of silver, and knocking a major prop out from under the Huerta regime. Carranza immediately cut off Villa’s supplies, as Obregón pushed southward. On July 15 Huerta resigned and fled to Spain. One month later the last Huertistas laid down their arms, and Obregón marched into Mexico City.

President Wilson had now achieved his objective. But Mexico was no closer to a stable government than ever. Despite the unpopularity of the occupation, Wilson could not bring himself to pull out of Veracruz and give up the measure of control that he had. At the Convention of Aguascalientes in the fall of 1914, with Villa and Zapata supporting one, more radical faction, and Carranza and Obregón on the other. By early November, 1914 the split was open. Villa and his allies proclaimed a Conventionalist government, and occupied Mexico City in December, while Carranza and Obregón retreated toward Tampico and Veracruz.

Several factors shifted the balance in favor of Carranza. In November, 1914 the US government reached an accord with Carranza, and on November 23rd pulled out of Veracruz. As they left they handed over substantial stockpiles of arms and munitions to the Carranzistas. The Americans allowed open arms sales to Carranza, while keeping the arms embargo on Villa and the Conventionalistas. After regaining Mexico City in February, 1915, Carranza forged an alliance with the Casa del Obrero Mundial a militant anarcho-syndicalist union. The Casa raised six battalions of urban workers, some 15,000 in all, for the Carranzistas.

Was the invasion of Veracruz a success for the Americans? Tactically it was victory, and it hurt Huerta badly at a crucial juncture. The American occupation was, after the initial fighting, peaceful. Death rates from disease actually dropped during the occupation. But it outraged Mexican public opinion, especially in the wake of Ambassador Wilson’s foul smelling Pact de la Embajada with Huerta. The fact was that American policy in Mexico was hostage to our billion dollar investment there. It was clear that the old order was dead, but any redistribution of the wealth in Mexico by definition was bound to hurt vested interests, including ours. In an amusing footnote to the invasion, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels showered 56 Medals of Honor on the participants; about half of the number awarded in either the Spanish American War or World War I. The Democrats had been out of power in Washington for most of the time since the Civil War. The Spanish American War had been a ‘Republican’ war. Now a Democratic administration needed its own list of heroes.

In April,1915, Villa made a bloody mistake. Obregón was dug in at Celaya, near Querétaro, 190 miles northwest of Mexico City. Villa, with 25,000 men, launched a direct frontal assault on Obregón’s position. Obregón had studied the fighting going on in Europe, and carefully positioned machine guns along his line. In two days of fighting 4,000 Villistas lay dead, and another 6,000 were prisoners. Obregón pursued as Villa retreated northward into his home territory of Chihuahua. In October Wilson finally recognized Carranza.

The Carranzistas, or Federales [Note: Any faction that controlled the central government in Mexico City was termed the Federales. Thus Porfirio Díaz, Huerta, and the Carranza’s forces in turn were Federales.] held the border crossing of Agua Prieta, Sonora, opposite Douglas, Arizona. Villa had it isolated from the rest of Carranzista territory, and wanted to secure it, in order to more easily smuggle in arms. Now Wilson intervened directly. He allowed Gen. Obregón to move reinforcements, under Gen. Plutarco Calles, into Agua Prieta through US territory via the El Paso-Southwestern Railway. Calles dug in, placing trenches and barbed wire around his position, and waited.

Villa had been successful in large part thus far by being the one Mexican general who could carry off a determined night attack. This time it was different. As Villa’s men crept up on Calles’ position on November 1, 1915, searchlights came on, and machine guns opened up. The searchlights dismayed the Villistas. It was clearly American technology. A few days later Villa attacked Hermosillo, the capital of the state of Sonora, and again was routed. Villa retreated north with the embittered remnants of his army; north toward the American border.


It is time to clear up a number of misconceptions about Pancho Villa. He was not a “bandit”. He could be ruthless, and his men seized property. But his aim always was not plunder, but to make himself president of Mexico. One problem is that his followers were drawn from the rural lower classes. American observers of the time too often absorbed the views and prejudices of the educated Mexican elite. But Villa was no Robin Hood either. He was vengeful, impulsive, and hot headed. He also had no compunctions about using mercenaries. His men were less true guerillas, like the Viet Cong, and more a fast moving mobile force, comparable to, say, Nathan Bedford Forrest in the American Civil War.

In January, 1916 Villa’s fortunes were at a low ebb. The best index of the situation is that at that time Carranza felt strong enough to disband the union’s workers’ battalions. Time was working against Villa. Increasingly desperate, Villa’s men struck at a trainload of Americans coming south to reopen mines at Santa Isabel, Chihuahua. The Villistas stopped the train, dragged off the 17 Americans, and shot 16 of them. One escaped.

On March 9, at 4:17 AM: some 485 Villistas, under the direct command of Gen. Candelario Cervantes, attacked the small border town of Columbus, New Mexico, and the adjoining US Army base, Camp Furlong. Villa had acted on the mistaken intelligence that Columbus was guarded by a garrison of only 30 men. Instead there were four troops of the US 13th Cavalry, and a machine gun troop. The Cavalry responded quickly, setting up machine guns to guard the bank. The hungry Villistas were mainly after money and supplies. They plundered the hotel and looted and burned the center of town. But the resistance was far heavier than they expected. At first light Villa’s men withdrew, pursued by a troop of cavalry. In the two hour melee 8 US soldiers and 10 civilians were killed, with 6 other soldiers and 2 civilians wounded. At least 67 Villistas were killed in the raid, another 13 dying of their wounds, while 5 were captured. As many as 100 others were wounded, but escaped.

There has been much debate about Villa’s motives in attacking Columbus, New Mexico. At least one gun runner in Columbus had done business with Villa, but had never delivered, thereby giving Villa an excuse. But this misses the point. Villa knew full well that the Americans would retaliate and pursue him into Mexico. As things were going Villa was finished - the Americans and Carranza had an understanding between them. Villa’s corps of dorados, hard core loyalists, had been whittled down in one futile battle after another. Villa had to act. He needed a quick and bold success to restore his men’s morale. And if that made the American entente with Carranza more open, so much the better. After Veracruz the Americans were so unpopular in Mexico that anyone who could be seen to stand against them would gain in popularity. Villa was also by nature a gambler. He could not sit down and slowly build up a guerilla network in the villages. He had to attack. So, facing certain defeat otherwise he risked everything on a long shot.

The day after the attack Secretary of War Newton D. Baker sent orders to Gen. Frederick Funston, commander of the US Army’s Southern Department:

“You will promptly organize an adequate military force of troops from your department under the command of Brigadier General John J. Pershing and will direct him to proceed promptly across the border in pursuit of the Mexican band which attacked the town of Columbus...”

La Tercera Intervención

Mexicans refer to the Pershing expedition as La Tercera Intervención, the third US intervention; the first being the Mexican War and the second the occupation of Veracruz. Whether we accept the parallels or not, it is worth noting how the Mexican people saw things. There are a lot of myths about the expedition. One is that Pershing’s mission was to get Villa dead or alive. Another is that Pershing’s columns were too cumbersome and that the Villistas ran rings around them. The truth is more complicated.

The day after the attack American military units began converging on Columbus. On the 14th, Brig. Gen. John Pershing, a veteran of the Apache wars and the guerilla warfare of the Philippine Insurrection, set up his headquarters in the tiny border town. At 1:00 AM on the 16th, Wilson, with the 7th and 10th Cavalry crossed into Mexico from Culbertson’s Ranch, 50 miles southwest of Columbus, and pushed south to Ojitas, 58 miles inside Mexico. At the same time the 13th Cavalry pressed due south from Columbus toward Palomas.

It was very rough going. There was desert scrub, and dry alkali flats. Dust storms and choking heat were a daily occurrence. At 5,000 feet of elevation even in the plains, it got so cold at night that men found the contents of their canteens frozen solid in the morning. The War Department had provided no winter gear for the men, on the theory that Mexico was a tropical country! There were no maps, and non-existent roads.

But they persevered. On the 17th, Pershing’s column reached the Mormon settlement at Colonia Dublán, where they established a forward base. Two days later, Pershing sent the 7th Cavalry southeast toward San Miguel. Still the Villistas did not turn and fight. Pershing therefore began to spread his forces out into detachments, moving independently through the countryside. It is an index of Villa’s weakness that he did not try to ambush and destroy a column. He also failed to do anything to disrupt Pershing’s extended supply lines.

Pershing was alive to new technological developments. He equipped his forces with field radios, although their range was limited to about 25 miles in the mountainous territory. The Americans also unveiled a new weapon, the 8 planes of the Signal Corps’ 1st Aero Squadron. The underpowered Curtiss JN-4s were ineffective in the 10,000 foot mountains. They lacked climb and were vulnerable to the tricky winds of the passes and canyons. Still they provided rudimentary scouting and photo reconnaissance in a country where any intelligence was useful, as well offering a way for Wilson to relay messages quickly his widely dispersed forces. In a month all of the planes were out of commission, and though they were replaced in May by the slightly better Curtiss R-2, the new planes were missing equipment and spare parts.

More important was the expedition’s use of motorized transport. Patton moved the raiding party that killed Cárdenas in automobiles. Pershing eventually deployed 200 trucks in 10 companies, carrying 10,000 tons of supplies to his expedition. While of a bewildering variety of makes and models, and plagued insufficient repair facilities, they proved themselves indispensable. By bringing in forage for the horses and other vital necessities, they increased the range of Pershing’s operations significantly, especially given the disastrous state of the next best alternative - the Mexican railways.

The eyes and ears of expedition’s cavalry were the Apache scouts. The Apaches had raided northwestern Mexico for centuries. They were used to the harsh conditions and were highly mobile. Pershing also used American expatriates who knew the country, as well as Mexican informants, though these were often of dubious value. The army used officers as spies on an individual, ad hoc basis. For example, during the Veracruz operation, Captain Douglas MacArthur had gone alone on a four day mission out of Veracruz to try to locate locomotives along the Veracruz & Alvarado Railroad for possible use in an advance on Mexico City. By bribing a Mexican rail worker $150 in gold, he got his information. But such efforts to gather intelligence were not well coordinated.

The Americans kept pushing Villa south, putting him within closer reach of Carranza’s Federales. They also forced Villa to divide up his men and keep moving. While Villa’s men knew the countryside, they were hampered by significant numbers of camp followers, women and children. The women served as cooks and medics, as well as providing entertainment. Under the right circumstances, Pershing’s cavalry could sometimes move faster than the Villistas. On the 29th, a column of the 7th Cavalry caught up with a Villista force at Guerrero, killing their leader, Gen. Hernandez, and 34 others, and capturing two machine guns. Unbeknownst to the Americans, Villa, who had been wounded in a skirmish recently, had actually been in Guerrero up until the night before, and had just escaped into the mountains with his dorados. The Americans were now 250 miles inside Mexico, but still Villa eluded them.

“Tell the son of a bitch I’m coming through.”

As the Americans moved deeper into Chihuahua, the mood of the countryside changed. In the southern part of the state Villa’s support was stronger. Also, Carranza’s government was growing more and more alarmed at the gringo advance. The Mexican populace had thus far been neutral, but if serious popular resistance arose, Pershing’s forces: 4 cavalry regiments and two infantry regiments, now about 6,675 men, would be overextended.

On April 12th, Maj. Frank Tompkins, with 100 troopers of the 13th Cavalry, reached the town of Parral, 400 miles inside Mexico, near the southern edge of the state of Chihuahua. Tompkins had been told that he would be welcomed in the town by the local Carranzista commander. But when he arrived in Parral he found the commander, Gen. Lozano, stunned and surprised to see him. Outside the headquarters a mob was turning ugly, with shouts of “Viva Villa!” Tompkins and his men rode back out of town, but a melee erupted, and the Americans exchanged fire with the Carranzista troops north of the town. In terms of casualties it was a minor rebuff - the Americans lost two dead and two others wounded, but it was clear that the Americans going to advance farther without serious resistance by the Federales, as well as Villistas. To put this in perspective, imagine the reaction in America if a Mexican cavalry force rode 400 miles north from Tijuana. That would put them north of Fresno! If a Union force had ridden as far south into hostile territory during the Civil War, they would have gone the distance from Cincinnati to Atlanta.

Pershing read the incident at Parral correctly and pulled his men back north 100 miles to Carretas. On April 30, Gen. Obregón met with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Hugh L. Scott at Juárez and bluntly demanded that the US pull out. Though the expedition stayed, and was even reinforced, Pershing did not renew his pursuit south. A few days later Pershing pulled his men into five strong points. This would keep Villa from operating in force in all but the southern quarter of Chihuahua. But it also tacitly gave up any real chance to smash Villa once and for all.

The Americans could still hurt the Villistas. Nine days after Patton killed Julio Cardenas, another patrol ran into Gen. Candelario Cervantes, the Villista who actually commanded the assault on Columbus, and killed him. That very day, May 25, 1916, was the last recorded clash between the Villistas and the US expedition. Villa was leaving the Americans alone, realizing that the expedition was now poisoning US relations with Carranza.

On May 8, after Mexican raiders struck at Glen Springs, Texas, President Wilson called out the National Guard of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. On June 10th Mexican raiders crossed the Rio Grande above Laredo, clashing with US troops before pulling back. One of the dead they left behind was Lt. Col. Villareal of Mexican army. Five days later, raiders struck San Ygnacio, Texas, 40 miles below Laredo, again leaving a dead Carranzista officer. Two days after the raid, the Americans were confronted by Gen. Jacinto B. Treviño, commander of the Carranzista forces in Chihuahua. He told the Americans that they would now only be allowed to march north. The next day, President Wilson called out the National Guard of all 48 states.

It was in this atmosphere that two troops of the African American 10th Cavalry, 83 men in total, set out on June 18th from Colonia Dublán and Ojo Federico to check out a possible Villista force to the east. If the Villistas were out there in force they could threaten the Americans’ supply line to Columbus. Three days later, the two troops, under the command of Lt. Charles T. Boyd, reached the outskirts of the small Chihuahuan town of Carrizal. In Carrizal were 300 troops of Carranza’s regular army, under the command of Gen. Felix Gómez. Boyd came forward, and conferred with Gómez. Boyd stated that his orders were to go through Carrizal. Gómez had orders not to initiate hostilities, but to hold the town. Gómez asked for some time to consult his superiors. Boyd would have none of it. He snapped to his interpreter: “Tell the son of a bitch I’m coming through.” After his interpreter relayed the gist of the message, Boyd left, and ordered his men to advance.

There was no cover. What’s more, following standard cavalry practice, every 4th man was left behind to hold the horses. Boyd advanced with just 60 men. The Mexicans opened fire at 250 yards. When the smoke cleared, Lt. Boyd and 16 of his command were dead. Eleven more were wounded, and 23 others were taken prisoner by the Mexicans. The remnants of the two troops retreated. But the Mexicans did not pursue. American rifle fire was deadly accurate, and Gen. Gómez and 45 Federales were also dead.

Pershing responded by massing his forces at Colonia Dublán. It was the largest concentration of US troops since the 1911 maneuvers. And National Guard troops were on their way to the border, 112,000 were deployed from Brownsville, Texas to Douglas, Arizona by the end of July. But Carranza was no fool. He wisely released the American POWs taken at Carrizal, and on July 4, 1916, offered to negotiate with the US through Latin American mediation. Wilson was concerned as well; elections were coming up in November. He quickly opened direct talks with the Carranza regime.

But neither side could bring themselves to end the impasse. For the Carranza regime Carrizal had been a resounding victory, in that it got the Americans to reduce their operations to what was effectively a token occupation around Colonia Dublán. But neither the Villistas or Carranza could make the Americans leave. Villa, in the mean time, used the respite from American pressure to rebuild his army. By late August he had 800 men under him again. In mid-September he captured Ciudad Chihuahua, the capital of the state, convincing much of the Carranzista garrison, including the artillery, to join him.

But Villa’s day had come and gone. Even though he controlled most of Chihuahua state by late October, he only stayed in the capital a day. Villa retook Ciudad Chihuahua in November, but now only after five days of fierce fighting; and he was thrown out again in December, this time permanently. Carranza could have called in American aid at any time, but he didn’t. The national government was growing stronger.

Meanwhile Pershing’s men waited. Pershing worked on training them, trying to improve coordination above the regimental level and create a cohesive fighting force. He also, very sensibly had the Provost Marshal (the expedition’s equivalent of the chief of police) manage a brothel. This kept the rate of STD infections very low.

But larger events were looming. In January, the German government, under siege from the British blockade in World War I, stupidly offered to support the Carranza regime in taking back parts of the American Southwest in the event of a war with the United States. When the news was leaked by British Intelligence it merely inflamed anti-German sentiment. Wilson was on a collision course with Germany now, and not afford to have the army tied down in Mexico. On January 27, Pershing began pulling his troops back north over the border. The last man left on February 5, the same day the Carranza regime issued a new national constitution. The Third Intervention was over.

Lessons Learned

On the battle field the American military did very well. Far from being slow and ponderous, the American columns could move fast, and twice caught the Villistas by surprise. The Americans learned quickly, and put their technology: trucks, radios, machine guns and airplanes, to good use. By August the 1st Aero Squadron had flown 540 missions over Mexico, acquiring a wealth of practical experience. American marksmanship was justly feared by Villistas and Federales alike. Pershing led his men aggressively, and emerged from the expedition as the clear choice to lead American troops against Germany. George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, A.A. Vandegrift, and others went on to play important roles in World War II. The very act of mobilizing large numbers of troops and National Guardsmen and moving them around the country was important in preparing the military for World War I. It was certainly a distinguished end to the horse cavalry’s active combat service.

But what did we accomplish? No matter how well American troops did on the battlefield, the blunt fact is that the US succeeded, in three years, in alienating every single faction in a complicated, multi-faction civil war. This has to be some sort of record! One major problem was that our policy was always reactionary, in the literal sense that we always reacted to events in Mexico, rather than working to shape things pro-actively.

To be fair to Wilson, the real damage was done in the years of apparent quiet of the Porfiriato, and with Ambassador Wilson’s ill advised alliance with Huerta. The move to seize Veracruz was extremely effective, in that it helped bring Huerta down. But we lacked what is today called an exit strategy, and our presence there, after a while, hurt us. The same can be said of the Pershing expedition. The initial move clearly hurt Villa, forcing him to break up his forces and go to ground. But we utterly failed to coordinate with our supposed allies, the Carranzistas, and this ultimately undermined the effectiveness of the mission.

We spoke earlier of their being two types of nations in this era: the Great Powers and everyone else. But the fact that Wilson changed his tune with Mexico was a tacit admission that there was a third category - nations that, while not Great Powers, were too large and too well armed to be dealt with by the old school of gunboat diplomacy. Within months of our withdrawal from Mexico, America entered World War I. The two world wars transformed the American military. Consequently the involvement in Mexico is seen as the end of an era. And it was, but in many ways the American intervention in the complex morass of Mexican power politics pointed the way to the future. Our current conflicts in Afghanistan and elsewhere, far more closely resemble the murky political situation in Mexico than the massed battles of the two world wars.

It is worth noting that Wilson’s plan to end World War I included the formation of a League of Nations, designed to air differences between nations in an atmosphere of equality. Despite tensions for years thereafter, American troops never again intervened on a large scale in Mexico. Fighting gradually died down, and Villa was eventually assassinated in 1923. Though continuing to face challenges, Mexico never again lapsed into anarchy, and a new era of US-Mexico relations began.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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© 2023 Timothy Neeno.

Published online: 01/08/2010.

Written by Timothy Neeno. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Timothy Neeno at:

About the author:
Timothy Neeno is originally from Chicago, Illinois. He graduated with a Masters in US History from the University of Wisconsin in 1990. Since then he has gone into teaching. He and his wife have worked and taught in Bolivia, Taiwan, Kuwait, Brazil and the Navajo Reservation and have traveled in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Since 2002 they have settled in the Phoenix area. He currently teaches history at the University of Phoenix.

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