Issues between the United States and Mexico began shortly after the beginning of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. With various factions threatening foreign business interests and citizens, US military interventions, such as the 1914 occupation of Veracruz occurred. With the ascendency of Venustiano Carranza, the United States elected to recognize his government on October 19, 1915. This decision angered Francisco "Pancho" Villa who commanded revolutionary forces in northern Mexico. In retribution, he began attacks against American citizens including killing seventeen aboard a train in Chihuahua.
Not content with these attacks, Villa mounted a major assault on Columbus, NM. Attacking on the night of March 9, 1916, his men struck the town and a detachment of the 13th US Cavalry Regiment. The resulting fighting left eighteen Americans dead and eight wounded, while Villa lost around 67 killed. In the wake of this cross-border incursion, public outrage led President Woodrow Wilson to order the military to make an effort to capture Villa. Working with Secretary of War Newton Baker, Wilson directed that a punitive expedition be formed and supplies and troops began arriving at Columbus.
Across the Border
To lead the expedition, US Army Chief of Staff Major General Hugh Scott selected Brigadier General John J. Pershing. A veteran of the Indian Wars and Philippine Insurrection, Pershing was also known for his diplomatic skills and tact. Attached to Pershing's staff was a young lieutenant who would later become famous, George S. Patton. While Pershing worked to marshal his forces, Secretary of State Robert Lansing lobbied Carranza into allowing American troops to cross the border. Though reluctant, Carranza agreed as long as US forces did not advance beyond the state of Chihuahua.
On March 15, Pershing's forces crossed the border in two columns with one departing from Columbus and the other from Hachita. Consisting of infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers, and logistical units, Pershing's command pushed south seeking Villa and established a headquarters at Colonia Dublan near the Casas Grandes River. Though promised use of the Mexican Northwestern Railway, this was not forthcoming and Pershing soon faced a logistical crisis. This was solved through the use of "truck trains" which used Dodge trucks to ferry supplies the one hundred miles from Columbus.
Frustration in the Sands
Included in the expedition was Captain Benjamin D. Foulois' First Aero Squadron. Flying JN-3/4 Jennys, they provided scouting and reconnaissance services for Pershing's command. With a week's head start, Villa dispersed his men into the rugged countryside of northern Mexico. As a result, early American efforts to locate him met with failure. While many of the local populace disliked Villa, they were more annoyed by the American incursion and failed to offer assistance. Two weeks into the campaign, elements of the 7th US Cavalry fought a minor engagement with Villistas near San Geronimo.
The situation was further complicated on April 13, when American forces were attacked by Carranza's Federal troops near Parral. Though his men drove off the Mexicans, Pershing elected to concentrate his command at Dublan and focus on sending out smaller units to find Villa. Some success was had on May 14, when a detachment led by Patton located the commander of Villa's bodyguard Julio Cárdenas at San Miguelito. In the resulting skirmish, Patton killed Cárdenas. The next month, Mexican-American relations suffered another blow when Federal troops engaged two troops of the 10th US Cavalry near Carrizal.
In the fighting, seven Americans were killed and 23 captured. These men were returned to Pershing a short time later. With Pershing's men searching in vain for Villa and tensions rising, Scott and Major General Frederick Funston began negotiations with Carranza's military advisor, Alvaro Obregon, at El Paso, TX. These talks ultimately led to an agreement where American forces would withdraw if Carranza would control Villa. As Pershing's men continued their search, their rear was covered by 110,000 National Guardsmen that Wilson called into service in June 1916. These men were deployed along the border.
With talks progressing and troops defending the border against raids, Pershing assumed a more defensive position and patrolled less aggressively. The presence of American forces, along with combat losses and desertions, effectively limited Villa's ability to pose a meaningful threat. Through the summer, American troops battled boredom at Dublan through sporting activities, gambling, and imbibing at the numerous cantinas. Other needs were met through an officially sanctioned and monitored brothel that was established within the American camp. Pershing's forces remained in place through the fall.
The Americans Withdraw
On January 18, 1917, Funston informed Pershing that American troops would be withdrawn at "an early date." Pershing agreed with the decision and began moving his 10,690 men north towards the border on January 27. Forming his command at Palomas, Chihuahua, it re-crossed the border on February 5 en route to Fort Bliss, TX. Officially concluded, the Punitive Expedition had failed in its objective to capture Villa. Pershing privately complained that Wilson had imposed too many restrictions on the expedition, but also admitted that Villa had "outwitted and out-bluffed him at every turn."
Though the expedition failed to capture Villa, it did provide a valuable training experience for the 11,000 men who took part. One of the largest military American military operations since the Civil War, it provided lessons to be utilized as the United States inched closer and closer to World War I. Also, it served as an effective projection of American power which aided in halting raids and aggression along the border.