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Although President Wilson helped Mexicans during their struggle against Victoriano Huerta, the U.S. faced difficulties once Villa and Zapata began fighting against Carranza and Obregón after Huerta fell in July 1914. Villa thought he would receive U.S. backing, given his friendly relations with U.S. investors, but instead Wilson recognized his enemy Carranza. The start of World War I also played a part because war material had become increasingly more expensive and difficult to get. These factors help explain Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico.

Responding to Pancho Villa’s Break with the Constitutionalists

The Mexican Revolution attracted international attention, because many foreigners had invested in Mexico during the Porfiriato. The Revolution was also problematic for many foreign landowners there, who could no longer rely on their safety or success. Many newspapers in the U.S. published daily articles about the Revolution, including details about where specific revolutionaries were and their plans.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this occurred after Pancho Villa’s break from the Carrancistas. First Chief Venustiano Carranza released a massive amount of propaganda depicting Villa as a lawless outlaw. One such article, actually published in the El Paso Herald, “Pancho Villa, From Bandit to Military Dictator” by Edmond Behr is particularly venomous, no more portraying Villa as defender of his sister’s honor, the article likens Villa to Porfirio Díaz saying that his capacity for leadership could lead Villa to try and fill the same role as Díaz.

“Pancho Villa, From Bandit to Military Dictator” by Edmond Behr. El Paso Herald. 6 December 1913. Page 3, Image 31. Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress

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U.S. Arms Trade with Villa After World War I Began

These political cartoons show changing U.S. attitudes regarding Villa and President Wilson’s continued support of the arms trade. The first was published in The Evening Telegram (New York) in 1916, right after the U.S. stopped supporting Villa. The revolutionary then began to target American interests in Mexico. Uncle Sam rips off a mask of pro-U.S. sentiment from the villainous Villa. The second cartoon was published in the New York Sun in April 1916. It shows Villa using a U.S. made Colt pistol to shoot the U.S. Flag which is suspended at half-mast over the remains of Veracruz and Columbus, New Mexico - the city Pancho Villa raided after the U.S. officially declared Carranza the legitimate president of Mexico.

World War I reshaped the nature of U.S. interaction with Villa, because he was required to buy his own ammunition. Throughout the early part of the Revolution, Villa sold Chihuahua’s cattle, cotton, and mining products to the U.S. However, when World War I began prices for ammunition jumped from $40-50 to $67 per 1,000 rounds in just one year. Meanwhile, the prices raised from cattle, cotton, and mining exports, plummeted while those of oil and henequen sisal, which Carranza exported, rose substantially. As Villa’s economic position deteriorated, he grew ever more dependent on U.S. aid for weapons, which was reduced. To access ammunition, Villa relied on Felix Sommerfeld, Madero’s head of secret service in the U.S. Before the war, Sommerfeld produced good supplies, but once World War I began, he could only get small quantities of shoddy stuff. Villa dismissed Sommerfeld and hired Lázaro de la Garza. Once, Villa ordered 15 million cartridges, but received only 700,000. De la Garza offered the rest to Carranza who could pay more but finally delivered them to the French who paid even better. Nevertheless, Villa maintained good relations with the U.S.

In April 1915, President Wilson ordered Carranza and Villa to stop fighting or else the U.S. would intervene. Villa sent Roque González Garza to Washington, D.C. as his representative. González discovered that U.S. policies clearly favored Carranza. For example, U.S. diplomat León Canova helped smuggle out of Mexico City Eduardo Iturbide, a wealthy and influential descendant of Agustín de Iturbide who fought Villa as Governor of the Federal District under Victoriano Huerta. Shortly after, Canova became head of the Mexico Desk at the U.S. State Department. Canova stopped sending munitions to Villa, and instead shipped them to Eduardo Iturbide for his counter-revolution. Even though Canova’s plans failed, the U.S. lost Villa’s respect. Due to Canova’s interference and the dramatic defeats Villa suffered in April, June and July, the U.S. and Villa parted company. Villa’s Conventionist coalition began to fall apart in August 1915, when the Maderos and General José María Maytorena split. Desertion rates rose as soldiers followed their commanding officers or just fled. By 14 September 1915, Villa disbanded his coalition army; in October 1915 President Wilson officially backed Carranza. Infuriated, Villa began attacking private citizens from the U.S.

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Santa Isabel Incident (January 10, 1916)

After losing at Agua Prieta, Villa could no longer wage an offensive war. Instead, he had to defend his life and position in Chihuahua, attacked by Carrancistas with U.S. arms and official U.S. recognition. Throughout November and December 1915, Carrancista forces pushed Villa out of power, slowly taking control of key cities and the Chihuahuan government. By January, the Carrancistas believed they had pacified the state; they reopened railroads and mines, hoping to entice foreign investors and rebuild destroyed infrastructure.

Carranza promised U.S. mineworkers they could return to work safely and so the Cusi Mining Company under the management of C.R. Watson, sent 17 miners from the city of Chihuahua to reopen Cusihuirachic Mine. Just outside the small town of Santa Isabel, the train bound for the mine stopped. Watson and two others examined the cause for the delay and found a barrier lay across the track. They circled around and came to face with 12 to 15 of Villa’s men led by General Pablo López. One opened fire, and in seconds, two of the U.S. miners lay dead and the third ran away to hide. Inside the attackers stripped the miners to their underwear and pocketed all their valuables; as they prepared to leave, López ordered them to shoot all fifteen U.S. miners who remained on board.

The whole episode lasted perhaps thirty minutes. Most of U.S. miners and businessmen in Chihuahua still preferred Villa to Carranza, whom they considered unpredictable. They believed Villa would help them if Carranza proved untrustworthy. By the end of 10 January, U.S. support was solidly behind Carranza. No one knows if Villa ordered the massacre at Santa Isabel, perhaps López was acting independently. Villa denied all involvement and was seemingly furious when he found out what happened. López himself only gave one interview about the incident. On 25 May 1916, the El Paso Herald recorded him saying “You can imagine that when you are the devoted slave of a great leader, you obey orders.” López claimed his goal was the clothes and money of the U.S. men, but that one soldier just started shooting.

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Pancho Villa Attacks Columbus, New Mexico (March 9, 1916)

President Woodrow Wilson was trying to stay out of the Mexican Revolution following U.S. recognition of Carranza. Two months later, Wilson was forced to intervene when, on 9 March 1916, Pancho Villa attacked U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. Villa first planned to attack the U.S. in January 1916, in a raid against El Presidio, in south Texas. Villa soon suffered the highest rates of desertion yet and he retreated from San Gerónimo at the border and decided to change tactics. Villa forcibly recruited 500 men from Namiquipa without telling them about his plans to raid the U.S.

First he led them in several small maneuvers to know his new troops, threatening to kill their families if they deserted. By February’s end, they were ready and Villa decided to hit Columbus, New Mexico. Why he chose Columbus is a mystery, it was arid land, dirt poor, housed mostly subsistence farmers and a garrison of 600 soldiers left over from the Indian wars. He sent a team of scouts to investigate the territory and the garrison before attacking. The garrison was ill prepared for Villa’s attack because its commander, Herbert J. Slocum believed that Villa was coming to ask for asylum and safe transport to Washington.

At 4:11am on 9 March, 485 of Villa’s men, divided into two columns, charged the town and garrison at Columbus. They set fire to the stables rather than the barracks by mistake and U.S. soldiers quickly pushed the raiders out. Villa’s troops turned to the city, screaming “Viva Villa!” and “Muerte a los Gringos!” For two hours, they terrorized the town’s 400 inhabitants and set fire to the central square. In the meantime, U.S. forces had regrouped and drove Villa’s troops out of town before the 7:00am; Villa’s army did not win any munitions, failed to win the respect and fear of U.S. soldiers and townsmen, and suffered over a hundred casualties compared to 18 for Slocum’s troops. Columbus was burned beyond recognition, and Villa became the enemy of the U.S.

This political cartoon, drawn by Luther Daniels Bradley, was published in November 1916 and reflects on the justification for the U.S. intervention in Mexico. Here, Lady Liberty wrapped in the U.S. flag stands over the graves of the 18 U.S. citizens killed in the raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Across the border, vultures circle over areas labeled as Carranza (Carrizal) territory and Villa territory, coming towards the U.S. The cartoon implies that the U.S. had to cross the border to protect its interests, so that Mexicans would not enter the U.S. and attack the “innocent defenders of liberty.”

“The silent vote.” Luther Daniels Bradley. Published 4 November 1916. Cartoon Drawings, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-acd-2a06974

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John J. Pershing (1860–1948)

John Joseph Pershing was born 13 September 1860, in Linn County, Missouri. At 26, he graduated West Point Military Academy at the head of his class. Directly after graduation, Pershing joined the 6th cavalry as a second lieutenant in the Apache Indian Campaign in New Mexico and Arizona. He was known as an expert tracker and the U.S. first counterinsurgency tactician. He then fought against the Sioux Indians in South Dakota and the Cree tribes on the Canadian border. Pershing once said he also wanted to “kill the Indian to save the man.” To that end, Pershing organized the Bureau of Indian Affairs and became that office’s first chief of staff.

Pershing, now a captain, commanded the U.S. volunteer forces in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. When it ended, Pershing went to the Philippines. In 1913, Pershing returned to the U.S., after many years in Asia, to serve as commander of the San Francisco Presidio in northern California.

Pershing stayed in California with his family for two years. In 1915, his wife and three daughters died in a fire, and Pershing was reassigned to El Paso, Texas. After Pancho Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, Pershing volunteered to lead the U.S. punitive force in Mexico. During the following year, Pershing tracked Villa around the north of Mexico, but never managed to capture him. Nonetheless, Pershing took control of U.S. forces in Europe for World War I; in 1917, Pershing was named Commander of the American Expeditionary Force. In 1921, he became Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, a position from which he retired in 1924.

John J. Pershing, General U.S.A. Portrait of John J. Pershing. Theodor Horydczak. ca. 1920-ca. 1950. Horydczak Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-H823-1534

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Return to U.S. Involvement in the Mexican Revolution Previous Section: From Woodrow Wilson’s Inauguration to the Invasion of Veracruz | Next Section: U.S. Relations with Mexico Post-Columbus, NM