March 9,1916: Pancho Villa and the Villista Raid on Columbus

By: Alejandro de Quesada

A series of meetings were held between an Associated Press correspondent, Mr. George L. Seese, and a Villista agent. The agent wanted to convey to the Americans via their press that Villa had nothing to do with the massacre of Americans at Santa Ysabel and wanted to punish his subordinate, Pablo Lopez, who committed the atrocity. This alleged agent of Villa agreed to take a letter to Villa suggesting the wisdom of going to Washington and seeing President Wilson. About a week later Seese received a verbal reply, ostensibly from Villa, that he considered the plan feasible and that he would be glad to accompany the Associated Press correspondent to Washington, provided he could be assured of a safe conduct. On March 2, 1916, one week previous to the Columbus Raid, the Associated Press forbade their agent to continue with the scheme, and Villa was so notified. Many believe that Villa possibly fostered this scheme as a blind to his real intentions, as his private papers, found on the Columbus battlefield, proved that he had planned as early as January 6 to make an attack upon Columbus.

On March 8, 1916 the El Paso Times reported:

VILLA EXPECTED TO ATTACK PALOMAS

Information received in El Paso last night from the 13th Cavalry, stationed at Columbus, New Mexico, was to the effect that Villa had been sighted 15 miles west of Palomas Monday night and was camped there all day Tuesday. What his plans are at this time are not known.

Villa is reported to have between 300 to 400 men with him. They are all well mounted and since arriving near Palomas have been slaughtering large numbers of cattle.

There is but a small Carranza garrison at Palomas and it is believed that Villa intends making an attack on the town.

Palomas rested just across the border from Columbus, New Mexico. This small frontier town had a population of about 300 and consisted of a cluster of adobe houses and wooden buildings. The basic layout of the sunbaked dirt streets of Columbus consisted of Broadway, the main street, which ran east and west; it boasted a hardware store operated by J. L. Walker; J. T. Dean’s grocery; C. Dewitt Miller’s drug store; the Hoover Hotel; and a score of smaller businesses.

The most pretentious of the businesses there was that of the Ravel Brothers Mercantile, located on Boulevard Street. Louis and Sam Ravel handled hardware goods, cooking utensils, boots, overalls, and all of the sundry articles for the residents living in the area. The brothers lived in the rear of the store with their younger sibling, 12-year-old Arthur. They enjoyed the patronage of Mexicans from across the border and encouraged trade with the Mexicans that included guns and ammunition. It is believed that the brothers sold huge quantities of munitions to the Villistas. Local lore states that the brother’s short- changed Villa by not delivering the $2,500-worth of goods that the Mexican “General” had paid for, thereby giving reason for the raid.

On Taft Street, near the railroad station, was the two-story frame Commercial Hotel, operated by Mr. and Mrs. W. T. Ritchie. Across from that was a movie theater. Opposite the railroad tracks, south of town, was the army encampment where soldiers of the 13th United States Cavalry Regiment (four troops of the regiment and a machine-gun platoon), under the command of Colonel Herbert J. Slocum, were quartered. The soldiers arrived  there  and  established  it  as  the  regimental  headquarters  since September 1912. The encampment was known as Camp Furlong.

The headquarters building, the shack for the officer of the day, a shack occupied by the surgeon, and the quartermaster’s storehouse were on the west edge of the camp on the Guzman-Deming Road; the guard house and stables were located on the east edge of camp, and the barracks and mess shacks lay in between. In addition to the Guzman-Deming Road another road meandered through the eastern part of camp. These roads were open to traffic night and day.

The barracks were flimsy wooden structures, the stables were open sheds, but the mess shacks and hospital were bulletproof, made of adobe (mud) bricks. Across the Guzman-Deming Road and the El Paso and Southwestern railroad track opposite the Columbus Railroad Depot was the customs station where US customs agents would stop anyone approaching south of the tracks. Directly in front of the customs station was a huge arroyo – a natural ditch that ran parallel to the road the full 3 miles to the border. Behind the customs house is a small hill of dark lava stone and scant brush known as Coote’s Hill or sometimes referred to as Villa Hill since the raid. Between this hill and the ditch was an adobe house occupied by two officers. The other officers of the regiment were quartered throughout the village but not more than three or four hundred yards distant from camp. Three miles south of Columbus is the US/Mexican boundary line. Exactly 32 miles north from Columbus, straddling Highway 80, is the prosperous town of Deming.

A high wire fence marks the border, running east and west for several miles. A Mexican customs station was located in Palomas, a treeless, sunbaked quaint village of squat adobe buildings, surrounded by the limitless brush. A small garrison of Carranzistas soldiers provided scant protection for the border town.

On the afternoon of March 8, 1916, Juan Favela, an employee of the extensive Palomas Land & Cattle Company, was riding through the high mesquite 5 miles south of the border with some vaqueros rounding up stray cattle. The Palomas Land & Cattle Company was an American-owned enterprise that owned a lot of land on the Mexican side of the border.

Favela left his men and headed toward the ranch located several miles to the west; as he topped a hill he spied a large Villista force heading for the border. He immediately turned his steed about and raced toward Columbus, warning the Carranzista soldiers as he raced through the Mexican customs station and headed for the American military encampment 3 miles north. There, he demanded an audience with Colonel Slocum. Favela reported that he’d seen a force of approximately 500 Villistas and that “they were heading for the border; they were just south of Palomas; they would raid Columbus before dawn!”2  Colonel Slocum calmly told Favela to go get a drink and dismissed the warning as hysteria. Slocum’s attitude could be explained by the fact that the reports coming in were so ambiguous and contradictory that it was nearly impossible for Slocum to construct an accurate depiction of the circumstances.

Colonel Slocum, commander of the small garrison encamped in Columbus at the time of the Villista Raid. (Pancho Villa State Park)

Colonel Slocum, commander of the small garrison encamped in Columbus at the time of the Villista Raid. (Pancho Villa State Park)

In the months prior to the raid on Columbus, prospects of Villa initiating a border attack had long been considered by American government and military officials. In fact, raids on US soil from across the border had occurred with alarming frequency. From July 1915 to June 1916 there were 38 raids on the US by Mexican bandits, which resulted in the death of 37 US citizens, 26 of them soldiers. Evidence that Villa and his men were making their way toward the New Mexico border was made known to US officials in as early as February of 1916, but they were unable to successfully track his movements due to a lack of financial resources that prevented them from hiring secret service agents. As a result, the only means they had to acquire information in regard to Villa’s location was based solely on information the Carranzistas offered, but the majority of such accounts were questionable.

The information that appeared both genuine and credible was telegraphed on

March 3 to the State Department by Zach Cobb, the US collector of customs at El Paso, Texas. Cobb delivered this information after he allegedly witnessed Villa and approximately 300 men near Madero, Chihuahua, heading north toward Columbus, New Mexico. In the telegraph Cobb stated that there was “reason to believe” Villa intended “to cross to the United States” and “to proceed to Washington.” Villa was previously reported to be near the Casas Grandes River, 45 miles southwest of Columbus, and at the Rancho Nogales, approximately 65 miles southwest of Columbus. Although this newly acquired information was believed to be reliable, its credibility was short-lived.

Three days later, on March 6, journalists were notified by the Carranzista General Gavira in Juarez that, contrary to popular belief, Villa had no intention of reporting to Washington. Instead, Gavira stated to George L. Seese, a US correspondent to Villa, that Villa “intended to cause some incident that would force the United States to intervene in Mexico.”3 This information was conveyed to General John J. Pershing of the United States Army, who questioned its credibility due to the contradictory nature of all the reports regarding Villa’s whereabouts. Pershing understood it was unrealistic to establish the truth by any means other than concrete reconnaissance, which was unthinkable.  Furthermore,  Pershing  had  acquired  disconcerting information at his post at Fort Bliss from his own intelligent sources dating back to September of 1915 regarding a possible attack on the United States by Villa. His sources stated that Villa would attack El Paso, Texas, with a force of 15,000 men if the United States recognized Carranza as de facto President. This inevitably led the general to view El Paso as Villa’s most likely target. All of these reports were additionally sent to Colonel Herbert J. Slocum.

To his dismay, Colonel Slocum was unable to verify any information on Villa’s whereabouts or intentions. He arranged further patrols and strengthened his positions, but this was the extent of his capacity to safeguard his territory. The colonel was accountable for 65 miles of uninhabited border that stretched from Hermanas in the west to Noria in the east. Furthermore, the number of troops under his authority was exceptionally small to encompass such a vast region. His regiment consisted of 21 officers and 530 soldiers, 79 of which were non-combatants. Altogether, Slocum possessed approximately one officer for every 600 feet of border. Slocum had dispatched two officers and 65 men at Palomas at an outpost to the east, and Major Lindsey controlled seven officers and 151 men 11 miles at another to the west – thereby leaving roughly 120 soldiers in Columbus.

As the day ended many of the regimental senior officers retired to their rental homes located outside of the camp and within the town of Columbus. Slocum and several other officers boarded the train to attend a dance in Deming that night, not to return until morning. Lieutenant Castleman took charge of Camp Furlong as Officer of the Day and inspected the border patrol after the coming down of the flag at retreat.

For a number of days prior to March 9 locals of the tiny town began noticing scenes that weren’t everyday occurrences. Dr. Roy Edward Stivison, a local school principal, recounted: “We had noticed and commented on the large number of strange Mexicans appearing in and about the town. We found out later these were spies from the Villista forces ranging just south of the border.”4  The day prior to the attack, Pancho Villa ordered a final reconnaissance of the town of Columbus and was advised by Colonel Cipriano Vargas that there were only about 30 American soldiers at the encampment. This was later to prove a miscalculation as the garrison was four times greater than the Villistas had observed. The revolutionary leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa, (Colonel) Francisco Beltrán, (Colonel) Candelario Cervantes, (General) Nicolás Fernández, and (General) Pablo Lopez held a council of war to decide upon a plan of action. Villa’s plan of attack was to split his force into two columns and adhered to a specific strategy by approaching the garrison and town from opposite positions from both the east and west. One column was to strike the commercial district where the raiders would loot the stores for clothing and blankets as well as other supplies. The second column was to execute a surprise attack upon Camp Furlong by targeting the horse stables, weapons’ room, and the food supplies.

At 4p.m. the column moved north and sometime after midnight crossed the border through a hole cut in the fence a mile west of Palomas. As they moved eastward toward the big ditch, “A signal passed down the line of riders for a halt. As they waited, three men merged out of the darkness. They held a brief consultation with Villa… These three Villistas, experts with knives, crawled up to an American army outpost and killed the two soldiers on duty there. Captain‘Bull’ Studgy’s outpost, a quarter mile farther east, was by-passed.”5

Deploying his men around the sleeping desert town, their presence was virtually undetectable as they followed the hidden trench (arroyo) that progressed directly through the center of the garrison and town, helped by a lack of adequate lighting; Columbus’ only source of light emitted from
kerosene lamps placed sporadically throughout the town. “Every man was armed with a rifle, pistol and bandoleer. Tied to many of the saddles were five gallon cans of kerosene.”6  Around four in the morning of March 9, 1916 Villa raised his arm and the battle cry of “Vayanse adelante, muchachos!” was sounded. The attack began with cries of “Viva Villa,” “Viva Mexico,” and “Muerto a los Gringos!” This was confirmed by a clock outside the railroad station that was struck by a stray bullet, causing it to stop at 4:11a.m. shortly after the first shots rang out.

The railroad depot was in the middle of the crossfire between Villista and American troops as evidenced by the clock that was stopped by a bullet in the early morning of the attack. (Pancho Villa State Park)

The railroad depot was in the middle of the crossfire between Villista and American troops as evidenced by the clock that was stopped by a bullet in the early morning of the attack. (Pancho Villa State Park)

Immediately three groups of Villistas began swarming Columbus and Camp Furlong from various directions. One of these had entered the camp by way of a dry arroyo; another had entered the town and was ready to begin looting the stores as soon as it was safe to do so. As the Villistas advanced into the town, they drenched each business building as they came to it and put it to the torch. Soon the entire area was illuminated by dancing flames. The remaining unit passed into the corrals and was scattering horses before any firing took place.

Upon hearing the first shots at about 4:15a.m., the Officer of the Day, Lieut. James P. Castleman, ran to the guard tent, shooting a Villista on the way, and turned out the guard. He then joined up with his F Troop, 13th Cavalry, which had been formed by Sergeant Michael Fody. The camp and town were under a general attack from two directions. Minutes later Lieut. John P. Lucas, who had just returned on the midnight train from El Paso, where he had been participating in regimental polo matches, saw a horseman ride by his window. He was wearing a high-peaked sombrero characteristic of the Villistas. Hurrying outside, he joined the attackers, who were running toward the barracks, the darkness concealing his identity. Reaching the barracks of his machine gun troop, he led his men to the guard tent where their weapons were under lock and key. Despite several incidents of the French-made Benet-Mercier machine guns jamming, the four gun crews managed to loose 20,000 rounds at the enemy. The Benet-Mercier did not use belts of ammunition but instead depended upon timely insertion of long stripper clips. Operating the gun in the early morning darkness required an expert crew to prevent jamming – something not present in Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916.

American National Guardsmen training with a Hotchkiss M1909 Benet- Mercie machine gun in .30-06 caliber. US forces used the Benet-Mercie in the Pancho Villa Expedition in Mexico of 1916–17 and initially in France. Firing pins and extractors broke frequently on the American guns; United States troops called the M1909 the “daylight gun” because of the difficulty replacing broken parts at night, and the unfortunate jams created when the loading strips were accidentally inserted upside down in darkness. (AdeQ Historical Archives)

American National Guardsmen training with a Hotchkiss M1909 Benet- Mercie machine gun in .30-06 caliber. US forces used the Benet-Mercie in the Pancho Villa Expedition in Mexico of 1916–17 and initially in France. Firing pins and extractors broke frequently on the American guns; United States troops called the M1909 the “daylight gun” because of the difficulty replacing broken parts at night, and the unfortunate jams created when the loading strips were accidentally inserted upside down in darkness. (AdeQ Historical Archives)

After fighting in camp for 30 or 40 minutes, the soldiers began to gain the upper hand and then were able to send aid to the beleaguered citizens. Lieutenant Castleman ordered the troop on toward the town, where the heaviest firing was concentrated. They threw a cordon of troops across the main street and thus kept the bandits from entering the north part of town. Sergeant Fody recounted the following:


… at the command “Forward March,” every man jumped to his feet without a scratch and advanced. After crossing the railroad track we had our first man hit, Private Jesse P. Taylor, who was shot in the leg. I told him to lie down and be quiet and that we would pick him up on our return. Advancing about ten yards farther Private Ravielle tripped over barbed wire, discharging his piece in front of his nose, the concussion of which made his nose bleed. We made about four stands in about five hundred yards. Private Thomas Butler was hit during the second stand but would not give up and went on with us until he was hit five distinct times, the last one proving fatal.

We advanced and took position on the Main Street near the town bank, having a clear field of fire. For over an hour we lay in this position but were unable to do effective work on account of the darkness. As soon as it began to light up our ammunition was getting low. I sent Private Dobrowalski to the guard house after some ammunition, he had to get three Mexicans who disputed his way before he could comply with his orders.

When the Mexicans set fire to the Commercial Hotel, the blaze illuminated the section. We were then in the dark and had the advantage. The group of which I was a member, numbering twenty-five men under Lieutenant Castleman, was the largest group under one command during the fight. Our forces were scattered in little bunches throughout the camp and vicinity but did very telling work. As soon as the light was bright enough we made every shot count and soon thoroughly discouraged the invaders. About 6:30 the Mexican bugler sounded “Recall,” it was a welcome sound. The Mexicans began immediately to retreat. Major Frank Tompkins obtained permission from Colonel Slocum to give pursuit.7

There had been various accounts of the strike from the residents and soldiers. Once the attack commenced, the Mexicans’ first act was to stampede the cavalry horses. The remaining unit of the two columns formed from Villa’s forces were to pass into the corrals and scatter the horses before any firing took place. However, as the Mexicans were in the process of stampeding the horses their moment of surprise was taken away when they were happened upon by an American trooper. An army sergeant who had claimed credit for firing the first shot and for killing the first Villista described the following to Dr. R. E. Stivison: “I happened to be awake about four o’clock and while coming around one side of one of the barracks found myself face to face with a Mexican who was pointing his gun at me. I pulled my army pistol and shot him in his tracks.”8 Apparently, according to the sergeant this was the signal for general firing to commence.

One account has it that the Villistas were searching for a merchant who cheated Pancho Villa. It was claimed that the Villistas were shouting Sam Ravel’s name not knowing that he had left for a dental appointment in El Paso. Sam’s brother and partner, Louis, wasn’t so lucky. He was in the store the brothers owned when the Villistas struck. He burrowed his way under a huge pile of cowhides and prayed. His prayers must have been been answered, because the bandits overturned the place looking for Sam, at the same time looting the store of everything of value, and destroying the rest. The pile of cowhides didn’t escape their notice either. They tore the heap apart, but stopped before reaching the bottom, and it is well that they did, for underneath the last lay the shivering Louis.

Arthur, the 12-year-old brother of the Ravels, ran out of the building and raced up the street in his underwear. He tried his best to escape but was captured after a short chase by two Villistas. They were caught in a crossfire where the Villistas were killed by American gunfire and the young Ravel ran as fast as he could toward the outskirts of Columbus.

Dr. Stivison stated that “About five o’clock flames began to appear from the big frame Ritchie Hotel and from the Lemmon Store just across the street from it. In the lurid light we could distinguish men dashing hither and thither and riderless horses running about in all directions. The continuous firing, the shouting of the Mexicans, and confusion in general continued until about seven o’clock. Then with the coming of daylight, the firing diminished and finally ceased altogether.”9

As the first streaks of sunlight began appearing, Villa realized that without darkness he and his men could not hope to survive, and so ordered his bugler to sound the retreat. The retreat was orderly and well planned but Villa did not plan on losing so many of his men. At full gallop and with a fine assortment of booty including over 100 horses and mules and 300 rifles, the Mexicans galloped for the canyon-slashed sierras to the south. Well over 60 Villistas were scattered about in the streets of Columbus.

As daylight came and the sounds of gunfire ceased, a few of the townspeople began venturing out to the streets. Dr. Stivison recounted:

We ventured out of our house and started toward Reverend Boddington’s block. We met the good man and his wife coming out, as bewildered as we were, Together we set out for the main part of town. Coming to the Walker Hardware Store we found our old friend and neighbor, James Dean, a grocery merchant, lying in the middle of the street, his body riddled with bullets. We learned that he had thought the Lemmon Store had been set afire accidentally and that he might be of assistance in putting it out. The raiders got him before he reached the scene of the blaze.

Continuing to the Ritchie Hotel, we found the body of Mr. Ritchie with his legs partly burned off, lying beside the building. His wife told us later that he had offered the Villistas all the money in his pocket ($50.00) if they would spare his life. They took the money but shot him and threw his body into the burning hotel. Rings were taken forcibly from Mrs. Ritchie’s hands. Their little daughter, Edna, a pupil of mine, showed me holes in the back of her coat, put there by the bandits as she was escaping down the back stairs.

Five men, guests of the hotel, were taken with Mr. Ritchie and all met the same tragic fate. One of these was a Mr. Walker, who with his wife had come the day before to attend the Sunday School convention. He was yanked from his wife’s arms and shot. Young Señor Perera, a representative of the Mexican consulate at El Paso, was another of the guests who met an untimely end. He had volunteered to take the place of the regular representative, Mr. Gray, who was ill at the time. Perera was indeed a prize for the Villistas. His body was found the next morning just across the line.10

Dr. Stivison continued on to the camp hospital and found a pump foreman for the El Paso and Southwestern Rail Road severely wounded. His house was situated on the south side of the tracks in the very center of the fighting. His wife, Bessie James, was lying dead at the Hoover Hotel. She and her husband had been shot at the hotel’s entrance as they sought refuge from the fighting in the streets. As Stivison continued surveying the carnage in and around Columbus, he remembered the following:

We found the body of our good friend, C.C. Miller, the druggist, lying in the door of his store. He had left the Hoover Hotel and started for the drug store but was mortally wounded just as he reached its sheltering walls. Mr. Miller had been a particularly fine character. He had come to the Mimbres Valley as a tubercular, obtained a herd of goats and lived in the open until he had regained his health, then resumed his vocation of druggist.

In the Hoover Hotel, seriously wounded, we found Mrs. J. J. Moore, wife of one of the merchants. The Moores had a beautiful little home between Columbus and the border. The bandits, in their retreat, had stopped there long enough to bring death and destruction to it. Mr. Moore had been shot and instantly killed before his wife’s eyes. Mrs. Moore had run from the house and was climbing through a wire fence when she was shot through the right thigh. … Dead Villistas were lying in the streets all over town. Many were mere boys, fourteen to sixteen years old. Many of the dead and dying had taken crucifixes from their pockets and were clutching them against their breasts.

On March 9, 1916 when Pancho Villa attacked from Mexico this hotel was the center of some of the heaviest fighting. William Christopher Hoover owned the hotel and was the Mayor of Columbus at the time of the raid. (AdeQ Historical Archives/author)

On March 9, 1916 when Pancho Villa attacked from Mexico this hotel was the center of some of the heaviest fighting. William Christopher Hoover owned the hotel and was the Mayor of Columbus at the time of the raid. (AdeQ Historical Archives/author)

 

American casualties amounted to 18 killed; eight were soldiers and ten were civilians, one of whom was a woman. However, the Villista’s casualties far exceeded those of the Americans’. In addition, unbeknownst to Juan Favela, who reported to Colonel Slocum prior to the raid, Villistas had captured three Americans from the Palomas Land & Cattle Company. Two of the captives were hanged and the third man was shot when efforts to horsetrample him failed.

Colonel Slocum authorized Major Frank Tompkins of the 13th US Cavalry to mount up a troop and pursue the fleeing Villistas. Tompkins quickly rounded up Captain Rudolph Smyser’s Troop H and with 32 men left camp. The troop proceeded southwest and in the dim light of the morning saw the Mexican column retreating toward the border. The troopers paralleled their march with the objective of cutting off as many as possible as soon as they could get clear of the wire fences at the border.

An isolated hill stood about 300 yards south of the fence between the Mexican column and Tompkins’ forces. The hill was occupied by Villistas who were a covering detachment for their left flank. The troopers cut the fence to the east of the hill deployed as foragers and advanced, increasing the pace until the command of “Charge!” was cried out. As the troopers charged the slopes of the hill the Villistas broke and ran. Tompkins recounted, “We galloped to the hill top, returned pistols, dismounted, and opened rifle fire on the fleeing Mexicans killing thirty-two men and many horses.”

 

As daylight came to Columbus the evidence of the carnage became clearer. Destroyed in the fire were a block of buildings consisting of the Commercial Hotel, Lemmon & Romney Mercantile, and two small houses. It was here that the greatest number of American deaths occurred. (AdeQ Historical Archives)

As daylight came to Columbus the evidence of the carnage became clearer. Destroyed in the fire were a block of buildings consisting of the Commercial Hotel, Lemmon & Romney Mercantile, and two small houses. It was here that the greatest number of American deaths occurred. (AdeQ Historical Archives)

Major Tompkins described the following: “We deployed at wide intervals and advanced toward the enemy at a fast trot, the enemy firing all the time but their shots going wild. When we were within four hundred yards of them, finding good shelter for the horses, we dismounted, and opened fire, driving the rear guard back on the main body and killing and wounding quite a few. It may be well to state here that the men dismounted while extended, each man linking his horse to his stirrup buckle thus keeping the animal immobile and allowing every rifle to get on the firing line and get there fast. For this kind of fighting where the horses were in a fold of the ground but a few yards behind their riders, this method of linking enabled the men to dismount and mount with speed.”13

Tompkins again took up the pursuit and overtook the rear guard within 30 minutes. They tried to turn the Villistas on their left flank but exposed he troopers to fire at close range. Tompkins was slightly injured in the knee and a Captain Williams was wounded in the hand. The troopers dismounted under cover and advanced to within view of the enemy while Troop F was firing at the main body at 800 yards and Troop H firing at theMexican rear guard with battle sights. They eventually drove back the Villistas and took up the pursuit once again. The troopers counted an additional twelve dead Mexicans. Thinking that the Villistas were going to take up a position on an elevation, Tompkins detached Troop F to flank this position while he proceeded on the Mexican trail with Troop H. Tompkins wrote: “I again overtook the enemy, but this time on a plain devoid of cover. They soon saw our weakness (but twenty-nine men) and started an attack with at least three hundred men while the remainder of the Mexican forces continued their retreat. We returned their fire until one horse was wounded and one killed when we fell back about four hundred yards where our horses had excellent cover. But the Mexicans refused to advance against us in this new position.”14

With ammunition running low and the men as well as their horses exhausted from fighting without food or water, Major Tompkins returned to Columbus. The American counter-attack took the troopers within 15 miles of Mexican territory. As a result of the pursuit, many of Tompkins’ officers and men “counted between seventy-five and one hundred dead Villistas on Mexican soil as well as many wounded or killed horses and mules, the abandonment of two machine guns by the Mexicans, many rifles and pistols, much ammunition, food stuff and loot which had been taken at Columbus.”15 In addition to the Americans’ quick response during the Villista surprise attack upon Columbus and Camp Furlong, after seven and one half hours of hard riding, covering approximately 30 miles of rough country, fighting four separate rear-guard actions without the loss of a single American soldier, and inflicting heavy losses on the retreating Villistas, Tompkins and his fellow officers managed to turn Pancho Villa’s raid into a fiasco, the repercussions of which were to follow Villa and his men in the months to come.

An inglorious death: after the raid the bodies of the Villistas were gathered outside the town, piled like firewood, doused with gasoline, and burned. The stench of decaying human and horse flesh out in the desert continued on in the following months. (AdeQ Historical Archives)

An inglorious death: after the raid the bodies of the Villistas were gathered outside the town, piled like firewood, doused with gasoline, and burned. The stench of decaying human and horse flesh out in the desert continued on in the following months. (AdeQ Historical Archives)

 

The days following the raid soldiers from Fort Bliss were pouring into Columbus making it the safest town on the border. Several townspeople, fearing further attacks, were permitted to stay in the clubroom of Troop F in Camp Furlong, with the soldiers providing pillows and bedding. Within the next few days after the attack the bodies of the soldiers were sent east for burial. President Carranza’s personal representative, General Garcia, was present with his staff at a little ceremony at the station in which soldiers and regimental bands took part. Dr. Stivison recounted: “During the morning of the same day, we saw military wagons gathering up the bodies of the bandits. These were taken to the edge of town, placed in a pile, saturated with kerosene, and burned. It was a grisly sight but we were glad to know that these particular men would no longer be a menace to the peace of the border.”1

Mexican losses during and immediately after the raid were believed to be considerable. While returning to Columbus following the pursuit of the Villistas, a distance of approximately 15 miles, nearly 100 dead Villistas were counted by the Americans. Supplementary to the bodies counted on the journey home, 67 Villista corpses were discovered in Columbus the morning after the raid. These were placed in a large heap just beyond the edge of town (approximately 1 mile east), soaked with gasoline, and cremated. For more than a day the fires seethed before ultimately going out while even longer the acrid odor of smoldering flesh saturated the air. One source claimed that “it was estimated that between 175 and 200 bodies were in that grisly pile, not including the dead horses.”17  These numbers reveal the consequences the Villistas suffered for their actions in Columbus.

Villista-raid-on-Columbus-New-Mexico-654x458

The attack on Columbus, New Mexico, by Villistas. It was at the intersection of Broadway and East Boundary Streets where Lieutenant Castleman chose to set up his line of defense with their Benet-Mercie machine guns firing down Broadway Street. This kept the Villistas from robbing the bank or up East Boundary Street where Colonel Slocum lived, as did Lieutenant Castleman’s wife. The covering firing by the Americans helped some of the townspeople seek refuge in the Hoover Hotel. Others weren’t so lucky: Mrs. Milton James, who was pregnant, attempted to run to the hotel for protection but was shot down by the Villistas, along with her husband. A resident of the hotel was also killed as he attempted to run to his business to secure some weapons.

The attack on Columbus, New Mexico, by Villistas. It was at the intersection of Broadway and East Boundary Streets where Lieutenant Castleman chose to set up his line of defense with their Benet-Mercie machine guns firing down Broadway Street. This kept the Villistas from robbing the bank or up East Boundary Street where Colonel Slocum lived, as did Lieutenant Castleman’s wife. The covering firing by the Americans helped some of the townspeople seek refuge in the Hoover Hotel. Others weren’t so lucky: Mrs. Milton James, who was pregnant, attempted to run to the hotel for protection but was shot down by the Villistas, along with her husband. A resident of the hotel was also killed as he attempted to run to his business to secure some weapons.

 

The-Hunt-for-Pancho-Villa-by-Alejandro-De-Quesada

Excerpted from The Hunt for Pancho Villa – The Columbus Raid and Pershing’s Punitive Expedition 1916-17 by Alejandro De Quesada.

Copyright 2012 Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Reprinted with permission from Osprey Publishing Ltd.


ALEJANDRO DE QUESADA s a Florida-based military history writer, an experienced researcher, and collector of militaria, photos and documents. He runs an archive and historical consultancy for museums and films as a secondary business. Alejandro has written over 100 articles and over 25 books, including The Hunt for Pancho Villa: The Columbus Raid and Pershing’s Punitive Expedition 1916-17, and is a leading authority on Latin American subjects. He is the author of the following Osprey titles to date: The Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection; The US Home Front 1941-45; Roosevelt’s Rough Riders; The Bay of Pigs; The Mexican Revolution; The United States Coast Guard during World War II; Spanish Colonial Fortifications in North America.

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