In the predawn darkness of March 9, 1916, several hundred armed Mexican horsemen crossed the border into the United States to attack the unsuspecting garrison town of Columbus, N.M. What ensued, just 3 miles north of the boundary, was a minor fight with considerable historical significance.
The origins of the Columbus Raid are complex. In 1913 Brig. Gen. Victoriano Huerta seized control of Mexico’s government in a coup. Opposing Huerta from the outset of his presidency was Venustiano Carranza—governor of the northern Mexican state of Coahuila—and his Ejército Constitucionalista (Constitutionalist Army), which sought restoration of the 1857 Constitution. Among the Constitutionalists was the charismatic Pancho Villa, whose División del Norte controlled much of northern Mexico. The United States intervened in the struggle when President Woodrow Wilson sent troops to key border towns—including Columbus—to provide security and a show of support for the Constitutionalists.
Though the Constitutionalists ousted Huerta in 1914, rivalry between Carranza and Villa mounted, as Carranza increasingly excluded Villa from his plans. Expecting continued U.S. support, Villa felt betrayed when Washington instead backed Carranza as president, prompting an embittered Villa to strike back at the United States. In January 1916 an armed group of Villistas attacked a train in northern Mexico, murdering 16 American passengers who carried safe-conduct passes from the Constitutionalists.
But the March 9 Columbus Raid was the boldest of Villa’s attacks. By the time dawn broke over the border town of 300 residents, Columbus was engulfed in flames, as the Villistas looted and torched shops, saloons and homes. At the Commercial Hotel they killed the proprietor and several guests and burned the structure to the ground. Residents either grabbed their guns and fought back, fled into the desert or took refuge in the town’s sturdier buildings, such as the Hoover Hotel at Broadway and Missouri streets.
U.S. troops stationed at nearby Camp Furlong responded quickly to the attack. First Lieutenant John Lucas, commander of the 13th Cavalry Regiment’s machine gun troop —unable to find his boots in the darkness and confusion— raced barefoot into battle. He positioned four machine guns along the railroad tracks on the southern edge of town and opened up on the Villistas. Responding to the heavy fire, 1st Lt. James Castleman and some three dozen riflemen came running. Flames from the burning structures silhouetted the mounted raiders, making them excellent targets. The young lieutenants caught Villa’s men in a murderous crossfire, forcing a Villista retreat back into Mexico.
By the time the battle ended, eight U.S. soldiers and 10 civilians lay dead, and much of Columbus had been reduced to smoking, bullet-riddled ruins. The Mexican raiders got away with cash, valuables and horses but lost more than 100 of their nearly 400 men. Villa’s motives were never clear; some believed he simply sought revenge, while others argued he needed money and supplies to sustain his army.
Wilson ordered a punitive expedition into Mexico to capture Villa and selected Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing as commander. Within days of the raid nearly 5,000 troops had gathered at Camp Furlong, and the U.S. Army’s 1st Aero Squadron had carved a crude airstrip out of the desert from which to fly Curtiss JN-3 “Jenny” biplanes on reconnaissance missions. On March 15, with President Carranza’s permission, the first U.S. soldiers crossed the border.
While in Mexico the Americans fought several skirmishes with Villistas but failed to capture Villa himself. Wary of the incursion, the Carranza government had denied Pershing the use of railroads, forcing him to use motorized vehicles on Mexico’s rugged desert roads. In their last engagement U.S. troops even clashed with Mexican regulars, threatening a full-scale war. Neither side wanted that—especially the Americans, who faced increasing German aggression on the high seas—and Wilson ordered a withdrawal. The last U.S. troops re-crossed the border into Columbus in February 1917.
Stroll the dusty streets of Columbus today and you can readily imagine the scene a century ago. Many of the buildings that stood during the raid survive, including the Hoover Hotel, now a private residence. An interpretive panel amid a patch of weeds and broken concrete marks the site of the razed Commercial Hotel. Other panels dot the town, explaining the fight and remembering the dead.
On the site of Camp Furlong is Pancho Villa State Park [www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD/panchovillastatepark.html], featuring a museum about the raid and expedition and such interesting exhibits as a period Jeffery Quad armored car and a replica “Jenny” biplane. The park also preserves a few of the camp’s original buildings. The airstrip has since returned to desert, but the First Aero Squadron Foundation [www.firstaerosquadron.com] has purchased the site with plans to reconstruct the 1916 aerodrome, build a museum and raise a monument to the early airmen.
Although a minor sideshow to the immense drama of World War I, the Columbus Raid and Mexican Expedition proved America’s dress rehearsal for the greater conflict, marking the U.S. Army’s first use of motor vehicles and aircraft in hostilities and tapping Pershing as the top candidate to command American forces in Europe. The raid also highlights the complexities of life along the U.S.-Mexico border, which a century later remains fraught with tension and controversy.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.