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Pancho Villa Attacks Columbus 

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By Jesse Wolf Hardin

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Pancho VillaThe story of Pancho Villa’s inglorious raid on Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916, has been written about many times... but usually from a single or biased point of view. The following, in dramatic fashion, is as complete a version of events as the author could muster, encompassing the perspective from both sides of the battle, and from both sides of the border. It may be that Pancho was neither wholly a butcher nor wholly a hero, but both a fallible human and extraordinary person. The least honorable of all may have been the American, Mexican and German politicians who conspired and plotted for the sake of expedience, power or profit, at the expense of the common people of both aspiring nations. The raid on Columbus 90 years ago this month, marked the last organized Indian raid on U.S. soil, as well as the last invasion by foreign troops... as well as the transition into the technological age, and the end of what for better or worse was a uniquely Wild West.


It gets cold at 3 A.M. in March, even in the tail’s end of the New Mexico desert. If there were enough moon to see more clearly, you’d notice a small sleepy town intersected by railroad tracks. The landscape is primarily "tortilla flat....” and with only a few seductive hillocks. Just to the south of town there stands a five strand barbwire fence stretching all the way from one side of the state to the other.


It would be hard enough to see it from the high ground where you sit, even in the middle of the day. The ground on either side of the fence looks exactly the same: white sands speckled with cholla, prickly pear and golden snake brush. Sticker-laden coyotes chase jackrabbits back and forth beneath the wire, and a desert eagle high in the sky crosses over on his way North. And yet permeable as it may be, its cedar posts and taut strands were erected as a barrier, a border: where one government’s dominion ends, and where another country begins.


The town was founded as a border crossing and rail stop on the El Paso & Southwestern Railroad. It was named after Columbus, the very same Italian fortune hunter who in 1492 first laid eyes on the American continent, imagining he was in India. The word "Columbus” has since come to be synonymous with discovery, and it was no doubt the hope of the town promoters and developers that an increasing number of folks would "discover” the benefits of moving to such a fine little town.


"Town property in Columbus is one of the best possible investments,” asserted a McClughlan & Dexter Realty ad. "See Columbus before going elsewhere!”


"Elsewhere,” in the first two decades of the 20th Century, is a world apart. While you sit under the stars, surrounded by what appears to be a vast and incorruptible emptiness, greater society is remaking itself faster than ever before. Cultural traditions and technological innovations that used to take hundreds of years are now transformed in a single generation. This is the year that kids who are nostalgic for the disappearing frontier, got to play with a new toy called "Lincoln Logs,” and some guy named Albert Einstein will publish what he refers to as his "Theory of Relativity.” Jazz is hot in New Orleans, back east Margaret Sanger has been jailed for giving out pamphlets on birth control, and race driver Gil Anderson has just set a new automobile speed record by going an amazing 102.6 m.p.h. in a souped-up Stutz. In Europe Germany is using helium filled Zeppelins from which to firebomb historic French cities. America’s involvement in World War I is only a year away. General John Taliaferro Thompson has just invented a hand held fully automatic weapon that will in time be called the "Tommy Gun....” but in out of the way places like Arizona and New Mexico the Old West lives on.


You’re part of a Southwestern subculture, wherein folks still pack around "Western” arms and are more likely to settle disagreements personally rather than resort to the insular objectivity of the law. On into the 1920’s there will still be more horses than cars in the borderlands where you were born, more cowboys than tourists, more deer than registered voters. Outside of trendy Phoenix or Albuquerque folks still dress much as their grandparents had, in wide brimmed hats and dusty chaps. They continue to believe in the same standards of hard work and hearty play, of necessity and right. They’ve flourished like cactus in even the harshest environments, unconcerned with modernity, and generally seeking no one’s help but their own. Some are resilient "whites,” homesteading land and working on huge lowland ranches. Many are Mexican or Mexican-American, recent immigrants in search of better paying work. Other Latinos are the descendants of families that had already lived here for hundreds of years.



Columbus, New Mexico

Columbus New Mexico in the early 1900's.


If people in this part of the country were anything, it was scarce. Columbus never had more than a few hundred permanent and temporary civilian residents, and most of the 600 man army detachment was likely to be gone on leave to El Paso at any given time. Tonight there are only a handful of electric lights or oil lamps burning. The only sign of activity in the army camp is a single small campfire in one of the ditches, around which a few sleepy sentries huddle to stay warm.


It’s then that you see what first appear to be shadows, weaving through the brush below. The whippoorwills are quiet all of a sudden, as you hear what you figure are a bunch of spike-jawed javalina spooked by the unexpected passage of serape-clad men.


You know immediately who they are, and you’ve had reason to expect them for awhile now. For weeks you’ve been hearing rumors of impending trouble from the Mexican side, and a mere 35 miles away you had yourself ridden within rifle range of a camp of what could have been 500 or more Villistas: the soldiers of that fabled renegade revolutionary, Pancho Villa! Word is that he’s muy pissed-off. The U.S. has continued to supply rounds to General Carranza– that other self-serving contender in the continuing Mexican Revolution– but not to him. And then they really set him off by transporting Carrancista troops on a U.S. rail line. Politicians felt they had to put all their money on one or the other of the contenders, and they’d placed their bet on the probable winner.


More than once you’d tried to warn the camp commander– "that fool Slocum” as you put it– but he dismissed you with a wave of his hand like you were some wet-behind-the-ear pup! Others had warned him about the recent influx of suspiciously behaving Mexicans no one had ever seen before. Some Latino patriarchs had even moved their families to other towns in anticipation of what they called the "big trouble.”


Quickly you slip back to where your horse is saddled and tied, intent on giving the alarm. But you’ve barely started to slip your boot into the stirrup when you hear the first shots being exchanged below. A flurry of rounds follow, mostly random and ineffective. One stray bullet strikes directly above the 6 on the wall clock in the Columbus train station, stopping its hands forever, and fixing the exact time of the attack at 4:11 A.M.   The albazo (surprise attack) is at least temporarily successful. For the first time since the British sacked the White House during the War of 1812, the United States of America has been invaded.


            "Pancho was a bandit voice

            his horse was fast as polished steel.

            He wore his gun outside his pants

            for all the honest world to feel.”


              -Towns Van Zandt, "Pancho & Lefty”


The last skirmish with Indians in the Southwest is said to have been instigated by a small band of incorrigible Apaches, back in 1886.... and the battles for the Great Plains were essentially over by 1878, unless one wants to count that one-sided affair at Wounded Knee in 1890. But for the millions of indigenous and mixed-blood people of what is now known as Mexico, the Indian wars never really ended. With no foreign support, no sustaining treasury or arms factories the natives nevertheless continued their fight– first against the Spanish, its colonial financiers and intruding allies. And then, once United States policies and actions had sufficiently sacrificed their position and wounded their pride, they grabbed their treasured Winchesters and smoothbore cannon and moved against us. Like the Cheyenne in at least one documented skirmish, they were beaten partly because they lingered too long looting the material goods of those they attacked. Indeed, the last time that a force of Indians confronted the U.S. Army was neither Geronimo's final hurrah nor Wounded Knee.... but rather, it was the raid on Columbus in 1916.


At the time of the Mexican Revolution over 80% of the population had a preponderance of native Indian  blood. And the raid is, in nearly every way, a Western affair. The raiders are dressed in roughly woven pullovers and vests, with reddened faces and glossy black hair. Feathers and bandannas. Villa's men arrive on horseback and then retreat the same way, at times turning to fire at their pursuers from the saddle. Their women remain back at camp, wrapped in blankets decorated with symbols that could stand for an eagle, a phoenix, the magical thunderbird born of Earth and sky. At this point in time the "modern” army that they are attacking has only a few motorized vehicles itself, and so continues to rely heavily on horses and wagons for its deployment. The word "cavalry” still indicates an ability to ride, and ride well, and most of the soldiers have had prior experience either as horsemen or as working cowboys.


Their boots are made of mule hide just as they were in the days of Custer and Crazy Horse, and the troopers’ skin is darkened and hardened as it always had been, by a relentless Western sun. As with the men facing Sioux and Cheyenne 40 or 50 years earlier, they will stand against a variety of antagonists displaying generally poor marksmanship.... but who nonetheless come with the passion needed to propel them towards a distant dream, the courage to take unreasonable risks, the resolve to kill, and the willingness to die for what they believe is "the good fight.” A few of the raiders carry 7mm bolt-action Mausers, either plundered from the centralist forces they’d long been fighting in Mexico, or else purchased from the same German agents who sold arms to their enemies.


Carranza's forces ready to charge

Carranza's forces ready to charge.

This image available for photographic prints HERE!


Most attackers, however, are carrying guns that evoke Western hunts and shootouts with cattle rustlers more than the killing fields of Europe. The majority of their rifles weren’t bolt-actions but lever guns.... mostly Winchester Model 1894’s along with a lesser number of Model 1892’s, and even some obsolete 1873’s.... leading one Official to chide the Winchester company for being the preferred arms manufacturer of Villa's pain-in-the-butt banditos. Villa's personal favorite was the Model 1895 with its distinctive box magazine, a model it’s said that he liked even more than the fabled ‘94.


Twice as many people were killed during the long and convoluted Mexican Revolution as died as a result of our own Civil War. In one way, the raid on Columbus was a predictable outgrowth and extension of this internecine conflict, along with its original high-minded principals of egalitarianism and peasant rights. Rather than being a manic and uninformed terrorist striking back blindly that cold March night, Pancho Villa had a well defined strategy, provoked by some harsh international realities. Among the papers found on a slain Villista after the attack was a letter to his revolutionary cohort and sometime ally in the South, Emiliano Zapata, clearly and intelligently articulating both his reasoning and his goals. His intention was to continue the war against the corrupt and "counterrevolutionary” Carranza, in spite of Carranza having won the financial and logistical support of the United States.


Pancho Villa and his menTo accomplish his goals Villa intended to consolidate control of Chihuahua and then join with Zapata in a grand battle for the state of Sonora. After dragging 42 cannons over the rutted burro trails of the Sierra Madres, they arrived at Agua Prieta to discover that a fresh reinforcement of 5,000 Carrancista troops had been transported ahead of them through U.S. territory, by American rails. It required "an excessive stroke of delicacy and dignity,” Villa writes, "preventing my forces in attacking against American territory like they wanted to do with all justification: to punish the ones who made fun of our sacrifices with the right of force.” 


Pride and "machismo” are neither archaic, nor something new. The U.S. backing of Carranza, wise or not, guaranteed an increase in reprisals against American interests South of the border. And now with this latest turn of events they would have no choice but to seek recompense for their humiliation and defeat.

"You’re an honored Mexican patriot.... and Indian blood runs in your veins, like ours,” he continues, "I’m sure that you will never permit that our land be sold and will join the defense of our country.”

"We can only do it by the North,” Villa explained, "as we don’t have boots.” Nor– we might point out– trucks, nor planes, nor gas, nor either a floating navy nor a rail line not firmly in the control of the enemy.

A hundred or more years of unequal financial and political relations with various corporations and different Washington administrations had coupled with recent events to lead "all the generals and structures.... who are in my leadership, [to] become convinced that the [common] enemy against Mexico is actually the U.S. and that the integrity and independence of our country is about to be lost if [we don’t] join together with weapons in our hands to prevent the sale of our native land.”


He said "sale” as in a real estate transaction or treaty agreement, not "selling-out” as in compromising or betraying. Mexican property was already being marketed wholesale to foreign interests, and rumors flew that there were plans to sell a hundred year lease on the Baja to the United States.... for the purposes of exploring what many on both sides believed would prove to be an exploitable oil reserve. Earlier the U.S. had fanned Mexican paranoia when Marines briefly occupied the oil sovereign petroleum fields of Vera Cruz. Already oil, and even the mere possibility of oil, was fueling not only buses and automobiles but also regional and international conflict.


We might recall how in the 1700’s the brazen citizens of the American colonies discovered a fresh identity and new reason for pride as heroic underdogs, valiantly opposing the economic and military manipulations of the then much richer and more powerful country of Great Britain. In much the same way the Mexican identity has been cast and formed under the pressure of thousands of years of domination, by the Aztecs, the Mayan kings and the Spanish conquistadores. And to this day they largely define themselves in resistance to both the threat of globalization, and America’s incomparable economic might. 


Let there be no mistake, Villa was an unapologetic glory-hound and blatant economic opportunist– always as much the "bandito” as the patriot.... but his steady stream of volunteers were both inspired and steeled by far more than money, and it was only by riding the heated winds of their political idealism and emotional fervor that this desert eagle could have ever rose to power.


Like Jesse James at the close of the Civil War, like those pirates of the 17th and 18th Centuries who handily mixed patriotism and profiteering, Villa is perhaps best described as a ruthless outlaw– with vision and ideals. Not that Pancho was what you would call a "Robin Hood,” in spite of having been dubbed that by American film maker John Reed.... but then neither were those lusty English brigands and bowmen who first collectively wore that name! Even the most generous or politically inspired robbers have historically kept the bulk of the spoils for themselves, and the only equitable distribution is usually amongst their loyal men. Be that as it may, Villa and the various original Robin Hoods shared a similar vision of a redistribution of the wealth. And the inequality that precipitated so much anger and bloodletting was much the same in medieval England as in Mexico during the time of Villa – with the vast bulk of the country’s wealth lining the banks and pockets of a tiny fraction of its population.


Mexican Revolution

Mexicans aiming rifles from mountain during Mexican revolution, American Press Association, 1911. This image available for photographic prints HERE!


Mexican RebelsTo make matters worse, the often starving English peasants had to witness property and title being handed out to privileged nobles from other nations and lands. Similarly, Mexican peasants increasingly found themselves being paid a pittance to work the ranches of haughty Spanish lords, or dying pick-in-hand in underground gold mines owned and operated by gigantic American conglomerates. The green robed Robin Hoods of antiquity responded not only to a hunger for adventure, riches or risk.... but also to the humiliation of watching empty-bellied as royal hunters harvested the forests’ deer and fowl for the castle’s extravagant feasts. Some of the most "pacified” of Yaqui bean farmers found it unbearable to watch their country’s natural resources being extracted and shipped beyond their borders, for the enrichment of people with no connection to the their traditional lands. Increasingly the revolution in Chihuahua was being financed by the extorting and robbing of foreign-born mine owners in Mexico– making a dollar, while expressing a particular view.


On both sides, the perceived enemy was all too often reduced to a repugnant one-dimensional caricature. Anglos were typecast as the greedy "gringo,” since a high percentage of the few Americans that came to their country seemed to be there to profit and exploit. As a result were thought to be arrogant as well as affluent, even if the majority of Americans residing just North of the border were actually as humble, caring and sometimes as impoverished as they. From there limited perspective our country represented not a cornucopia so much as an open maw, poised to render and consume. The odds were impossible beyond belief, and there could be only one outcome in any battle between the potent U.S. army and the vaqueros of sentiment and vice.... but Pancho remained undaunted, and defiant. He’d survived dozens of battles, always leading his men from the front, always braving the thick of battle. His was the strategy of a true cavalryman: when in doubt, charge!


If "they want to swallow Mexico,” Villa was reported as saying, then "let’s give them something to choke on.”


Back on your perch above town, you watch the night light up with red flashes of rifle fire. As it turns out some of the men on watch had been knifed, and at least two of the fellows at the campfire were stalked and clubbed before you heard those first ominous shots. The initial half dozen rounds, it turns out, involved an exchange between the guard at Post 3 at the regimental headquarters, and some Villistas that he had challenged. Before crumpling and dying he dropped at least two of them, and then almost immediately the firing in town had become general.




Continued Next Page



Columbus, New Mexico

Columbus, New Mexico today, February, 2008, Kathy Weiser.


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