Monday, July 15, 2019

America’s Wildest Goose Chase: The Hunt for Pancho Villa

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

While the rest of the world was slugging it out in Europe, the United States invaded Mexico in the spring of 1916. You know, like you do. At the time, Mexico was embroiled in a civil war between the revolutionary faction, led by Francisco “Pancho” Villa, and the Constitutionalist faction, led by Venustiano Carranza. The Mexican Civil War (1910-1920) is quite the saga in and of itself, but for the purposes of our story, we’re just going to focus on the American involvement. 
Fransisco "Pancho" Villa

Venustiano Carranza

In October 1915, the United States Government decided to back Carranza by offering him formal recognition and providing train transport through the United States to Carranza’s forces on their way to the Second Battle of Agua Prieta (November 1, 1915). This understandably pissed of Villa, whose forces began to stage raids on border towns and attack American citizens within Mexico. On March 9, 1916, Villa’s troops attacked Columbus, New Mexico and the nearby army base, Camp Furlong. 18 Americans were killed in the attack and the Mexican forces were able to seize mules, horses, machine guns, ammunition, and other supplies before fleeing back into Mexico. 

Aftermath of the attack on Columbus, New Mexico

The following day, President Woodrow Wilson authorized the Southern Department of the Army under the command of General Frederick Funston to peruse Villa into Mexico. The wild goose chase was off! Throughout the spring, American troops clashed with Villa’s forces across northern Mexico, killing or capturing nearly 300 men. In retaliation, his soldiers staged several lightening raids on Texas towns. By May, Carranza’s government had become quite annoyed with the Americans running around his country shooting people and threatened to attack the expedition’s supply lines unless they pulled back. American forces remained in northern Mexico until January 1917, but they never managed to find, let alone kill or capture, Villa. 

While the army was running around south of the border, there were 38 Mexican raids on American towns. On June 18th, President Wilson called up over 140,000 National Guardsmen from across the country to protect the southern border. Elmira’s Company L received notification that they were being called up and began a recruitment drive. Over 23 men joined up within a week to bring the company to full strength before it departed Elmira on June 27th

The city was caught in a state of patriotic fervor. On June 24th, the Mozart Theater invited the men of Company L to a free showing of a film of the original incursion into Mexico. J.E. Morrow of the Morrow Manufacturing Company asked his employees to donate money to purchase the unit their own truck. Within a matter of hours, they raised $2,000. $1,700 went to buy the Garford truck with the remainder going to a family relief fund. Good thing too. Despite being sworn in to federal service on July 5th, the men of Company L were not paid for over a month. Since they also weren’t receiving their regular pay from their civilian jobs, their families might well have starved without the relief fund. 

Company L was stationed at Camp Pharr, Texas from July until October. During that time, they made improvements to the camp and nearby town, patrolled the border, and melted in the over 100-degree heat. They never encountered the enemy and their biggest fights were with the local wild life. That truck did come in handy though when it came to transporting supplies, so that was something.

Company L men clearing brush at Camp Pharr, Texas
After nearly three months languishing in the desert, Company L returned home on October 5, 1916. They were greeted by a crowd of over 1,000 people which included local politicians and a band.

Friends and family greet the men of Company L at the train station, October 5, 1916

Over all, the Pancho Villa Expedition from March 14, 1916, to February 7, 1917 was pretty much a failure. Despite repeated encounters with the enemy, they never managed the stated objective of capturing Villa. Instead, they managed to alienate the Mexican populace, piss off their Mexican allies, and generally make fools of themselves. Still, the expedition gave the American regular army and Nation Guard valuable experience in terms of training and logistics which would serve them well after the nation’s entry into World War I. In fact, almost all of the Company L men who had gone south in 1916 saw action again in Europe.