Today In History: President Wilson Sends 4,800 U.S. Troops to Fight Pancho Villa (1916)

Pancho Villa. Latin American Studies

The Pancho Villa Expedition began on this day in 1916 in reaction to a raid led by the Mexican revolutionary, Francisco “Pancho” Villa on Columbus, New Mexico. There had been a growing number of violent incidents along the U.S. and Mexican border, and the raid in Columbus was especially gruesome. Up to that point, the Wilson administration did not want to retaliate for worry that doing so would start a war between Mexico and the United States. 

To avoid an all-out war, the Wilson administration kept their goals clear and relatively simple: they wanted Pancho Villa captured. After sending 4,800 U.S. Army troops into Mexico, the military was able to successfully locate Villa, but each time he was able to escape. The Wilson administration was adamant that the Americans had to tread lightly. The situation was tricky, as the Mexican Revolution was unfolding in the backdrop of the expedition. If the Americans used too much force, the entire situation could easily escalate.

A new (more reachable) task was then added to the expedition: secondary to wanting Villa captured, the U.S. objective was to prevent any additional attacks from happening on U.S. territory, and to prepare for the chance that war with Mexico was a growing possibility.

U.S. troops crossing the border in search of Pancho Villa. Retro Newser

Problems with Villa started in 1915 for the U.S. When Villa had proved his revolutionary intentions were more than pipe dreams, the Wilson administration threw its support behind Villa’s rival, Venustiano Carranza. Relations between the U.S. and Villa spiraled from that point forward. The U.S. provided Carranza with transportation to move his troops and supplies. Carranza’s military benefited and they succeeded in dominating Villa at the Battle of Agua Prieta in November 1915.

Villa began by raiding northern Mexican properties owned by U.S. nationals. That was followed by the execution of 16 Americans in Santa Isabel, Chihuahua who were in Mexico working. The citizens were forced from a train, made to strip off their clothing, and killed. One day word began to spread that Villa was on the border with his forces and they were heading into the U.S.

Attacks along the edges of both countries were not uncommon. Officials monitoring the situation misinterpreted as something commonplace. The U.S. was taken by surprise. Villa’s troops waited until 4 a.m. and attacked a U.S. Army post in Columbus, New Mexico where 240 troops were stationed. Ten civilians and eight soldiers were killed. Villa’s forces set the town on fire and looted, taking with them machine guns, horses, ammunition, and other goods before racing back to Mexico.

After the event, the Wilson administration had to launch a counter-attack. Some argued that Wilson imposed too many restrictions on the U.S. military which ultimately prevented them from fulfilling the mission’s objectives. The episode gave birth to anti-American sentiment in Mexico and is blamed as the cause of an ongoing uneasy relationship.  

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