A fool’s errand. That’s what General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing was sent on by President Woodrow Wilson. On March 15, 1916 the General rode off at the head of about 12,000 troops of the Punitive Expeditionary Force on a mission to find and destroy Pancho Villa and his rebel army in Mexico.
Doroteo Arango, alias Francisco “Pancho” Villa, was born in 1877 in San Juan del Rio, the State of Durango in Northern Mexico. He was an outlaw by 16 and the head of his own gang of banditos shortly after. Because he frequently clashed with the forces of the hated dictator Porforio Díaz, he began to be regarded as a folk hero by the dispossessed and landless peons of his home state.
When the Mexican Revolution installed democratic hero Francisco Madero as President, Villa offered his services to battle a turncoat Revolutionary commander Pascual Orozco. He led his División del Norte in the defense of the President he actually deeply admired. He fought alongside another general, the ambitious Victoriano Huerta. Huerta, however betrayed him and almost succeeded in having him executed.Pancho Villa and his Division del Norte from a 1914 Monarch newsreel.
Madero commuted Villa’s from his death sentence, but allowed him to be put in prison, from which he soon escaped. Huerta went on to betray Madero as well, seizing power with the connivance of the nephew of Porforio Díaz and the U.S. Ambassador. Madero was executed.
Villa in the North, Emiliano Zapata in the South and other generals rallied to Venustiano Carranza’s plan to restore the revolution.
The colorful Villa invited American film crews to cover his battles. He invented new tactics, particularly the use of the armored train and specialized in lightening cavalry assaults. He secured the State of Chihuahua and was appointed Provisional Governor.Better times--Revolutionary generals Obregon and Villa and their staffs with Pershing at Fort Bliss, Texas. The tall young officer behind Pershing is Lt. George Patton in what may have been an early photo bomb.
His campaigns were admired by U.S. Army officers who studied them closely and he was even invited to visit Ft. Bliss to meet with Pershing and his staff.
Villa turned his army south in a drive to the capital. After victories against Federal forces at Gómez Palacio and Torreón, Carranza ordered Villa to divert his division from the drive on Mexico City to allow rival generals to enter the capital first. Despite the snub Villa attacked the last major Federal stronghold in the north, Zacatecas finally forcing Huerta to leave for exile in July 1914.
After Carranza defied Villa, Zapata and other revolutionary generals who had hoped for a democracy by assuming dictatorial power, Villa went back into rebellion.
At first he believed that the United States would back him. Instead, the Wilson administration threw its support behind Carranza. Outraged, Villa began plotting ways to force the Americans to enter the war on the side of Carranza, which he believed would lead to an even wider popular uprising.
He attacked and killed 16 American mining engineers hired by the Carranza government to reopen the vast silver mines of the north. When that failed to get Wilson to act, he launched an audacious attack on a small cavalry garrison at Columbus, New Mexico. He also burned and looted the town killing several civilians then rode east attacking isolated targets in Texas before re-crossing the Río Grande.
That left Wilson no choice but to order Pershing’s intervention at the reluctant “invitation” of the Carranza regime. By the time Pershing crossed the border Villa was several days ahead and melted his forces into the rugged mountains. Pershing’s forces were primarily cavalry. In fact, this would be the last great campaign of the U.S. Cavalry, but it also included motorized units and a Signal Corps air arm, both for the first time in American military history.
The fragile Jenny biplanes actually dropped some bombs by hand on Villista stragglers, but harsh conditions and inexperienced pilots put the air arm out of commission within weeks.
Despite dividing into two columns, Pershing could never make contact with Villa’s main force. They simply melted away. There were several small skirmishes, including a little engagement that made a popular hero out of young Lt. George S. Patton.The charge of the 11th Cavalry at Ojos Azules.
When Villa tricked Pershing’s troops into an attack on Carranza forces, the President was compelled by popular outrage to demand the withdrawal of American troops. There was even talk about full war between the countries and the Georgia National Guard had to be mobilized to take up defensive positions along the Río Grande in Texas.
Wilson had enough and he needed his Army back for the looming war in Europe. He ordered Pershing’s recall in January 1917. Despite never capturing or engaging Villa, Pershing declared victory.
The Mexican people, delighted to see the Yankees gone, proclaimed Villa the victor and hero. But his military power was broken. After a few years of fruitless campaigning, he finally negotiated his retirement and was rewarded with a hacienda in Chihuahua. But the government feared he might return to his old ways.The body of Pancho Villa in his bullet ridden Dodge touring car. As he was dying his last words were "Tell them I said something important."
On July 20, 1923 Villa was cut down with his bodyguards in a fusillade of rifle fire while riding in his Dodge touring car. His Mexican enemies finally accomplished by Black Jack Pershing could not.