Black Jack’s Mexican Goose Chase

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Indubitably General Pershing was relieved; yet his so-called punitive expedition had punished nobody; Villa was still at large; despite admirable tact, Pershing had barely escaped full-scale war; and over one hundred U.S. battle casualties had been suffered. But he asserted in his memoirs:

After we had penetrated about four hundred miles into Mexican territory and overtaken Villa’s band … the increasing disapproval of the Mexican Government doubtless caused the administration to conclude that it would be better to rest content that the outlaw bands had been severely punished and generally dispersed, and that the people of northern Mexico had been taught a salutary lesson …

Still, Villa’s army had not been caught and brought to battle. The outlaws had hardly been punished. The common people of Chihuahua had had nothing to do with the affair and had learned, perhaps, a lesson somewhat different from the one Pershing had in mind. General Hugh Scott concurred, however, by stating that Pershing had “made a complete success … from the War Department’s point of view.” But if the United States border was secure, Pancho was back in action elsewhere with a vengeance. As late as January 7, 1917, he raided Santa Rosalia and killed 300 people, mostly Chinese and Federal soldiers, including an officer’s wife who, according to an eyewitness, “took a pot shot at Villa while he was killing off the Chinamen. The Chinese, trying to escape, would say, ‘Don’t shoot me standing; shoot me running.’ …”

On January 28 the War Department announced that Pershing’s expedition would withdraw. On February 5 the last American soldier shook the dust of Chihuahua from his boots.

The expedition may not be entirely brushed off as a failure. Since Carranza enjoyed little control over northern Mexico and could not stop the killing of U.S. citizens on U.S. territory, we could hardly be expected to fold our hands and piously accept our losses. Financially, Villa stood worse than before. Hundreds of his men had gone back to the farm. About a thousand U.S. officers had been given field experience, which they would utilize to grim advantage. The United States had proved that it was not out to grab territory. The expedition furnished last-minute tests and training for “Black Jack” Pershing. American national pride had been assuaged. On the other hand, we had manifested a harsh unilateralism, an alarmingly swift plunge into militarism, and an emotional instability counteracted only by Wilson’s refusal to kick Mexico when she was down. The cost of the adventure came to $130,000,000.

Pancho Villa made peace with the new Mexican government after the assassination of his arch-enemy Carranza in 1920 and retired in splendor to a 25,000-acre ranch near Parral. But now that he was no longer in contact with the masses, derogatory stories began to be told about his past; and this sarcastic rhyme, referring to two notorious massacres, was sung to plucked guitars in fly-specked taverns and over many a campfire:

Hurrah for Villa, boys! /Fix the machine guns./Listen, Francisco Villa/What does your heart tell you?/Don't you remember, brave one, /That you attacked Paredon?/Don't you remember, brave one,/That you took Torreon? 

On July 19, 1923, in his Dodge touring car, he visited his lawyer in Parral in order to dictate a new will.  Armed with two Colt .45's, Villa was at the wheel.  To his right sat a guard similarly equiped.  Another in the back seat carried a carbine.  As he proceeded slowly down the Calle de Gabino Barreda, eight riflemen cut loose at the car from ambush.  Almost instinctively the stricken Villa pressed the accelerator and roared toward his murderers. The Dodge struck a tree and turned over. With Villa sprawled in the dust, the gunmen kept firing until his body contained forty-seven bullet wounds. Then came the newspapermen, the snapshots of Villa and the death car, the sightseers, the public display of his body at the Hotel Hidalgo, the picture postcards …

For years many simple peones remained unconvinced, and swore that they saw him and his revolutionary bandit-riders sweep by their cottages at night. “No, he is not dead, senor; they only try to trick us …” The leader of the killing squad, Jesus Salas Barrazas, a congressman from Durango, had once been pistol-whipped by Villa in an argument over a woman. Sentenced to twenty years in jail, he was released after six months. In the Parral cemetery, Pancho Villa still rests under a small gray slab.