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Black Jack’s Mexican Goose Chase
When Pancho Villa sacked an American town, Pershing was ordered to find him and bring him to book. But the orders failed to say where — or how
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
Six days later, a punitive column under Brigadier General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing also crossed the border after Villa. The fat was in the fire.
Now we were involved in the tag end of a foreign revolution, militarily penetrating a foreign land with which we were at peace; we had been intolerably provoked, and our motives were pure; still, here was Pershing in Mexico with 6,600 men at a time when our involvement in the great European conflagration seemed increasingly likely. Germany, although the evidence that she was financing Villa is questionable, was of course delighted.
A punitive expedition is not technically an act of war, provided that the acting Power is strong and civilized, while the chastised nation is backward and weak. Certainly Mr. Wilson, although he and Sr. Carranza disliked and mistrusted each other, did not desire hostilities with Carranza’s government, which he had recently recognized after two years of “watchful waiting"; and the Columbus raid was an outrage which cried aloud for vengeance. On the other hand it was fairly well understood by 1916 that Villa was an enemy of his own government. Was it not President Carranza’s job to punish him for the Columbus affair?
In 1914 Mexico’s reactionary President Huerta had resigned as a result of pressures from Washington, and we must revert to this point in order to envision the circumstances a year and a half later. Major General Hugh Scott, U.S. Chief of Staff, was strongly backing Villa for the presidency, and so was Secretary of State Bryan, who considered him an “idealist” because he neither drank nor smoked. General Villa was then the strongest war lord in Mexico. His personal army had swelled to about 50,000 men who were on the verge of taking Mexico City; but it was Venustiano Carranza—a huge, egotistical politician with moderate views on the land question—who took control of the Mexican government August 20, 1914. Immediately he advised President Wilson to remove his troops from Veracruz, where a large U.S. force had been stationed all through the late spring and summer. [On April 10, some U.S. sailors had been arrested by the Mexicans and quickly released, with an official apology. But the American commander also demanded a 21-gun salute to the Stars and Stripes; when Huerta refused, Wilson backed the demand, Congress backed Wilson, and on April 22, the day alter a German ship arrived at Veracruz with arms for Huerta, U.S.troops entered the city. In the action, 126 Mexicans were killed.] After three months of prodding and veiled insults, Wilson did so. By this time the two presidents had come to despise each other in earnest. “1 have never known a man more impossible to deal with,” complained the American. And too late he learned that Carranza’s intention was to reserve all petroleum and mineral rights for the benefit of the Mexican people. Suddenly Carranza was issuing a stream of legal decrees which were virtual death warrants against U.S. property interests in Mexico. The man, it turned out, was a thief, a communist, a double-dealer. Mr. Wilson refused to recognize him or his government.
Meanwhile Pancho had been awarding himself various small titles, such as general-in-chief of the Mexican armies and president of Mexico. As 1915 dawned, civil war between Carranza, Villa, Zapata, Obregón, and other gun-happy generals was in full swing; more U.S. citizens were being killed below the Rio Grande; and Mr. Wilson was writing furious notes to the de facto First Chief in which he warned that U.S. rights must be respected, that Carranza must terminate his anti-religious program and plans for expropriating U.S. property, and so on. He advised all Americans to leave Mexico. Forty thousand out of fifty thousand departed before the end of the year. In Chihuahua, General Pancho Villa had reached his apogee of power when suddenly he was dealt two mortal blows.
First came a military catastrophe. In the past Villa had shown talent as a resourceful tactician with a sense for communications and for handling large masses of supplies. Except for a couple of drawn engagements, he had not once been defeated in battle since the revolution had begun. In the autumn of 1915, he attacked Carranza’s army in an impregnable position at Agua Prieta (south of Douglas, Arizona) and was thrown back with fearful losses. Four times Villa sent his screaming cavalry head-on against the barricaded Federales, in futile charges which cost him over 5,000 men. Demoralized and with the cream of its fighters gone, the rebel army melted away as it retreated toward the mountains. What had happened? President Wilson, having extended de facto recognition to Carranza’s government, had allowed Carranza’s troops and supplies to utilize U.S. railroads from Laredo and El Paso to Douglas. The same privilege had been denied Villa’s men; outnumbered, they had been drawn into a trap.
At this Villa flew into a maniacal rage and swore that he would revenge himself upon the gringos. General Scott, too, was perturbed. When early in 1915 Villa had demanded the confiscation of U.S. property in areas he controlled, Scott had talked him out of it. Now Scott said:
We permitted Carranza to send his troops through the United States by our rails to crush Villa. I did what I could to prevent this … I had never been put in such a position in my life. After Villa had given up millions of dollars at the request of the state department … they made him an outlaw. He was a wild man who … might very well have thought that I double-crossed him …