Black Jack’s Mexican Goose Chase

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The man who led the third and last U.S. invasion of Mexican soil was born in 1860. Both Major General Scott, Chief of Staff, and his assistant, Major General Tasker Bliss, had recommended Pershing for the assignment over the man on the spot (Major General Frederick Funston), who outranked him. Commissioned in the cavalry in 1886, he was immediately put to work against the Sioux and Apaches. During the Spanish-American War he had served at Santiago (“the coolest man under fire I ever saw,” noted his commanding officer), and next performed brilliantly in the Philippines at the turn of the century, climaxing his efforts in 1903 by subduing the fanatical Moros of Mindanao. Three years later President Roosevelt promoted him to brigadier general from the rank of captain, passing him over 862 senior officers.

By 1915 he and his contingent were garrisoned at Fort Bliss. While not adequately equipped (three-quarters of their saddles were defective, trucks were lacking, replacement supplies were inadequate, there were too few light guns), these men were reasonably well trained, although most of them were recruits. Pershing was not charming, nor was it his job to be charming. He was severe but fair, tall, slender, gray-haired, immaculately tailored, well-modulated in speech. He lived by a code of ethics so honorable as to be almost incomprehensible to lesser men. It is hard to imagine two humans more different than this one and Villa.

One morning that August Pershing received a telephone call from San Francisco informing him that his wife and three of their four children had just died in a fire which had swept their wooden house in the Presidio. By October he was back on duty, somewhat more silent but otherwise unchanged. Only in letters to friends did he express emotion. “I shall never be relieved of the poignancy of grief … It is too overwhelming!” The training and inspections went on, even more intensively. “I shall be tied down with this border patrol indefinitely. I am working just as hard as possible and am really fortunate to have something to do.” So ended a bad year for Pershing and Villa; and ten weeks later came the nightmare in Columbus.…

The idea was to catch Villa unawares. On March 10 the White House stated that he would be captured “by a swift surprise movement.” Five days later, after mountains of newspaper publicity, Pershing’s column proceeded south from Columbus. (“Whose fault is it,” fumed the Army & Navy Journal, “that the Army was obliged to advertise for 54 motor trucks before it could venture across the frontier?”) What followed was to be an ironic footnote to the cavalry tradition established by Stuart and Sheridan in the Civil War, and given added luster by Chaffee, Lawton, and other Indian fighters.

Republican periodicals were especially outraged over the massacre. The New York Tribune stated that “the Bryan-Wilson policy … of dodging the duty of protecting them [U.S. citizens in Mexico] when living, and of avenging them when dead, has borne its perfect fruit.” Shrieked the editorial voice of William Randolph Hearst, who preferred to have us embroiled with Mexico rather than fighting alongside the British he abhorred: “California and Texas were part of Mexico once … What has been done in California and Texas by the United States can be done ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THE SOUTHERN BANK OF THE PANAMA CANAL AND BEYOND.”

And he further suggested: “Our flag should wave over Mexico as the symbol of the rehabilitation of that unhappy country and its redemption to humanity and civilization.” From New Mexico’s distraught Senator Ashurst (who had known some of the Columbus victims) came a demand for more “grape shot” and less “grape juice”—referring to the nonalcoholic soirees conducted by that contemptible pacifist, Mr. Bryan. “Nothing less than Villa’s life can atone for the outrage,” declared Pulitzer’s New York World .

Army recruiting stands were hastily erected to sign up 20,000 volunteers. In Chicago an enormous banner reading “Help Catch Villa” was carried behind a military band. The volunteers did not materialize as anticipated. After a trickle of 1,269 had responded, Congress passed an emergency bill authorizing the Regular Army to expand to maximum war strength. And while Count Johann-Heinrich von Bernstorff in Washington did not like the looks of large-scale U.S. mobilization, he cabled his government with relief: “It seems to be increasingly probable that the punitive expedition against Villa will lead to full-dress intervention … We are, I believe, safe from an act of aggression …”

Censorship was put into effect, while the nation restlessly awaited news from the field, and the Springfield Republican worriedly predicted that catching Villa might after all present problems:”… he commanded large armies and won important battles. He was Carranza’s big fist in the earlier days … has a certain untutored genius in war, and his brute force … makes many humble peons his adoring followers.”