Black Jack’s Mexican Goose Chase

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The General next day called for Tompkins and said, “Go find Villa wherever you think he is.” Tompkins departed with five days’ rations, five hundred silver pesos, and Troops K and M of the 13th Cavalry. On April 12 he halted near Parral, four hundred miles south of the New Mexico border. At all costs his problem was to avoid the wrong war with the wrong enemy. That meant staying friendly with the Federal cavalry, which by now was ominously arrayed along both sides of Pershing’s slender line of communications and had been scouting Tompkins himself all the way down from San Geronimo.

Tompkins entered the city and found it occupied by Carranza’s troops under a general named Lozano, who rode up and told him politely to get out. Simultaneously shopkeepers barred their doors, children left the streets, and citizens proceeded to revile the Americans verbally and with gestures. Tompkins retired slowly toward the outskirts. As he did so, Carranzistas massed on a hill to the south of town began outflanking his command. Firing broke out. In accordance with ancient folklore having to do with relative casualties suffered by U.S. and native troops (“ ‘I got one at 800 yards, Major.’ The Mexicans must have concluded that that kind of shooting was too good for them so they fell back …” etc.), the Carranzistas allegedly lost forty killed as against two Americans. But as many U.S. newspapers uneasily noted next morning, the first real collision of the campaign had been against our so-called friends.

There was another fight in May at Ojos Azules, when a squadron of the 11th Cavalry actually did engage part of the Villa band. This time the proportion of casualties reached mathematical infinity, for according to the record, we suffered not a single man killed or even wounded, while the Villistas “lost 44 killed and had a large number wounded.” The Americans had also been outnumbered five to one, it was said.

For several weeks the two columns and various detachments of the American army, including a dozen unhappy civilians who had been talked into driving trucks for the expedition, meandered south. No amount of money could hire a native guide. By June Pershing was hopelessly bogged down, while in Washington he was being knifed in the back by individuals who opined that he had mishandled everything. Mr. Wilson had become disillusioned. To Secretary Baker he spoke of “his shame as an American over the first Mexican War … his belief in the principle laid down in the Virginia Bill of Rights that a people has the right to do as they damn please with their own affairs.” Sadly he estimated that to pacify that huge nation, we would need “five hundred thousand men at least.”

Suddenly it was late spring, General Villa had recovered from his wound, and again he was leading his riders around the invader. U.S. newspaper and magazine reports had diminished; those which appeared were muted in tone. They spoke of the disciplinary action which was accomplishing its purpose, and of the disruption of Villa’s army; and in this there was truth, for Pershing had temporarily split the raiders into fragments. These fragments dared not attack the American army, now 12,000 strong, but they could coalesce as soon as the gringos withdrew. Fully 150,000 National Guard troops were now barracked at El Paso, Nogales, and Brownsville. Although forbidden to cross the border, they gave President Carranza something to think about. But in the heat and monotony of the summer, they did nothing but drill and languish and drink and curse the day they had been summoned to prepare for thrilling adventures in pursuit of Pancho Villa.

The next bombshell came from Carranza’s commander in the north, General Jacinto Trevino, who advised Pershing that the show was over, that U.S. troops would not be permitted to move south, west, or east. In other words, unless they went home or sat exactly where they were they would be considered at war with Mexico. Pershing replied that he would take orders only from his own government. “ DRIFTING TOWARD INTERVENTION IN MEXICO ” headlined the Literary Digest, and the Houston Chronicle observed that “the United States of America has no moral right to permit a people, living next door, to destroy itself.” The implication was clear enough. In Washington our General Staff put the final touches on plans for a full-scale invasion.

Trevino’s ultimatum was followed by a military shock, compounded (in the words of one colonel) by “one of the most amateurish performances of American professional troops … ever recorded,” plus the low cunning of General Villa. (His agents had deceived Pershing into believing that he could be taken at Carrizal. When part of the 10th Cavalry arrived there, Villa, a few miles away, was watching everything through binoculars.) The commander of the detachment, a Captain Boyd, had been told to engage Villa but to stay out of Carrizal. Upon nearing the town, Boyd noticed a large body of Federales taking up defensive positions, and Mexican infantry began flowing into entrenchments along the lefthand approach to the town. Several Mexican officers asked Boyd to leave, whereupon he moved his line several hundred yards forward. There followed further squabbling, during which the Mexicans worked themselves comfortably around both flanks, set up three machine guns, put more riflemen in an irrigation ditch, and waited for Boyd to make his move.