The Punitive Expedition

Villa Wanted poster offering $5,000 for his capture

Pancho had made history; his was only the second foreign military attack on American soil since the British in the War of 1812.

History says that Villa’s reasoning to attack Columbus was that it would provoke an American invasion into Mexico. This would create a backlash against Carranza and his friendly ties to the U.S. Therefore; Villa would be ready in the wings to become the new Mexican national leader.

The day following the attack on Columbus, President Wilson announced he was sending General John J. Pershing and 5,000 soldiers to Mexico to capture Pancho Villa. This order was later changed to hunt for Villa, but to cease when his bands are known to have been broken up.

Within two weeks, Pershing and his men had traveled about 350 miles into Mexico in Chihuahua. Carranza was hoping Villa would be captured in a quick fashion. However, he was also worried that Pershing may take this as an opportunity to start a war with Mexico. This would be a war Mexico would probably come out as a loser.

This Punitive Expedition, as it was to be called, was working in Villa’s favor. Many Mexicans were helping him by giving false information to the Americans. The peons were also notifying Villa of Pershing’s location and direction of his travel.

By the fall of 1916, Pancho Villa was starting to see some of the mounting popularity he had planned all along. However, Villa and his men, now numbering less than 400, were retreating into the mountains of Chihuahua. There were 7,000 U.S. troops after him and they were coming with some modern technology. Airplanes were now part of the American contingent and they were flying all over the mountains and nearby deserts in hopes of spotting the elusive Pancho Villa. His Villastas were now getting worried and starting to lose faith in their leader.

Carrancistas were also part of the search party and they got into a fight with Villastas. During the shooting Villa was hit in his knee and he decided to go into hiding in the nearby mountains. He hid for two months. Villa had now divided his troops into several units and sent them off into various parts of Chihuahua and Durango. About 30 troops stayed with Villa.

His units were now fighting the Americans and also the Carrancistas and they were slowly going down. The Villista generals were being killed and they took with them, the possibility of making Pancho Villa the national leader he had hoped for. However, World War I was growing and it was looking more and more like the U.S. would be entering the conflict very soon.

Americans tested new military equipment in the expedition, but only kicked up more dust for Villa to hide behind. No photo credit available.

Some in the Washington had drawn up a plan for the U.S. to just take over northern Mexico, since Pershing was already there and had demonstrated his strength with his modern weapons. But the Mexican citizenry and Carranza as well, were getting a bit tired of the Yankees. President Wilson decided that there was too much of a possibility of an outright war with Mexico and decided to pull the American troops back to northern part of Chihuahua. Their main duty here would be only as an incentive to the Carranza troops, for them to either kill or catch Villa.

With Pershing not being a serious threat any longer, Pancho Villa was able to continue speaking out against Carranza and Pershing. His popularity was continually growing, and on September 15,1916 he surprised everyone by taking about 2,000 men and attacking the Chihuahua prison, the government and the Carranza military barracks. His men freed the prisoners, most of which were his former troops.

The amazing part of this battle is that there about 10,000 American troops and 9,000 Carrancistas in the town at the time. Villa’s troops suffered minor losses. His popularity soared even higher after word went out of what he had accomplished. He then began openly attacking Carrancistas and defeating them most of the time.

By August 1916, the U.S. had sent 111,000 troops to the border to track down Villa. They were never able to even come close to catching Villa. In February 1917, Gen. Pershing and his army had decided to call it quits and go back to the states without punishing Villa. Very few fights actually took place between the Villistas and the American troops.

Besides all of his trucks, motor cars, motor cycles, and armored cars, Pershing also mustered dirigble baloons and airplanes in his relentless quest to find Villa. No photo credit available.

The Punitive Expedition was now considered to be a failure since they never caught Villa. However, it could also be considered a success if the aim was to keep Villa away from the U.S. border and not allow him to invade America again. This had also been a good place and time to experiment with the new military weapons in preparation for the war in Europe against the Germans. This invasion also proved good training for military leaders, including George S. Patton, who would later lead U.S troops to victory in Europe.

Katz, Freidrich, Katz. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa. Stanford University Press, 1998.



Legends Before the Revolution

Revolutionary Hero

Attack on Colombus, NM

The Assassination

Corridos de Pancho Villa

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