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Villa Raid in New Mexico

Discussion in 'Military History' started by KodiakBeer, Jul 18, 2015.

  1. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    Pancho Villa's attack on Columbus, NM.

    [​IMG]

    I had some time to spend poking around Columbus and the remnants of the old military garrison there. It's interesting how many myths and outright lies the raid has created. One of the reasons for that is that the initial lengthy telegram report from the army commander went astray (Villa's men were cutting lines in every direction), so journalists in El Paso and other points east and west had nothing to go on except sketchy reports from railroad men passing through the area. This state of affairs went on for some days with newspaper reports growing more and more lurid. Much of that is still accepted today!

    One of the most idiotic stories is that Villa sent two of his officers over disguised as vaqueros to snoop around and find out the tactical situation - they came back and reported that only 30 soldiers were guarding the large weapons stockpile. One of the many problems with this story is that the garrison (it was not a fort, just a large depot off the railroad to warehouse military supplies and troops going to different points across the southwest) stretched for a mile or so each way. The tents for the garrison and transient soldiers stretched for nearly a mile southeast of the town and anyone coming up on the road from the border (5 miles away) would have rode right past them. Not to mention that anyone they shared a whiskey with in Columbus could have told them there were about 350 troops and they were damned noisy practicing with that battery of new-fangled machine guns they had bought from the French.
    At the time, there were 270 fighting troops there, including two companies of black "buffalo" soldiers who had an excellent reputation. There were another 80 or so quartermaster people, engineers and so on. About 350 men all told.

    So, Villa thinking there were only 30 troops present is BS, yet it's still repeated even today. Villa knew he had a big fight on his hands.
    Villa knew what he was getting into, so why did he take such a risk? He was a smart, experienced commander and an excellent tactician, so why do this? He needed weapons, horses, food of course, but he must have known this wasn't going to be like attacking a Garrison of Caranza's demoralized troops.

    If you're not interested in the larger political mess, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs and I'll eventually wander back to the battle.

    As far as I'm concerned one has to consider the larger political situation to understand why the battle happened at all. Up until the late autumn of 1915, President Wilson was actually backing Villa and Zapata with arms, food, and gear of all kinds. Thousands of American citizens went down and joined Villa or Zapata. They were popular guys!

    On the other hand, Presidente Carranza of Mexico was quite simply a bastard, executing peasants by the thousands, stealing huge tracts of land, blackmailing US and European mining and agricultural concerns for huge bribes - he was a warlord, a Victorian era Saddam Hussein. He had seized power from an even worse bastard, Huerta. Under Carranza, only those from the pure Spanish bloodlines would hold office or own land larger than a few hectares, everybody else, the Mestizos (the bulk of the population) would be little more than serfs. They couldn't accumulate land or properties and were subject to crippling taxes.

    Carranza's problem was that though you can conscript an army of serfs, you can't make them fight for you once they've seen your real face. In each battle, large numbers would desert to Zapata (in the south) or Villa in the north. Those who stayed and fought, fought badly. They might stay for the regular meals, but when it came time to shoot a Zapatista or a Villista it's easy to miss and wave your hat at him.

    OK, so while all that was going on Wilson poured on the diplomatic pressure, in 1915, as today, Mexico was very much dependent on US trade and support. Wilson withdrew it all and threw in with the revolutionaries, supplying Villa and Zapata. After a year or so of this with the revolution gaining ground everywhere, Carranza capitulated to US demands with a close and personal friend of Wilson's dictating the reforms in Mexico city (don't feel like looking up his name right now). They were good reforms, largely based on American principles, but of course, diktats signed in Mexico City didn't mean things were really changing out in the hinterlands. In fact, almost nothing changed.

    Wilson betrayed Villa and Zapata in December of 1915, he stopped arming and feeding them. Then in March of 1916 Pancho Villa raided the United States. So, to get back to the question of why the battle happened at all, my guess (to paraphrase a catch line from a recent Danny Trejo movie); Wilson had just F@#k&d with the wrong Mexican! Villa was angry and I think he gambled that with a surprise attack he could raid the depot and have enough time to load a train or two with arms and run east or west along the border and unload somewhere. You have to remember that Villa seized trains and entire railroads all the time. It's how he moved and supplied his troops - it was the key to fighting in the endless deserts of northern Mexico. That is my supposition, not history, but it's very much in line with the strategy he had used for years. Villa didn't share much even with his closest men; he asked a lot of questions and advice, but when he had a plan he only told each man what they needed to know. He left no biography.

    At 4am in the morning on March 9th, 1916, Villa brought up 500 cavalry from Palomas on the Mexican side of the border, five or six miles to the south. You will find reports that he had 1500 men, but modern researchers discard that. The current estimate is between 470 and 500 men. Villa always said 500 men, and that's probably true. They were in two roughly equal columns, one attacking from the west and one from the east. Most of them dismounted about a half mile on either side of town and came in very quietly. They were an experienced guerrilla army. The remuda was held and defended by younger soldiers who were to bring the horses when signaled. A company on each wing remained mounted and led the way, raising hell, shooting everywhere - creating panic.

    I wish I'd taken a picture of the map I saw in the museum there yesterday, but picture Columbus as a crossroads. What is now state road 9, was an east-west railroad. There was no road then - they laid the current road on the bones of the abandoned railroad. The town was then bisected by a dusty north-south road coming down from Deming to Palomas and beyond into Mexico - now state road 11. One might see it as divided into 4 pie shaped wedges. Depots and warehouses lined the southwest corner of the pie side, south of the tracks - these were both civilian and military storage buildings. The military buildings held a large stock of arms and other gear. Just south of the warehouses were the permanent buildings of the army garrison - a clinic, offices and officer quarters, some wooden barracks for permanent depot guards. It was pleasant and shady and still is today - it's now a state park and you can camp in there under ancient cottonwoods among well preserved brick and adobe buildings. That quadrant is dominated by a low rocky prominence called Coyne's Hill - more on that later.

    Coyne Hill, looking west: [​IMG]

    The SE side, across the road from the permanent buildings was a large tent city to house troops traveling to and fro, and some more of the permanent enlisted garrison. It's very flat and less than a mile southeast from where the tents ended is a hill called Black hill. More on that later.

    Black Hill, looking south from the edge of town: [​IMG]

    This corner of NM is surrounded by beautiful mountains, but the only significant terrain features immediately around the town are Coyne's hill on the west side of the army Garrison, and Black hill perhaps 3/4 of a mile from the SE corner of the base and 1 1/2 miles from the center of the tiny town - remember these.

    Leaving the SE quadrant, we now cross the railroad and look at the NE quadrant of the town - north of the tracks and east of the road. This was the business district, much of which still stands today. Columbus, even today, is hundreds of miles from anything important. There were a few ranches, so you had hardware stores and those hardware stores in addition to horse tack and barbed wire, carried enormous amounts of firearms and ammunition. They'd been making money hand over fist selling arms to Villa when it was legal. Now that it was illegal, they were still doing it quietly. I'm drawing a picture here - Villa knew there was a hell of a lot guns in Columbus, even if he couldn't get into the defended army depot. The other businesses downtown were mostly saloons, gambling houses and brothels. They had a constant stream of army troops, miners, others, coming and going and they too were making a lot of money. The soldiers in particular were banned from going into Mexico a few miles south (where the booze and whores were cheaper), and spent most of their money in Columbus - when not taking cold showers and praying...

    Commercial district of Columbus, looking east: [​IMG]

    Okay, now we go west across the road to the NW quadrant which was the residential district. That might not seem to impact the tactical situation, but this was the west in 1916. There were 700 permanent residents and at least 2/3rds of those were men. Every one of them was armed, so you had about 400 additional men from the age of 13 up dash out and begin shooting at Villistas. Villistas didn't wear uniforms, but each man was required to wear the high crowned Mexican style peasant hat to identify them from the foe in battles. I just mention that because without that detail, it probably would have ended up with neighbors shooting each other in the dark.

    I'm long winded, ain't I? Let's get to the actual battle. Villa's eastern wing went directly into the commercial district and thence to the hardware stores, with the cavalry men going beyond into the central part of down where the road crossed the tracks, probably as a distraction. They were doing a lot of shooting and screaming "Villa, Villa!" and "Vayanse adelante, muchachos!" (Come on boys - Ahead boys)" Some reports say the Mexicans were yelling "Muerte a los gringos" (Kill all the gringos!). Maybe they did, but the only person killed who wasn't shooting at them was a woman named Bessie James who was hit by some bullets that went through an adobe wall. It was just as likely (actually more likely) to be one the slugs from 2nd Lt. Lucas' Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié machine guns. That adobe wall was riddled with bullets and it was on the main street where the horsemen were riding back and forth. No reason for them to start shooting at a wall, but a burst fired at them would have that wall as a backdrop... Lucas had a battery of four of these new-fangled guns and got one running immediately. He dispatched the other three guns to different points around town and in the next 2 hours they fired 20,000 rounds of ammunition.

    Hotchkiss Model 1909 Benet-Mercie: [​IMG]

    While all this was going on in the pre-dawn darkness, the Villistas in the commercial district (NE) were emptying the hardware stores and piling up guns and ammo in the street. There were three or four east-west streets in that corner of town that couldn't be seen from the garrison in the south because of intervening buildings. Their cavalry was creating chaos in the center of town and everyone was focused on them. At some point, they brought in the horses they'd left just east of town and began loading them up. Then things went bad. Somebody decided to start burning brothels and saloons. Instead of quietly working in the dark, they were now brightly illuminated. A couple of companies of US troops were now attacking the town from the south - heading toward the center where all the noise was. When they got to the edge of town, they could now see the larger group because of the burning buildings. They were all armed with the 1903 Springfields and they made good use of them.

    So, what about the Villistas attacking from the west? Those guys didn't accomplish much. It appears they were to take the arms depot and (perhaps) one or more of the trains on the siding there. Villa had experienced railroad men in very company and they stole trains regularly. It's what Villa did. It was one of the things that made him so successful. Remember when I mentioned Coyne's hill? It's not much of a hill, but it's rocky and overlooks the depot and tracks from less than 100 yards. West of it is nothing but flat empty land and even at night in the desert, you can see a long way just by starlight. I don't know if there was a moon that morning, but if so the approach of that column would have been an even better shooting range. According to the gentleman at the army museum, there were always two companies of soldiers (permanent party, not transient troops) right there at the depot. One company would be on duty, and one off - but guys off duty had "Cinderella Liberty" and had to be back in barracks at midnight. He told me these were buffalo soldiers - black troops. It was a racist country back then and a lot of the army didn't like them, but a common theme seemed to be that they were excellent marksmen. It was just something they enjoyed doing and worked hard at, maybe because it gave them an opportunity to humiliate the white troops when scores were compared.

    So, anyhoo, the off duty company went right up on Coyne's Hill and began shooting at every big hat they saw to the west. The on duty guard company spread out around the depot and trains and did some good work as well. That column retreated, but some of them probably turned north and then southeast and joined their pals from that direction.

    Most of the histories say that Villa watched the battle from Coyne's hill. Ridiculous! He'd have been shot to pieces from hundreds of soldiers just below him. I think the confusion is because Coyne's is the only hill marked on maps. A local pointed out where Villa directed the battle from - a low hill to the SE that the locals call Black Hill. It ain't much of a hill, but it is black.

    At 6:30 as dawn came, Villa signaled a general retreat. The surviving Villistas went east a bit then south on the east side of Black Hill. Villa had a large group of his best marksmen and they covered his men from pursuing US troops until they too withdrew. The Americans chased them some miles into Mexico and had a few skirmishes, but like Indians, the Villa troops knew to scatter and regroup at some planned place.

    And that's about it!

    Eight American soldiers died, and ten civilians. Lurid newspaper accounts circulated that the Villistas were raping and torturing and kicking puppies, but none of that was true. They behaved pretty well. Except for Bessie James, everybody that got shot was shooting at them. And the question of who put the bullets through the wall is one that will never be answered. In either case, it wasn't intentional.

    Villa's men? They picked up 67 dead Villistas in town alone. Accounts vary, but another 20 to 40 were found in the five miles to the border. Guys that bled out and got left by their compadres. In the skirmishes south of the border, more were claimed - and those numbers vary considerably and are sketchy. For every guy killed, there was probably another wounded and in the pre-antibiotic days an awful lot of those died. I think it's safe to say that Villa lost 150 men in that raid and perhaps as many as 200.

    Villa claimed it was a victory because they did get some of those stolen guns out. I'm going to guess he lost more guns than he gained, with all those dead.

    Now... if you google around, you'll find somebody who contradicts just about everything I said above. But, they also contradict each other. I talked to a bunch of locals there, some of whom had family roots going back to that time. One nice old Gal named Marilyn runs the train depot museum - different than the military museum nearby. Her family was here in 1916 and her grandfather (or GGgrandfather?) was shot in the foot by a Villista who told him "Go back in your house, stupid!" I asked how locals felt about Villa, and she said he was liked. No grudges. After the revolution, Villa didn't join the government. He retired to a ranch and fathered about fifty kids with a dozen or so pretty young women.

    Blackjack Pershing came down and raided Mexico to avenge Columbus. He didn't accomplish anything. He didn't know how to fight in country like that. Only Villa did.

    This is a Jeffery Quad Armored truck at the military museum in Columbus. Pershing took this south with him. It was the only one the army had. Pershing hated it because the narrow tires sank in the Mexican sand. I think this may be the only one the army bought, though Jeffery managed to sell some to the British.

    [​IMG]

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    lwd, A-58, Takao and 1 other person like this.
  2. GRW

    GRW Pillboxologist WW2|ORG Editor

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    Interesting stuff, thanks for posting.
     
  3. Victor Gomez

    Victor Gomez Ace

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    During this period of border conflict, it came to pass that nearly 4000 Mexican troops ended up as prisoners/detainees on the Fort Wingate Army Depot which I live near. Kodiak is correct in his descriptions of the politics of the day......our government was unsure of how to treat the soldiers at Wingate because it depended on what side emerged in Mexico in power. In the end humane efforts prevailed and it was a great hardship to feed and shelter the large numbers. A great tent city was erected in time. As it happened many of the soldiers had to voice acceptance of the new governing powers to be re-admitted back into Mexico and the officers were denied acceptance back. It is confusing to read accounts as sometimes they are considered prisoners of war and other times they are considered in "protective custody". At any rate, there were some escape attempts. For me it is hard to imagine so many on this desolate location considering the primitive nature of this area even today. I welcome Kodiak and his new adventures into New Mexico, a place that goes back into numerous conflicts of historical significance many people remain unaware of.
     
  4. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    Nobody knows how many Americans went south and joined the revolutionaries, but there were thousands of them.

    If you can find it, there's a really excellent movie starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger about the Mexican revolution. The only problem is that they gave it the dumbest name ever inflicted on a film: "Duck, You Sucker." Despite the stupid name, it's a great war movie. You can't do better than Rod Steiger and James Coburn blowing shit up.

    Later, they realized the name was killing them at the box office (everybody thought it was a blaxploitation movie), so they changed the name to "A Fistful of Dynamite" but it was too late.

    Too bad, it's a great movie. It's out there on DVD under both names.
     
  5. lwd

    lwd Ace

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  6. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    But had it set by 4 in the morning? It doesn't matter that much - ask Victor above - here in the desert if you're outside a while at night (for your eyes to adjust) the stars are enough to illuminate the landscape. And around Columbus (like much of this part of the country), the surface is caliche, a hard skin that is almost white. I like to sit on my upstairs deck in the dark in the evening and drink soda pop - OK, bourbon or red wine... I have a view for miles and I'll often pick out javelina or deer way out in the distance and see them clearly enough to know what kind of animal it is.

    I'm torn on whether Villa really was attempting to get the army supplies, or whether that was just a feint so they could get the arms in the commercial district. Remember, if somebody hadn't started torching buildings in that part of town those guys would never have been seen and slipped away with all of it. Those buildings may well have burned simply because the fusillade of Hotchkiss rounds broke a few oil lamps. Many of the upstairs parts of those buildings were occupied by the owners of the businesses, or were brothels occupied by women. No doubt, some of them lit lamps and those Hotchkiss guns fired over 20,000 rounds in 90 minutes to 2 hours. That's one figure that is verifiable because this was a supply depot and the quartermasters figures are on record. Only the buildings on the north side of the street burned. Some were wood and some adobe, and the machine guns were firing from the southwest, so only buildings on the north side of the main street would be hit. Those dry wood buildings and the wood roofs of the adobes would have gone up like tinder and spread from one to another in no time.

    Villa was a very good tactician and a great leader. I think, maybe, in this case he let his anger at the American betrayal sway his judgment. Also, his experience was fighting Huerta and then Carranza's conscripted troops. The Mexican government troops were well armed (Mausers) and supplied, but they weren't motivated to fight for the bastards running the country. Now he was up against American troops and well armed civilians who were defending their own town and sniping away from every window.

    In the end, he and Zapata brought down Carranza without any help from the US. The new socialist government descended into a kleptocracy, but the average guy was still better off than under a fascist like Carranza.

    The other thing that stays in my mind about Villa, was that when it was over he didn't want any power. He didn't get into the political infighting, he just retired to a ranch and lived out his life. That's pretty rare for a revolutionary.
     
  7. lwd

    lwd Ace

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    I thought I remembered that a Waxing moon was an evening moon and this page:
    http://www.moongiant.com/phase/today/
    seems to indicate it. Indeed tomorrow night the moon will be very close to what it was the day of the raid. Tonight's moon sets around 9 PM so it wouldn't have been up that morning.

    I've seen the desert at night so understand what you mean about that.

    Zapata was the same way from what I recall. Amazing to have two such impressive individuals.

    Oh just remembered one of my friends in college was from El Paso. I don't think there was any Mexican blood in her family but her Grandfather road with Poncho.
     
  8. Victor Gomez

    Victor Gomez Ace

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    It is true, you can see a lot at night and you can experience that if you give yourself about 45 minutes for the eyes to make a low light adjustment......in fact as a teenager with low battery power I have driven a great distance at night to make it home when mechanical failure of generators on an auto failed. I don't recommend that today on our busier streets. I am thinking Villa cared much about the people and was not so interested in power. Remember for New Mexico Independence of Mexico came much too late to change anything greatly in our state. I remember from history that General Kearney was able to come into New Mexico and take it without firing a shot.....the state was ready for a change towards democracy........however I would point out they were not ready for the type Texas was trying to accomplish for our state and their efforts were much opposed. Armijo also went down to Mexico to live in peace after Kearney assumed control of New Mexico. Otherwise, I would not lay any claim to non-violence in our state......there indeed was bloody conflict in most clashes that brought us forward for the several hundred years we existed prior to statehood times. I see Villa and Armijo as having a similar outlook towards the turn of events as their leadership was no longer needed. However there is some Texas resentment that tries hard to tarnish the results of Armijos resistance.
     
  9. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    New Mexico is a good balance of Hispanic and Anglo culture; a successful fusion of the two. Many of the farms, ranches and towns running up the Rio Grande all the way to Santa Fe are still held by the same families. That was the populated part of the territory then, and still is. The whites tended to adapt to the larger Hispanic culture even though the language changed.

    Here in Arizona, there wasn't enough Mexican population (not enough water to support agriculture) to hold their own when the mining rush started and the Anglo flood began.

    It's funny though, even after Villa raided Columbus, whites still went south to join Villa. Once the newspapers calmed down and it came out that there was no wholesale rape and murder as first reported, people saw it for what it was. Villa was still popular north of the border and a lot of people blamed Wilson (rightfully, I think) for the raid. Carranza was still murdering people on a wholesale basis and now Wilson was in league with him.
     

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