Book claims Pancho Villa’s raid on a New Mexican town was the “first act of terrorism on U.S. soil"

Historians in the News
tags: Pancho Villa

Mitchell Yockelson is the author of the newly published book, Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I.   Yockelson, the recipient of the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award, is an archivist with the National Archives and former professor of military history at the United States Naval Academy.

It has been 100 years since the first act of terror on U.S. soil was committed by revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa.  On March 9, 1916 Villa and more than 400 heavily-armed mounted bandits crossed the Mexican border and attacked Columbus, New Mexico. The Villistas caught the town of 350 inhabitants, plus a garrison of 553 troops from the 13th U.S. Cavalry, completely by surprise. “I was awake, they were asleep,” he later bragged, “and it took them too long to wake up.”

For almost two hours Villa’s men ransacked the town’s hotel, its few stores, and adobe houses before the cavalry chased them back across the border. Left behind on Columbus’s dusty streets lay eight dead civilians and 10 American soldiers, and several others wounded. The Villistas took greater losses, between one and two hundred men, some killed during a cavalry skirmish 30 miles deep into Mexico.

Villa’s raid was an act of terrorism and the first of its kind conducted on U.S. soil. Unprovoked, his men gunned down innocent Americans and destroyed their property. Although the death toll pales in comparison with the 9/11 attacks or the recent Paris mass shootings, the American public was stunned and demanded immediate retribution, fearing Villa was on a rampage with plans to massacre other border towns. President Woodrow Wilson, a reluctant warrior, was in the midst of a reelection campaign that pledged to keep America out of the war in Europe. A war with Mexico was now a possibility and he had to act.

Villa never said why he orchestrated the attack, but his hatred for America was no secret. He was angered that the Wilson administration formally backed Villa’s chief political rival, Governor Venustiano Carranza. Seeking revenge three months before the Columbus raid, his Villistas murdered 18 Americans on board a Mexico train. Wilson ignored the episode and did nothing.

Yet, a day after Columbus was hit, Wilson needed to look strong and ordered his new secretary of war, Newton D. Baker, to send an armed force into Mexico. A week later, a punitive expedition of more than 14,000 troops under the command of Brigadier General John J. Pershing, including aide Lieutenant George S. Patton, headed to Mexico in pursuit of Villa.

Today, Pancho Villa is more associated with a slew of Mexican restaurants that bear his name than his true legacy as a cold-blooded killer. Villa was not a folk hero as some would like to believe, but a violent terrorist whose actions remind us of the atrocities committed by ISIS a century later.

—Mitchell Yockelson

Read entire article at The Daily Beast

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