Did you know that, on March 9th 1916, the United States was invaded? Revolutionary leader Pancho Villa and his men crossed the border into the New Mexican town of Columbus. They torched the village and killed 18 people. This incident marks the only time since the War of 1812 that the continental United States has been invaded.
Until that point, Columbus was a quiet village. It was home to approximately 300 people. Since the town was only 3.5 miles away from the Mexican border, the soldiers at nearby Camp Furlong protected the residents.
So, who was Pancho Villa?
Villa was born to a field laborer and was orphaned as a child. He spent his teen years as an outlaw, after killing a man who attacked his sister.
In 1910, he joined the movement to overthrow Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz. The 1913 Mexican Civil War allowed a general called Victoriano Huerta to wrest control of the country. President Woodrow Wilson hated Huerta’s bloody approach to ruling and supported men determined to overthrow him. This included Pancho Villa (statue below) and also Venustiano Carranza.
Many think the raid was about revenge.
Although Villa and Carranza were allies for a time, that ended in a hurry. Carranza remained in power but the U.S. felt he was little better than his predecessors. The U.S. government began backing opponents such as Pancho Villa. After Carranza made changes to his regime, the U.S. decided the improvements were enough to warrant official recognition. This left a furious Villa out in the cold, feeling betrayed.
Worse still, the U.S. allowed Carranza’s men to use our railroads to move reinforcements. This enabled Carranzista troops to soundly defeat Villa at Agua Prieta on November 1, 1915.
Others theorize that Columbus was selected as a target because Villa ordered and paid for arms from a Columbus mercantile store. The arms were never delivered.
Whatever the motivation, around 4:00 a.m. on March 9th, 1916, Villa led several hundred guerrilla fighters across the border, into the town of Columbus.
Although the "El Paso Times" reported that Villa and his soldiers were in the area, everyone assumed that his target was the Mexican town of Palomas.
The residents of Columbus and the troops at Camp Furlong were completely unprepared for the assault.
Villa's men set fire to the town and murdered both residents and U.S. soldiers.
Reports on the final death toll vary, but there were between 17-19 casualties. Villa's men sustained much heavier losses and fled.
This photo shows the clock at the Columbus train depot. You can clearly see the places where bullets cut through it.
The U.S. reacted to the Columbus raid by sending thousands of troops, under the leadership of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, on a punitive expedition into Mexico. This strained relations with Mexico. Pershing (pictured above) never caught Villa although, in 1920, the revolutionary leader officially retired from politics.
Despite withdrawing from public life, Pancho Villa was assassinated three years later by political enemies. Jesús Salas Barraza took responsibility for the murder, but he is widely believed to have been a patsy.
To learn more about the raid on Columbus and see where the U.S. was invaded, head to Pancho Villa State Park. This was constructed where Camp Furlong once stood. Some of the town’s buildings, like the Hoover Hotel and schoolhouse, also survived the attack. You can still view them, along with the train depot and customs house today.
Have you ever been to Columbus? Are there any other historic locations in New Mexico that intrigue you?