On 10 March 1916, American newspaper coverage of the war raging in Europe was interrupted by headlines screaming of an attack much closer to home: the day before, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa had led an attack on Columbus, New Mexico, and killed 18 Americans.
The United States had originally supported Villa in his uprising against the Mexican government during the Mexican Revolution, but by late 1915, it had moved its support behind Venustiano Carranza, one of Villa’s enemies. Outraged and in need of supplies and ammunition, Villa and his men (Villistas) crossed the border to attack a New Mexican town, burning buildings, seizing the needed ammunition, and leaving eight soldiers and ten civilians dead in their wake.
Within the week, President Woodrow Wilson ordered General John Pershing (of later World War I fame) to take about 5,000 troops to pursue Villa and his men into Mexico, with the goal of capturing Villa dead or alive and preventing any further attacks against Americans. This pursuit, which lasted almost a year, was known by an assortment of names, including the Pancho Villa Expedition, the Punitive Expedition, and the Mexican Expedition.
Pershing’s men fought a dozen or so skirmishes with the Villistas, winning a little more than half of them, before the expedition was recalled in January 1917. They never captured Villa, but the Americans did kill around 160 of his men, including two prominent generals. Publicly, Pershing declared the expedition a success but was said to have privately complained that President Wilson’s restrictions had limited his ability to accomplish the mission. Within six months of the expedition’s end, Pershing was named commanding general of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, while Pancho Villa continued leading the uprising against the Mexican government until his death by assassination six years later.
Read more about the Pancho Villa attack and expedition in Fold3’s collection of historical newspapers.