U.S. Mobilizes Troops, Vows to Pacify Border

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 240th installment in the series.

June 18-21, 1916: U.S. Mobilizes Troops, Vows to Pacify Border

Following the murder of dozen of Americans by Pancho Villa’s troops at Santa Ysabel, Mexico in January 1916 and Columbus, New Mexico in March, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched a Punitive Expeditionary Force of around 6,000 U.S. Army troops under General John “Black Jack” Pershing into northern Mexico to hunt down the bandit. The Mexican government, unable to stop Villa itself, reluctantly allowed this violation of its sovereignty with a limited agreement temporarily giving both sides the right of “hot pursuit” across the Mexican border.

By April 8, 1916, elements of the Punitive Expedition had advanced about 300 miles into northern Mexico in pursuit of Villa, killing or capturing a good number of his troops at San Geronimo and Aguascalientes, but never apprehending the elusive bandit leader himself. Meanwhile the Mexican government was having second thoughts, especially following a bloody clash between U.S. cavalry and loyal Mexican forces, perhaps resulting from mistaken identity, at Parral on April 12 (over 500 miles from the U.S. border, Parral marked the furthest advance of the U.S. troops during the Punitive Expedition). 

On April 16, Mexican President Venustiano Carranza, alarmed by the widening scope of the Punitive Expedition, reversed course and demanded that U.S. troops withdraw from the country. The U.S. agreed to withdraw its troops once Villa was captured, but Carranza rejected this idea on May 5, demanding a fixed date for their withdrawal. That same day Villa’s irregulars raided the towns of Glenn Springs and Boquillas, Texas, and on May 9 Villa himself led a raid by around 1,000 rebels on Douglas, Arizona, further inflaming American public opinion. Wilson responded by mobilizing more U.S. Army troops as well as National Guardsmen in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to guard the border.

The tension between the U.S. and Mexican governments was clearly escalating, but there appeared to be no solution as long as Villa remained at liberty. On May 22, 1916 Carranza repeated his demand that American troops withdraw from northern Mexico, but once again got the brush-off. Then on June 15, 1916, Mexican irregulars (apparently unaffiliated with Villa) ratcheted the tension up a notch with an attack against a border patrol at San Ygnacio, Texas; the following day the Mexican government warned that any further advances by U.S. troops would be resisted by force.

With war looming, on June 18, 1916, Wilson mobilized around 135,000 U.S. Army and National Guard troops from across the U.S. to the Mexican border, to guard the frontier and reinforce Pershing’s hunt for Villa. Two days later, the U.S. stated that the troops in northern Mexico wouldn’t be withdrawn until the border region was pacified, in a clear rebuff to Carranza.

It wasn’t long before U.S. and Mexican forces clashed again: on June 21, 1916, U.S. cavalry searching for Villa at Carrizal, Mexico instead found themselves confronting a larger force of Mexican government cavalry, which forced them into a hasty retreat amid relatively heavy losses on both sides. Additionally dozens of Americans were taken prison (including a number of African-American “Buffalo Soldiers,” below). 

Following Carrizal war seemed very likely, but fortunately reason prevailed, as both national governments realized they had enough on their plates (in Carranza’s case the rebellion, in Wilson’s case diplomatic disputes with the Allies over their naval blockade on one side, and with the Central Powers over mounting evidence of their involvement in sabotage and labor unrest in the U.S. on the other. Wilson also had to prepare for his own reelection campaign). 

On June 28 Carranza ordered the prisoners from Carrizal released as a show of goodwill, and on June 30, 1916 Wilson struck a decidedly moderate tone during a speech to the New York Press Club: 

The easiest thing is to strike. The brutal thing is the impulsive thing. No man has to think before he takes aggressive action… Do you think the glory of America would be enhanced by a war of conquest in Mexico? Do you think that any act of violence by a powerful nation like this against a weak and distracted neighbor would reflect distinction upon the annals of the United States? 

On July 4 Carranza offered another olive branch by calling for direct negotiations with no conditions, and a week later Mexican diplomats proposed creation of a commission that would formulate rules to govern cross-border raids. The prospect of war with Mexico was receding – at least for the time being. 

However the Punitive Expedition continued, now augmented by over a hundred thousand troops guarding the U.S. border with Mexico. Young men from all over the United States, many of whom had never been more than a few hundred miles from home, now found themselves stationed in remote, dusty towns strung out along the southern borders of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It was a learning experience to say the least.

Their revelations and travails began with the journey to the Southwest aboard trains chartered by the U.S. Army. They soon met their most consistent adversary – boredom – although the trip was livened by the enthusiastic greeting they received in some small towns (probably as much for their novelty as any sense of patriotism among the townsfolk). One soldier, U.S. Army private Kenneth Gow, wrote home about the trip from New York State across Pennsylvania and Ohio: 

The horses and mules are on the first train, combat wagons and trucks on the second and the men on two twenty-six car trains. We have dragged all the way across Ohio, and it is very wearisome. The men have sung, talked, and slept themselves out already, and we are not one-quarter of the way there... I almost forgot to speak of the reception we received at Harrisburg. Half the city population seemed to be there. Any man could have all the cigarettes, cigars or tobacco he wanted. Baskets of fruit and sandwiches were presented to any man who would take the trouble to carry them on the train. Who paid for it all I do not know. 

These fulsome greetings were the rule, not the exception, according to another letter in which Gow noted (sounding almost like an explorer in a foreign country): “We have been given a great reception all along the route. When we pull into a depot, the whole confounded town makes a rush for the train. Everything is different – the people, their dress and their talk. A great many things are cheaper than in New York, but not as good. Silver dollars are more plentiful than bills.”

The border region itself presented an environment that tested even individuals used to physically challenging farm labor or the tedium of factory work. Writing home from McAllen, Texas, on July 3, Gow painted an unpleasant and alarming picture for his family members:

This afternoon we experienced our first sand and wind storm. It was certainly fierce, and was followed by a violent thunderstorm, which is not over yet as I write, and that is why I have time to write this letter. Sand is in everything. When you close your teeth the sand grits between them. I do not exaggerate; it is a fact. At night and during thunderstorms we have visitors in our tents, – namely, rattlesnakes, chameleons, and one hundred and one varieties of lizards, tarantulas, and scorpions. A rattlesnake he would pay a visit to the band tent yesterday, and got killed for his pains… Oh! this sure is a delightful country. Why anyone will live here passes my comprehension. 

The presence of tens of thousands of relatively well-paid Army and National Guard troops was a boon to McAllen and other small towns languishing in the chaparral, according to Gow, who noted:

McAllen is about seven years old, and has lain in a semi-dormant condition until the arrival of the troops, when it awoke and is growing like magic. Restaurants, lunch-rooms, bottling works, photograph studios, ice-cream parlors, fruit stands, shooting-galleries, etc., have sprung up overnight like mushrooms. Someone told me an undertaker has moved in with a supply of one hundred coffins. Rotten, squalid rooms in rickety one-story frame builds have been fumigated and leased as sleeping-rooms for reporters, camera men and their ilk. 

Of course, as in any boomtown there were plenty of shady characters looking to make a quick buck, and some of these “businesses” were hardly salubrious:

The men who have been bothered the most are the ones who have been drinking pop and the rest of the slop that is sold just outside the picket lines and in town. A place set up near our camp laid forty-two men flat on their backs in one day. The physician, upon investigation, found it was bad milk that did it. They made short work of the fellow who ran that joint. 

For all this, Gow found that there were still moments of unexpected beauty, echoing the sentiments of sensitive individuals across a war-torn world: 

We had religious services, conducted by the chaplain, last night. The whole regiment assembled on the parade-grounds in hollow square… The sun was just setting. I mentioned the beauty of the sunsets before. Our colors were in the centre of the square, with the field music. The chaplain read the Episcopal service. The whole regiment stood ad parade rest, every man carefully uniformed and perfectly aligned. The camp was in the background, and on the horizon the sun setting in ablaze of glory, everything about our equipment, tents, combat wagons, etc., dyed in the same glow. It was one of the most impressive scenes I have ever witnessed. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.