Thursday, March 31, 2011

Battles that Changed History; Columbus, 1916

This month - admittedly, the last DAY of this month, but better late than never, as a Libyan rebel would probably tell you - I begin a change to the "Decisive Battles" series.

I don't want to stop posting about those curiously destructive moments in human ingenuity (or perhaps they should be classed as creative episodes of destruction?); there will still be monthly posts on engagements that were in themselves critical to human conflicts, or in changing human societies, or the relations between and histories of those societies.

But there were also times when humans in arms against each other managed to create a sort of butterfly effect even though the outcome of the day of battle was not in itself decisive. Those battles, although themselves minor or perhaps even trivial in nature, had an impact on human lives well out of proportion to their scope.

When I started the "decisive battles" posts I commented that part of the reason I wanted to talk about the bloody history of human violence was because many of those of my fellow travelers on the Left liked to sport the slogan "Violence Never Solved Anything", as though the Carthaginians or Britons had simply made a wrong turn and disappeared down history's dead-end street, and seemed to believe that if we in the U.S. simply concluded our aggressive warmaking that the rest of the world would smile and pass on by peaceably.

I'm afraid that I didn't and don't believe that. We're a number of things, we homo sapiens, although sapient might not be the most consistent. But one thing we are not is peaceable. No member of the anthropoid family is as irascible, hasty to violence, and slow to reconcile as we are, and throughout our recorded history we never seem to lack the excuse to find some sharp or heavy object with which to do our opposable-thumbed best to kill each other.

So here is the first in the expansion of the "decisive battles" series, a battle that, while as a battle has to fall somewhere between "desultory" and "risible" was the catalyst of one of 20th Century North America's lingering and troublesome issues.

Columbus Date: 9 MAR 1916Forces Engaged: United States: Seven troops (cavalry equivalent of an infantry company); HHT (Headquarters and Headquarters Troop), F, G, H, K, M, the Machinegun Troop, and a Quartermaster detachment of the 13th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, U.S. Army.
NOTE: A U.S. cavalry regiment of 1916 (led by a full colonel [what the modern U.S. army calls pay grade O-6]) was notionally organized into three battalions (each led by a lieutenant colonel [grade O-5]). Each battalion contained four troops, each led by a captain, [Grade O-3]. The authorized strength of a full regiment was roughly 1,500 troopers, a troop about 100, but prior to WW1 the U.S. Army was almost never fully manned. Most of the 13th Cavalry troops at Columbus probably averaged about 40 to 60 soldiers, the Headquarters troop probably somewhat larger since it included the regimental commander and his entire staff.
There seems to be some confusion over exactly how many elements of the 13th Cavalry were engaged at Columbus. Most of the sources claim that about 300 U.S. soldiers fought that night; this would roughly fit the number of cavalry troops posted at Camp Furlong, the Army post close to Columbus. However, several sources state that "three troops" were engaged, including the Wiki entry, which puts the number of U.S. soldiers engaged at 330.Casualty returns include soldiers from the regimental band (HHT), Troops F, G, K, L, M, and the MG Troop, so I have tentatively assigned those units to the fight. Assuming that the HHT was probably close to full strength and the others at roughly half (50 out of an authorized 100) it would put the U.S. Army strength at about 400 troopers.

The little town of Columbus was very much a frontier town in 1916. For all that the official end to the Indian Wars had been declared in 1890, the restless activity in Mexico to the south meant that almost everyone in the town - and the 1910 census records a total of 268 souls living in the town, about a tenth of the entire population of Luna County and the second largest town in the county - was, if not armed, capable of figuring out which end of the rifle or pistol the bullet came out.

Assuming that the population of Columbus was similar to that of Luna County as a whole about a little less than half of the people living there were women, and excluding adolescent children and senescent elders the male population of Columbus capable of fighting probably numbered somewhere about 80 to 100 or so.

So; roughly 400 soldiers under COL Slocum, and about 60 to 100 armed civilians, for a total of about 500 American citizens of one form or another.Ejército Conventionalista de México, División del Norte: Despite the name, the "Northern Division" was not anything like the maneuver element of the name today. The "División del Norte" was, at its height, an entire army complete with horse, foot, and artillery troops.

Today we tend to think of Pancho Villa as a "Mexican bandit" and his troops as "Villistas", cartoon banditos complete with the gold tooth, bandoleros, and the floppy sombrero.

But Villa was actually one of the most competent irregular troop commanders of history, and his "Northern Division" was certainly the largest, and probably the most effective, revolutionary army in North America after the Continental Line.

We'll get to the sad tale of the Fall of the División del Norte in a bit, but suffice to say that by the spring of 1916 the once-mighty military power of the State of Chihuahua had come down pretty far in the world.

Estimates of the Villista forces that crossed into the United States in the early morning hours of 9 MAR aren't exact; probably Villa himself wasn't sure exactly how many troops he brought with him that day. But the best modern guess seems to be that about 480 to 500 horsemen took part in the Columbus Raid.

So; approximately 500 rifle-armed mounted infantry/cavalry under GEN José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, better known as Francisco "Pancho" Villa.The Sources: One the U.S. side we have all the usual contemporary written records of a literate, industrial society; military reports, logistical records, newspaper stories. The accuracy isn't always impeccable, but there's lots of material.

Finding an English-language source for the Columbus Raid is also not difficult. Several works have been written about the engagement itself, probably the most seminal being the 1965 monograph "Pancho Villa at Columbus" written by Haldeen Braddy. This work is out of print but can be found summarized in several places, including this interesting document, a 1974 National Park Service form nominating Columbus and Camp Furlong for the "National Register of Historic Places".A 1998 biography of Villa, "The Life and Times of Pancho Villa" by Freidrich Katz contains some worthwhile discussion of the Raid and the circumstances behind it.

Spanish-language sources are difficult to track down without a better knowledge of the language than I possess, but a serious military historian needs to consider both sides of the hill. Among the most probable sources of useful information would seem to be Francisco Alamada's 1964 "Historia de la revolucion en el estado de Chihuahua", and Ulloa's 1968 "La revolucion intervenida: Relaciones diplomaticas entre Mexico y Estados Unidos". Alberto Carranza's "La expedicion punitiva" from 1957 is primarily concerned with the subsequent Pershing Expedition but probably offers some insight into the origins of the American irruption. Mexican newspaper stories of the time, if findable, are often little better than speculation; what news organizations there were in Mexico at the time were typically located in the capital and had few sources along the frontera, and fewer of those were reliable or timely.

It is worth noting that both sides in this conflict had difficulties with the facts. The Mexican sources are often missing altogether, or oral histories taken from the largely-illiterate soldiers of the Northern Division. The United States was not that much better off in 1916; the 1910 census notes that almost one-quarter of the citizens of New Mexico were themselves illiterate. Even among the better-educated Americans sensation and drama tended to interfere with the truth. As you can see below, on the official report of the 9 MAR action - signed by the commander of the 13th Cavalry - the estimated number of attackers overstates the actual number by between 200 and 400 percent.The Campaign: To understand the Columbus Raid, you have to understand a little bit about the history of Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th Century.

First of all, Mexico has been a dictatorship for nearly forty years; from 1877 to 1911 a former Juarista general, Porfirio Diaz, had been the caudillo in Mexico City. His rule brought "stability", for the wealthy, and for the foreign investors looking for a piece of Mexico's mineral and petroleum production. But the average Mexican remained very poor and without much hope of changing that fact.In 1911 a genteel politician named Francisco Madero led a revolution that overthrew Diaz, but he was too conciliatory for Mexican politics; he tried to drag the Diaz supporters ("Porfiristas") back into government but underestimated their vindictiveness, his moderation angered Zapata and the real rebels, and his taxation of foreign oil companies, among other things, irritated the U.S. Madero lasted all of two years.In 1913 he was overthrown and murdered by a vicious bastard of an officer whose name - Victoriano Huerta - is still cursed in Mexico as "The Jackal". His regime was officially unrecognized by the U.S., which permitted gunrunning to his enemies which included Emanilio Zapata in the south, and Villa, and Venustiano Carranza, a norteño politician from the state of Coahuila, in the north. Huerta was never secure in his position and the unrest that had started in 1911 never really stopped; soon he was fighting all three of his rivals for control of the country.

Meanwhile, things between Mexico and the U.S., never particularly chummy, began to go pear-shaped again. One of history's truly bizarre moments, the "Tampico Incident" started farcically in April, 1914 with a gringo motor launch on a fuel run, American sailors, Mexican soldiers, and the eventual Mexican refusal to raise the United States flag on its soil and provide it some 21-gun salute love...but the ending was anything but comical - the Yanquis invaded and occupyed the Mexican port of Veracruz for six months.

The confused mess that was the 1913 Revolution eventually tossed Carranza on the throne in July of 1914. Villa had been a pain in Carranza's ass during the anti-Huerta war (Villa had confiscated the property of Spanish expats living in Chihuahua - he'd done the same thing to Chinese but nobody in the Districto Federal cared about some cattle rustled from some damn Chinks - and had either murdered or killed an Englishman named Benton, and his forces had executed this man:a German-American named Gustav Bauch who had been arrested in Juarez, in February 1914. He had also arrested the Governor of Chihuahua, and Carranza had to personally travel to Chihuahua to order Villa to release his guy) and now he refused to accept the man as the President.

Go figure.

The Villista rebellion was a genuine threat to the Carranza regime, which hastened to try and make peace with the Colossus of the North. President Wilson's State Department recognized the Carranza government in October, 1915, taking away some oil leases and mining concessions as a reward. Villa, meanwhile, had shattered his old-school mounted force against Carranza's commander Obregón at the Battle of Celaya in April, where the Carranzista troops were dug in behind wire and supported with machineguns and modern artillery. In other words, a 1915 defense. Villa mounted his boys up, told them (when they complained that the Class V resupply was late) that their courage would be their ammunition, and pointed in the general direction of Celaya.

It was a slaughter.Pancho lost something like 10,000 men, about half killed and half captured. The Northern Division was broken, destroyed; Villa never managed to assemble more than 10,000 men all arms. What was worse for him, his logistics, never his strong point, were failing, and he turned to grabbing up property and loose coin in Chihuahua, some of which belonged to foreigners, including Americans. This, combined with Americans worries about German skulduggery in Mexico, the recent solicitation of the Carranza government for U.S. profits, and the success of Celaya, pushed the U.S.-Carranza pact of October.

That same month the División del Norte moved to attack against what Villa thought was an isolated Carranzista garrison in the town of Agua Prieta in Sonora, across from Douglas, Arizona. According to one of Villa's confidantes the hard-riding general thought the garrison amounted to about 1,200. But U.S. President Wilson had allowed 3,500 Carranzista reinforcements to transit New Mexico and Arizona, bringing the force to over 6,000.

The garrison commander, GEN Plutarco Calles, had learned from Celaya and constructed real WW1-style trenches around the town, complete with mines, wire and interlocking machinegun fields of fire.Villa arrived on 30 OCT 1915 and rested his troops for a day. He believed that a night mounted attack would carry the town; his staff officers thought the entire attack would take less than five hours.

On All Souls Day, preceded only by a brief artillery prep and some demonstrations to hide the direction of his main attack, the main attack went in after midnight on the east and south defenses of Agua Prieta.

Two large searchlights flickered on as the Villista cavalry was charging and the horsemen were butchered by machinegun fire and land mines. The wretched survivors died on the electrified barbed wire. The result was another Celaya; a bloody wreck.Villa wanted another attack on 3 NOV, but by this time his vatos, running out of food and ammo, sick of slaughter, had had enough. The Division del Norte withdrew back to Naco, Sonora, losing more than 1,500 to desertion.

Villa was convinced that the deadly searchlights had been located north of the Border. Although he had sent his troopers across the border to raid for supplies now and then, Villa had generally considered the Americans at least friendly neutrals. Now he was pissed, and wanted as much revenge as he could get.But every week, every day, his military power to take that revenge got weaker. On a raid on Hermosillo, Sonora later in November he tried to get his boys fired up by promising them big fun once they'd taken the town. But that cunning plan backfired; the troopers did break into the town and immediately set to work stealing everything light enough to carry and raping the women to a fare-thee-well. This allowed the Carranzista garrison (and, probably, every Hermosillian with a machete whose wife, sister, mom, or daughter was out in the plaza being fate-worse-than-death-ed) to regroup and give the Villistas a kicking. The raiders were run out of town, losing the supplies they had looted and about fifty lives.By March of 1916 Villa and his troops were pretty desperate. They had taken to train robbing; in January some of the boys hit the Compañía del Ferrocarril Nor-Oeste de México in an attempt to bag silver from the mines in Chihuahua. Whatever else they got, they hacked and shot up a bunch of gringos working for a mining company. Villa denied ordering the massacre, but his credit was running damn thin up north of the border.

So on the evening of 8 MAR 1916 as the tired riders pulled up to a halt along the border three miles south of Columbus, it's difficult to say exactly what was in Villa's mind.Part of the mission was undoubtedly logistical. The gringos, soldier and civilian, sleeping in the town to the north had everything what was left of the Northern Division didn't; food, weapons and ammunition (including machineguns at the Army post), money to buy more of the same. They were also just that; gringos, the same damn gringos who had helped trick-fuck them at Agua Prieta. The story has somehow emerged that Villa chose Columbus because of a personal vendetta against one Sam Ravel, who is supposed to have taken Villista money for weapons and never delivered. Why this is believed I am unsure; there doesn't seem to be a contemporary source for the story. Supplies, and revenge - certainly those were enough for Villa to send his scouts north into the falling night.

The Engagement: In "Villa Raids Columbus" Bill Rakocy writes;
"Jack Thomas, deputy sheriff, and other officials sensed something in the air. They had noticed strange Mexicans in town. Many "friendly Mexicans" became silent and some left town. Juan Favela, a local ranch foreman, complained that “the air was bad.”
The town of Columbus is located in a shallow basin in part of the high plateau known as the Chihuahuan Desert. The place had only sprung up in the last decade or so, a watering stop for the El Paso & Southwest Railroad and a border crossing point. Deming, 35 miles north, was the Big Town.
“The straggling town consisted of a cluster of adobe houses, some frame buildings, a railroad station, two hotels, a few other business establishments, and an army camp.” (Braddy)
The "commercial district" was to the north of the railroad station, which included a drug, grocery, and a hardware store, a bank, the post office, a movie theater, what we would call today a "funeral home" and was then the undertaker, and two hotels, the adobe Hoover and the wood-frame Commercial Hotel. A small eminence named Cootes Hill rose from the desert about a half-mile or so to the west of town.The little town was, like the rest of the United States, lumbering into the modern age. In the drugstore you could buy not only cigars, candy, and stationery but the new Kodak cameras. The grocery store offered you two dozen Florida oranges for 15 cents and a pound of California rice for a nickel. Model T Fords, military Ford trucks mixed with riding horses, carriages and wagons on the dirt streets."Camp Furlong" was a satellite post of Fort Bliss, Texas. The officers of the 13th Cavalry were quartered north of the depot, in the center of town, and the troop barracks were to the south, with the horse lines in stables just east of the barracks. Regimental HQ was located between the depot and the barrack block.The evening of Wednesday, 8 MAR 1916 was the end of just another normal day. The druggist, the grocer, and the undertaker locked up, went home for dinner. People fed their chickens, pigs, and horses. COL Slocum and several other officers had driven up to Deming for a polo match the next day. The duty officer posted his night guards. The chill of the early Spring evening settled in over Columbus.

Villa is supposed to have remained on the Mexican side of the border early in the evening, dispatching an unknown but probably small number of recon troopers to scout the town and the military camp. It is difficult at this remove to say anything more than whoever these oxygen-thieves were and whatever else they did, they helped hose their commander as thoroughly as any soldiers in history. Reportedly they informed Villa that less than a company of U.S. troops was posted in Columbus, one tenth of the actual number of U.S. soldiers stationed there. As scouts, these Villistas were about as failed as a trooper could be.

The actual plan of attack is unclear. Braddy says that the Mexican force crossed the border fence at about one o’clock in the morning about two and a half miles west of the main crossing between Columbus and the Mexican border town of Palomas and rode slowly and quietly to a position about a mile south of town.At this, what in the modern U.S. Army we would call an "objective rally point" or ORP, Villa gave his operations order. We can't be sure how the force was divided. Braddy says that some of the troops dismounted as infantry, while others remained in the saddle. He also says that the force "divided into two columns", which does sound like the sort of envelop-and-destroy tactic that an irregular horseman would prefer. But he also states that "Villa would wait with reserves near Cootes Hill", which sounds unlikely, given Villa's lack of reserves at both Celaya and Agua Prieta. It may be that Villa chose Cootes Hill as a combined command and observation post but it is unlikely that he kept any but his bodyguards nearby. What is very likely, however, is that some time after 4am in the pre-dawn darkness he said something like “Vaya los consiguen, muchachos!” and his troopers went out to meet the Americans.

All the sources seem to agree that the first shots were fired by Private Fred Griffin of K Troop who was at his guard post at the Regimental HQ. He is said to have issued a challenge - probably something similar to the "Halt! Who's there?" that U.S. Army soldiers are still taught to challenge approaching strangers - and was hit by fire in the gut, chest, and arm. He is reported to have killed three of his attackers before dying of his wounds.

The night raiders did what raiders are supposed to do - sew confusion. They fired as anything moving, shouted, and almost immediately started fires, including at the large Commercial Hotel. The initial resistance was chaotic, as some people immediately fought back, others tried to get to safety, while others, probably, were too dazed to do either.As always, the civilians got it the worst.

Pregnant Mary James was killed trying to run to the fire-resistant Hoover Hotel. Her husband Milton made it, but Mary and the baby died in the street.

Mrs. Parks the switchboard operator got a call out that the town was attacked, cut up on her hands and face by bullet-shattered window glass. The Frosts had a Model T and tried to escape north to Deming with their little three-month-old; he was wounded, and she pushed him out from behind the wheel and sped out of town to safety. Mrs. Lieutenant Smyser and her two kids tumbled out a window as the Mexican troops hammered on the front door. They hid in an outhouse and then ran out into the open desert to hide until morning. Mrs. Riggs was frantic to keep her baby quiet. She held a pillowcase over his face as the Villistas searched the porch and yard; the little boy was nearly suffocated before the raiders moved on and she could let him cry again.Three men and a woman were dragged out of their rooms in the Commercial Hotel. The men were robbed of what they had and then shot to death The woman shouted “Viva Mexico!” and was turned loose. Newly married John Walton Walker was killed on the hotel stairs while Steve Birchfield wrote out personal checks to his each of the Mexican soldiers who captured him and bought his survival.

Arthur Ravel, son of the supposed Villa target Sam, was captured and dragged off to the Commercial but escaped when two of the Mexican troops were shot down. The fourteen-year-old ran three miles in his underwear into the desert.

The 13th Cavalry started from complete surprise and disorganization. The Staff Duty Officer, Lieutenant James P. Castleman was in his quarters when the attack started and was nearly killed running to the formation area near the barracks. Once there, he took command of his Troop F, which had been formed and issued rifles by his First Sergeant. The weapons had been locked in the regimental arms room in the guardhouse, and the quartermaster sergeant had not been located, so the first troopers to reach the guardhouse hammered the locks off the rifle racks.More cavalrymen fought back, probably not so much as formed troops but in groups of two, five, and squads or half-platoons. The consolidating U.S. forces soon pushed the Villista force attacking from the southeast back and secured the Regimental Headquarters. LT Castleman's troops pushed northwest into the center of town, clearing raiders out from the homes and stores until they controlled the central streets

Meanwhile the MG Troop, under LT John Lucas - who had reported for duty barefoot because he had dropped his boots somewhere under the bed and couldn't find them - pushed their guns out to the west. The U.S. Army's standard machinegun in 1916 was a finicky atrocity called the Benet-Mercier that fired a fixed strip of 30 rounds and was referred to as the "daylight gun" because of its frequent jams, misfires, and broken firing pins and extractors.The MG troop pushed into the center of town where the Villistas found that their arson now worked against them. The burning buildings made perfect backlighting for the U.S. troopers, who set up interlocking fires and cut down the randomly-attacking Mexican soldiers. As whenever a fixed facility is attacked, even the support troops found themselves fighting. Braddy reports that "The post kitchen detail, already preparing the morning breakfast, counterattacked with boiling water, an ax and shotguns. The stable detail counterattacked with whatever weapons came to hand, with one trooper using a baseball bat to kill a raider." At about 5:30am COL Slocum and his polo party turned up and took command. At this point the "raid" had stalled, the Americans were forming up and counterattacking more aggressively, and it was clear to Villa that many more cavalrymen were in and around Columbus than he had been told. It was time to go.The Mexican signallers used bugle calls to order a retreat. The Mexican withdrawl was not systematic, and 13th Cavalry pursuit chased them back five miles across the border, continuing to kill Mexican soldiers until the men exhausted their ammunition, food and water.

The casualties for the two sides were painfully lopsided. The official 13th Cavalry report lists seven men killed; two sergeants, two corporals, a farrier, and two privates. Seven soldiers are reported wounded, three seriously including a corporal hit in the neck, and two privates shot through both thighs, one with a head wound as well. It is very possible that one of these men died later, resulting in the 8 U.S. soldiers usually reported killed in action. About 10 American civilians were killed, 2 wounded, which argues that most of the dead were shot while held at close range - murdered while prisoners or shot down at close enough range to be distinct as women or unarmed men.The dawn on 9 MAR must have been a painful one for everyone left alive in Columbus.But the División del Norte payed a much higher price. Something between 65 and 75 Mexican troopers were dead in and around Columbus and in the desert beyond. As many as 100 or more had ridden away with wounds of some sort. Five were captured; all were hanged the following day.

The troopers of the 13th Cavalry were somewhat surprised to find that instead of hard-bitten throat-slitters the bodies they inspected and the prisoners they took were largely farm boys; 14- and 15-year-olds taken off the haciendas in northern Mexico to fight for a cause they may not even have understood and die in the cold desert of a strange country.

The Outcome: Minor tactical U.S. victory, but with significant geopolitical consequences.

The Impact: Well, the immediate impact was an outburst of rage inside the United States. On 15 MAR GEN John "Black Jack" Pershing led six cavalry (including the 13th) and four infantry regiments over the border into Mexico with the President's order to capture or kill Villa and the raiders of Columbus.After a period of initial chagrin the Carranza government warned that the U.S. troops would be considered invaders, and in June a skirmish between two troops of the 10th U.S. Cavalry - attacking the town of Carrizal on the report that Villa was wounded and helpless there - and a Mexican infantry company garrisoning the town resulted in the loss of 39 of the 100 cavalrymen (16 killed, 23 POW) and the effective destruction of the units. The action was an Agua Prieta in cameo, but this engagement found the Yanqui cavalry charging dug-in Mexican infantry and paying the price for their boldness. The Mexican troops lost nearly a third of their own numbers dead or wounded.The only benefit from this pointless butchery was the way it brought both sides to their senses. While Wilson had originally requested - and received - permission from Carranza's government to enter Mexico and track down Villa, the expected fighting soon broke out between two countries with little love for each other and two armies with very different attitudes.The Mexican Army had a long memory for the humiliations they had been handed by the gringos, from Chapultepec to Veracruz. The Americans had nothing but contempt for their hosts, seeing not soldiers but just more beaners in uniforms.What made matters worse is that in May the commander of the Mexican forces in Chihuahua had ordered Pershing not to move from his present positions unless it was to return back across the border. Pershing had replied that he would move where and when he fucking well pleased, and now the U.S. and Mexican troops had fought to the death. The U.S. government had been worried enough to mobilize the entire border states' National Guard, and with more than 100,000 troops position on the frontier the chances for general war looked frighteningly high.This neither Carranza nor Wilson wanted. The Mexican Army hastily released the captured cavalrymen (whom, it was noted in the Mexican press, were all negro "buffalo soldiers", which has led to the tale common in Mexico even today that the Yanquis sent only their despised soldados mallates into Mexico whilst the whites lounged about back at the border.

On order of the War Department Pershing and his troops spent the next seven months bivouacked in Colonia Dublan, about 85 miles south of Columbus. In early February, 1917, the Expeditionary Force recrossed the border and the Punitive Expedition was over. It had killed 135 Mexicans of various flavors, mostly but not entirely Villa's troops, wounded 85, and captured 19.Villa himself, however, had more lives than a cat. He reemerged from the hills of Chihuahua in July, 1916, and (prudently avoiding the Americans) began attacking Carranzista garrisons. In November he took Chihuahua City and offered the 2,000 soldiers there two choices; death, or glory with the División del Norte. Unsurprisingly they chose the latter. Villa, who when Pershing's force had entered the State of Chihuahua in March 1916 had numbered something less than 400 badly demoralized troopers, saw January, 1917 as the commander of an army of 5,000.

Both sides claimed victory.

Villa continued his rebellion until mid-1919, when yet another botched headlong attack, this time on Ciudad Juarez, and another U.S. punitive force, this one led by BG Erwin, the post commander of nearby Ft. Bliss, smashed his remaining forces and knocked the old caudillo out of the war business. He "retired" in 1920 and was gunned down, probably by gunsels hired by his old enemy Obregón (who was by that time the President of Mexico) in July, 1923.Hit by nine rounds, Villa died instantly at the wheel of his Dodge. He passed into history as the ultimate Mexican bandit and inspiration for dozens of feckless and stupid young Mexicans.Columbus experienced a brief boom as a service town during the Punitive Expedition.U.S. domestic military supply lines terminated there, and the 1st Aero Squadron - the entire eight biplanes that were the USAF of 1916 - was stationed at Camp Furlong.

The 20,000 troops made Columbus was the largest urban area in New Mexico for almost two years. But after 1917 the effect of isolation, poverty, and in particular the Depression, reduced the town to several hundred.For a period in the Fifties Columbus was described in guidebooks as "abandoned" after the rail service ended and the town deteriorated badly.You can see from these pictures, taken in the 1970s as support for declaring the town and the remains of Camp Furlong a "National Historic Place", just how badly the little town had fallen apart.The town has population, over 1,700 on the 2000 census, is now largely Hispanic (83% of the people living in Columbus is listed as "Hispanic or Latino of any race"), young (almost 2 out of five below the age of 18), and poor. The per capita income for the village was $6,721, and about 57% of families were living below the U.S. federal poverty line.

What I find particularly interesting is that, long after being chased across the border well whipped, the old caudillo of Chihuahua seems to have won in the end.

The now-mostly-Mexican-American town of Columbus celebrates something called the Cabalgata Binacional Villista every 9th of March. This involves about 100 Mexican riders led by a Pancho look-a-like who follow Villa's invasion route across the border and parade into Columbus.The Mexicans are met at the border by a group of American riders and they trot to the Columbus plaza for a festival that includes trick riding and Mariachi music.

Thousands of people are said to come from around the region. "This was our big historical moment. What better opportunity for a party?" asks one of the organizers, Linda Juarez.

Some of the older Columbus residents aren't as excited about all this Villaosity.

One man who says his great-grandfather was killed on 9 MAR, compares the party to feasting with bin Laden on September 11;
"I thought, "That's what happened here!" says Richard Dean, president of the Columbus Historical Society. Except for the scale of destruction, he says, the parallels "are mind-boggling": a sneak attack by a foreign insurgent who sought revenge for perceived injustices, and then vanished into forbidding terrain.
Dean is frustrated that he can't get the State of Arizona to change the name of the park in Columbus. "Why name a park after a man who sacked the town and killed people?".

But the loud mariachis of the Cabalgata continue to drown out the attempts of the former town worthies, men like Dean, to turn thoughts to the Anglo dead and retake what was once fiercely theirs.These sons and grandsons of old Columbus find their ancestors' tombs untended and, behind their fortresslike wall, fear and hate a new generation of raiders.

It seems time, poverty, and lack of care will succeed where the guns of the División del Norte failed.Touchline Tattles: While the story of the original raid is just another page in the dreary, bloody story of the Mexican-American border and the Revolution of 1910, the story that has emerged from the little desert town 95 years later is almost good enough to be fiction.

Is seems that early this March the mayor of Columbus, its police chief, and a town councilman were among 11 Columbus residents indicted for purchasing and selling as many as 200 automatic and semiauto weapons. These included AKM machinepistols and (I'm guessing) 9mm Beretta service pistols, modern military arms for the wannabe Villista...because these munitions were being sold to the Mexican narcotraficantes; the soldiers of the drug cartels.

So after almost 100 years the guns go south again, to those who see themselves as modern rebels and latter-day Pancho Villas, whose bullets once again shake loose La Frontera, the unquiet border between the worlds.And behind the dusty veil of years, the ghosts of the tired troopers still sing as they march;

"We left the border for Parral
In search of Villa and Lopez, his old pal.
Our horses, they were hungry,
And we ate parched corn.
It was damn hard living
In the state of Chihuahua
Where Pancho Villa was born."

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