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Pancho Villa and the Punitive Expedition into Mexico, 1916-1917

smallitsALongLongWayFormer rebel leader José Venustiano Carranza Garzabecame head of state of Mexico from 1915 to 1917. With the adoption of the Mexican Constitution of 1917, he was elected president, serving from 1917 to 1920. His ascendency was bitterly opposed by Pancho Villa, a fellow rebel leader in the Mexican Revolution.

President Woodrow Wilson believed that supporting Carranza was the best way to establish a stable government in Mexico. Despite previous support, the United States cut off armaments and supplies to Villa and allowed troops loyal to Carranza to be moved over U.S. railroads near the border.

In January, 1916, Villa’s troops attacked a train on the Mexico North Western Railway, killing a number of employees of the American Smelting and Refining Company. Including passengers, eighteen American lives were lost. On March 9, 1916, 100 troops made a raid against Columbus, New Mexico. Several buildings were burned and a further eighteen civilians were killed.

In response to Villa's raid on Columbus, New Mexico, President Woodrow Wilson sent 5,000 men of the U.S. Army under the overall command of General Frederick Funston and the direct command of John Pershing. The Punitive Expedition, as it became known, pursued Villa and his troops through northern Mexico. The Expedition, unable to locate Villa, eventually withdrew on February 7, 1917.


The Punitive Expedition was the first U.S. Army action to employee aircraft, Curtiss JN3s based at Casa Grandes, Mexico, as well as trucks for resupply and transportation. The conditions in the area were primitive at best; here, trucks attempt to navigate a rutted path, south of Columbus, New Mexico. 1916.


The newly created 1st Aero Squadron arrived at Fort Sam Houston after a cross-country flight from Fort Sill, Oklahoma. However, the squadron remained at the post only until March 1916, when the squadron left to join the Punitive Expedition.

Source Army Military History Institute / Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army.


Source: Army Military History Institute / Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army. American soldiers marching in Mexico, south of Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916.

Conditions in the rural Southwest and the Chihuahuan Desert were absolutely miserable in the summer weather, and the outmoded U.S. Army equipment was woefully inadequate. Pullman employee Christoph L. Stellwag (clerk, Railway Supply Dept.) wrote of his experiences in Company M, 1st Regiment of the Illinois National Guard serving in the campaign:

“When the President called us to the colors on June 19th last, the First Regiment I.N.G. responded 1200 strong under the command of Col. Sanborn. After five days consumed in being mustered into the United States regular service, we were transferred to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, which is the largest fort in the United States, and is situated near the Mexican border… Our rations consisted mostly of canned goods, beans, army biscuit and smoked salt pork. On our first hike, to Leon Springs, the temperature was 135 degrees and we carried a pack of sixty-five pounds each, walking at the rate of two and one-half to three miles an hour. Out of three regiments making the march, 600 fell out, due to the heat and fatigue, and the hospital corps was kept busy taking care of them.”


Left to right, Christoph L. Stellwag, William J. Simpson, Harry Peterson, and Sherman Cowles, employees of the Pullman Company and Punitive Expedition veterans, pose for an official Company photograph.

Source: Pullman Car Works Standard, November, 1916, p. 2