Columbus, New Mexico


     Columbus, New Mexico, in the early spring of 1916 was a sleepy little border town. As the Mexican Revolution raged to the south, most Americans perceived little threat from this conflict, including many of Columbus' citizens, who felt safe in their village. To add to this feeling of security, a detachment of approximately 350 U.S. Army soldiers from the 13th Calvary stationed at Camp Furlong on the outskirts of Columbus stood between Mexico and the town.

     In the middle of the night on March 9, 1916, life in Columbus changed dramatically. At 1:00 A.M., between 500 and 600 Mexican revolutionaries, led by General Francisco "Pancho" Villa, crossed the border into the United States. Villa divided his troops and attacked Columbus from the southwest at approximately 4:20 am. This attack caught the entire town, as well as the army camp, by surprise.

     The Villistas concerned themselves more with raiding than killing, otherwise the town might have been erased. That morning majority of the destruction of the town came from the burning and pillaging of the business district. Surprisingly, the army camp and stables received little damage, even though the horses and armaments must have been attractive to the raiders. Alerted by the gunfire and burning buildings, many Columbus residents fled to the desert, or sought refuge in the school house, the Hoover Hotel, or private homes. The noise and fire sealed the fate of the raiding Mexican Army. U.S. Army officers and soldiers, awakened by the commotion, set up a Benet-Mercier machine gun in front of the Hoover Hotel and produced a murderous rain of bullets. Another machine gun set up on East Boundary Street fired north and caught anyone in the intersection of Broadway and East Boundary in a deadly crossfire. The raid lasted until dawn, or approximately one and a half hours. By this time, the death toll totaled 70 to 75 Villistas. In addition, during the attack on Columbus, eighteen Americans, mostly civilians, died.

     Much speculation abounds concerning General Villa's motivation behind the Columbus raid. One theory suggests it was an act of retaliation. Embroiled in a civil war, Mexico searched for leadership. A dispute broke out between Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza when Villa refused to acknowledge the authority of the new president, Carranza. To add insult to injury, President Wilson aided Carranza by allowing Mexican troops to be transported on the El Paso- Southwestern Railroad through Texas and New Mexico to a campaign in Mexico. These additional troops helped defeat Villa and his army in the battle of Agua Prieta, across from Douglas, Arizona on November 1, 1915. Possibly the attack on Columbus occurred as retaliation for the shipment of troops, since the village had an El Paso - Southwestern depot. Amazingly enough however, the depot only sustained light damage from flying bullets.

     Looking at where and what the Villistas raided, historians have pointed out that little beyond the business district of Columbus received any real damage. Perhaps Villa raided Columbus to correct a business deal gone bad. This theory contends that Villa bought guns and ammunition from the Ravel Brothers of Columbus. Although he paid for the armaments, Villa never received the weapons and ammunition. During the raid, Villistas captured Arthur Ravel and tried to force him to open the business's safe. Fortunately, the Villistas believed Ravel, when he stated he did not know the combination. Arthur Ravel eventually escaped the Villistas when gunfire, possibly from the machine gun in front of the Hoover Hotel, killed the two men holding his arms.

     A final theory concerns the need by the Villistas to secure not just arms and ammunition but food, clothing, and other supplies to continue the civil war. As Villa's army roamed through northern Mexico in the winter of 1915-1916, it needed these supplies to revitalize its dwindling numbers. Despite the U.S. Army garrison at Columbus, the town must have been one of the more inviting targets on the border.

     Although the Villistas burned some structures in the town, several key buildings remained standing. The Hoover Hotel, the railroad depot, and the school all survived the raid. Lost to the fire were several businesses and the Commercial Hotel. Many buildings in the town received minor damage from stray bullets or smoke.

     Whatever the reasons for the attack, its outcome was the same. Columbus residents experienced a boom in their village. General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing arrived in Columbus to lead a punitive expedition into Mexico to find and capture Pancho Villa. Columbus became the home base of this expedition and a beehive of activity. By March 10, just one day after the raid, the first of several thousand troops began to arrive in Columbus. By late 1916, due to the growth of camp personnel, Columbus held the largest population of any city in the state of New Mexico.

      In Pershing's search for Pancho Villa, he conducted an extensive campaign into Mexico. Two columns of soldiers ventured south, one from Columbus and the other from Culberson Ranch in the southwest corner of New Mexico. Several thousand troops, at times going 300 miles into Mexico, were supported by trucks and airplanes, the first such aid in American warfare. Indeed, the punitive expedition saw the end of nineteenth-century warfare and the beginning of twentieth-century combat. Historians also point out that with the use of airplanes, the military began its development of modern intelligence.

     The two columns of troops marched south. They meet about 100 miles into Mexico in a town called Casas Grandes. Later, when hearing that Villa was ahead of them, they divided and meet up again 50 to 60 miles further south. Pershing also sent three cavalry units after Villa. The master plan contended that a combination of mounted troops and infantry units would trap and capture Villa. Despite the best efforts of Pershing and the U.S. Army, this never came to pass.

     The Punitive Expedition prepared not only the troops, but also Pershing and his officers for World War I. The expedition lasted eleven months, pitting American troops against Villistas and Carranza's troops. Although the American government supported Carranza, the Mexican president did not like American troops in his country. Carranzistas attacked and repelled American troops just like Villa's troops. Pershing failed all attempts to capture Pancho Villa and eventually the Army retreated to the United States The expedition was called to a halt in early 1917. Villa was assassinated in Parrall, Mexico in 1923.

     After the Punitive expedition, Columbus changed again. Camp Furlong remained in operation by the Army, but at a decreased level of activity. The town continued to prosper from the monies generated by the Army Base and the railroad depot. During the Prohibition years, the town jail often doubled as a holding tank for those who drank too much across the border. Toward the end of the 1926, the Department of Army decided that a military detachment was no longer needed in Columbus. With this decision, a death toll began to knell for this once vital town. Between 1926 and the 1950s, Columbus slowly spiraled downward. The loss of persons and monies greatly effected the economy of the town.

     In the 1950s, the sands of change blew across the town again. The line was operated by Southwest Railroad Company of New Mexico from 1901, by the El Paso & Southern Railroad from 1902 (which purchased or merged with the line), and by the Southern Pacific Transportation Company from 1924 under lease (and merged with that company) until its abandonment in 1961. The right-of-way in now used as a highway right-of-way.

     Beginning in 1916, Columbus burst onto the world's stage. With a war raging in Europe, the military actions in Columbus and the northern New Mexico forced many Americans to acknowledge that the United States also was engaged in war. Columbus experienced world recognition, excitement, and prosperity. After the Punitive Expedition ended, this prosperity began to wan and a sense of isolation returned when first the Army and then the railroad pulled out of town. Today a sense of isolation has returned to this sleepy border town. Columbus is regaining part of its past as NAFTA enlivens the trucking industry across the Mexican-United States border and as tourists search for the heritage of the last place in the lower forty-eight states that has been invaded by a foreign army.

Historic Buildings of Columbus

Return to Public History Web Page