On March 9, 1916, in the darkness before dawn, Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa and his troops swept across the U.S.-Mexico border and raided Columbus, N.M., then a bustling border town and Army outpost.
It was one of the only times in history the U.S. has been attacked overland by a foreign power.
Villa was revered as a hero by some and reviled as a murderous demagogue by others, but the Columbus raid was a debacle for him in the waning years of the Mexican Revolution.
His troops burned the village and killed 18 U.S. citizens but lost 100 of their own men to U.S. fire. Villa would spend the next year on the run as U.S. troops launched a manhunt in Mexican territory.
This week marks the centennial anniversary of the Columbus raid. The village and its sister in Mexico, Palomas, will mark Wednesday with a memorial service to those who died and follow it up on Saturday with a cavalcade parade and fiesta celebrating the two countries’ enduring friendship.
About 100 Mexican riders – who have for days been tracing Villa’s path through Chihuahua – will cross the U.S.-Mexico border on horseback Saturday morning. Dozens of New Mexican riders will meet them and together the cabalgata will march into town, where they will corral their horses and join a party in the Columbus town square.
There will be live music and performances of ballet folklorico and mariachi; speakers and historical walking tours; exhibits of antique military equipment; food vendors; and Gen. John J. Pershing and Pancho Villa look-alike contests.
“It’s going to be big, big, big,” said Norma Gomez, an organizer with the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
Villa’s raid marked a dark moment in the history of U.S.-Mexico relations, but 100 years on, organizers say marking the attack is both about remembering the history and celebrating the ties that bind two nations.
“It’s a pulpit to tell our story,” said Columbus Mayor Philip Skinner.
A question still looms large a century after the raid: Why did he do it?
Legends of the raid
Why did Villa risk attacking Columbus, a village of 300 people protected by as many or more soldiers stationed at Camp Furlong? Historians on both sides of the border continue to search for answers.
“Pancho Villa never said himself why he did it,” said historian Heribert Von Feilitzsch, author of “The Columbus Raid: Theories and Fact 100 Years Later.” “There are tons of theories.”
Did Villa launch the attack as revenge for a shipment of arms he ordered from a Columbus mercantile store but never received? Villa’s troops burned down Sam Ravel’s store in the raid.
Was it an attack instigated by a German operative keen to see the U.S. military preoccupied in Mexico and unable to engage in World War I, already raging in Europe?
A naval intelligence agent of the German government who lived in New York and operated in Mexico, Felix Sommerfeld, purchased munitions for Villa, Von Feilitzsch said. Germany was at the time flexing its muscle in Europe, attacking its neighbors in an effort to buttress its Austrian-Hungarian allies.
“The German government wanted to create a military intervention in Mexico against the United States,” he said. “Basically the idea was, if the United States would have trouble at the Mexican border, they would have to arm the military there. Felix was in charge of this movement.”
About the raid as retribution for a faulty or missing shipment of arms, Von Feilitzsch said, “If he really wanted to get Ravel he could have gotten him. He didn’t need to almost create a war between Mexico and the United States.”
Or was the raid nothing more than a deadly bit of “theatrics,” prompted by newspaperman and Villa friend William Randolph Hearst, whose New York dailies desperately needed a boost in sales?
“Hearst needed an impactful bit of news because his newspaper was going down hill,” said Carlos Rocha, a historian with the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez who works at the city’s Museo de la Revolución en la Frontera (Museum of the Revolution at the Border). “It may have been a type of staged theatrics because they were friends. Hearst had haciendas in northern Mexico.”
Could it have been the strike of an ego-centric and capricious general enraged after the U.S. government of President Woodrow Wilson officially recognized his arch-enemy Venustiano Carranza as president of Mexico?
As Rocha notes, Villa was the opposite of cerebral: “impetuous and capricious.”
“He was an explosive person and had a huge ego,” Rocha said.
Columbus is located four hours south of Albuquerque via I-25 and NM 11, just 3½ miles from the U.S.-Mexico border where on Saturday the Mexican cavalcade riders will cross and make their way to town – this time peacefully and in unity with their New Mexican counterparts.
Columbus officials expect the village – population 1,634 – to welcome as many as 2,000 visitors for the festivities.
Pancho Villa State Park will host talks by four historians, including Von Feilitzsch. The park will start the day with a re-enactment of a period U.S. Army camp, including a parade ground drill of infantry and mounted cavalry.
The Columbus Historical Society will host “A Columbus Family Reunion” in the American Legion Post 1916 and asks that anyone with ties to the village come and have their story archived.
Entertainment on the village plaza in front of city hall begins at 11 a.m. and runs through 5 p.m. and will feature live music and dance. The nearby Tumbleweed Theater will host the look-alike contests for Gens. Pershing and Villa at 1:30 p.m.
“We’re not glorifying Pancho Villa,” Gomez said, “but history is one of the few things we do have.”