In the early morning of March 9, 1916, several hundred Mexican guerrillas under the command of Francisco “Pancho” Villa cross the U.S.-Mexican border and attack the small border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Seventeen Americans were killed in the raid, and the center of town was burned. It was unclear whether Villa personally participated in the attack, but President Woodrow Wilson ordered the U.S. Army into Mexico to capture the rebel leader dead or alive.
Before he invaded the United States, Pancho Villa was already known to Americans for his exploits during the Mexican Revolution. He led the famous Division del Norte, with its brilliant cavalry, Los Dorados, and won control of northern Mexico after a series of audacious attacks. In 1914, following the resignation of Mexican leader Victoriano Huerta, Pancho Villa and his former revolutionary ally Venustiano Carranza battled each other in a struggle for succession. By the end of 1915, Villa had been driven north into the mountains, and the U.S. government recognized General Carranza as the president of Mexico.
In January 1916, to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s support for Carranza, Villa executed 16 U.S. citizens at Santa Isabel in northern Mexico. Then, in early March, he ordered the raid on Columbus. Cavalry from the nearby Camp Furlong U.S. Army outpost pursued the Mexicans, killing several dozen rebels on U.S. soil and in Mexico before turning back. On March 15, under orders from President Wilson, U.S. Brigadier General John J. Pershing launched a punitive expedition into Mexico to capture Villa and disperse his rebels. The expedition eventually involved some 10,000 U.S. troops and personnel. It was the first U.S. military operation to employ mechanized vehicles, including automobiles and airplanes.
For 11 months, Pershing failed to capture the elusive revolutionary, who was aided by his intimate knowledge of the terrain of northern Mexico and his popular support from the people there. Meanwhile, resentment over the U.S. intrusion into Mexican territory led to a diplomatic crisis with the government in Mexico City. On June 21, the crisis escalated into violence when Mexican government troops attacked a detachment of the 10th Cavalry at Carrizal, Mexico, leaving 12 Americans dead, 10 wounded, and 24 captured. The Mexicans suffered more than 30 dead. If not for the critical situation in Europe, war might have been declared. In January 1917, having failed in their mission to capture Villa, and under continued pressure from the Mexican government, the Americans were ordered home.
Villa continued his guerrilla activities in northern Mexico until Adolfo de la Huerta took power over the government and drafted a reformist constitution. Villa entered into an amicable agreement with Huerta and agreed to retire from politics. In 1920, the government pardoned Villa, but three years later he was assassinated at his ranch in Parral.