Pershing Expedition

In a response against Mexican revolutionaries, the United States sent armed forces into Mexico on a punitive expedition.

Summary of Event

At 4:15 a.m. on March 9, 1916, a force of about five hundred Mexican revolutionaries commanded by General Pancho Villa attacked the tiny border settlement of Columbus, New Mexico, and the nearby U.S. Army garrison. Less than an hour later, the Mexicans were in full retreat toward their border, closely pursued by a troop of U.S. cavalry. Seventeen persons from the United States were dead, eight of them civilians. Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)
Pershing expedition (1916-1917)
[kw]Pershing Expedition (Mar. 15, 1916-Feb. 5, 1917)
[kw]Expedition, Pershing (Mar. 15, 1916-Feb. 5, 1917)
Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)
Pershing expedition (1916-1917)
[g]Latin America;Mar. 15, 1916-Feb. 5, 1917: Pershing Expedition[03970]
[g]Mexico;Mar. 15, 1916-Feb. 5, 1917: Pershing Expedition[03970]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 15, 1916-Feb. 5, 1917: Pershing Expedition[03970]
[c]Military history;Mar. 15, 1916-Feb. 5, 1917: Pershing Expedition[03970]
Carranza, Venustiano
Villa, Pancho
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Pershing expedition
Pershing, John J.
Funston, Frederick
Obregón, Álvaro
Scott, Hugh L.

Villa’s raid on Columbus was a direct outgrowth of the turbulent and often bloody struggle for the leadership of the Mexican Revolution that had begun with the overthrow of the dictator Porfirio Díaz Díaz, Porfirio in 1911. The next president of Mexico, Francisco Madero, Madero, Francisco had not held office two years before being deposed by one of his own generals, Victoriano Huerta. Huerta, Victoriano Although Huerta enjoyed the backing of the Roman Catholic Church, the landed interests, and the foreign investors who controlled much of Mexico’s natural resources, he had little support from the Mexican people. In addition, one of Huerta’s first acts was to arrange for the murder of his predecessor, Madero. The new U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, horrified by this spectacle of government by assassination, refused to recognize Huerta’s government. Wilson gave his support to Huerta’s two chief opponents, Venustiano Carranza and Villa, who claimed to be the true heirs of Madero.

In April, 1914, Wilson took advantage of a minor incident at Tampico, Mexico, and ordered the U.S. Navy to seize the port of Veracruz. Wilson hoped to force Huerta’s resignation by cutting off both his supply of arms from abroad and a major source of revenue, the Veracruz customhouse. A short, bloody battle ensued, during which both Mexican and U.S. troops suffered heavy casualties. Wilson, who had not expected the Mexicans to resist, gladly took advantage of an offer of mediation made by Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. Although the mediation was inconclusive, the Veracruz incident helped topple Huerta’s already shaky government. In August, 1914, Villa and Carranza entered Mexico City, and the civil strife that had plagued Mexico for years seemed to be ending.

Within a few weeks, however, the leaders of the revolution were once more at odds. At one point, it seemed as though Villa would emerge as president of Mexico. His rivals in the revolutionary movement, however, refused to recognize Villa’s leadership. Some historians believe conflict between Villa, who favored radical social reform, and Carranza, a political moderate, was inevitable. Frustrated by Carranza’s reluctance to institute reforms such as changes in landownership, Villa attempted a military coup. Under the leadership of General Álvaro Obregón, the regular Mexican army under Carranza inflicted a series of sharp defeats on Villa’s forces, driving Villa back to his home state of Chihuahua. On October 19, 1915, the United States, which had favored Villa, formally recognized Carranza’s provisional government as the legitimate government of Mexico.

By early 1916, Villa’s army, the remains of his famous División del Norte, had shrunk to a few hundred men hiding from Obregón’s troops in the Chihuahua mountains. Villa’s motives for attacking Columbus with this small force are not clear. Some historians believe that Villa hoped to provoke an invasion of Mexico by the United States so that he could then emerge as a hero of the people resisting foreign aggressors. If war with the United States was Villa’s aim, his raid on Columbus nearly succeeded in provoking it. News of the raid raised a storm of anger throughout the United States. In a rare display of unanimity, citizens of all political persuasions called for Villa’s blood. President Wilson announced to the press that troops would be dispatched immediately in pursuit of Villa. Orders were telegraphed to General Frederick Funston, commander of the Southern Department, in San Antonio to prepare an expeditionary force to pursue and destroy Villa’s band. Nothing was said in the order about capturing Villa himself, but the public persisted in the belief that the object of the expedition was to bring back Villa, dead or alive.

The punitive expedition, comprising approximately 6,000 U.S. troops under the command of Brigadier General John J. Pershing, crossed the border into Mexico in the early hours of March 15, 1916. Villa’s forces, which numbered some 450 men, continued to move deeper into Mexico. Elements of the Seventh and Tenth Cavalries caught up with them near the town of Guerrero and, in a series of sharp engagements fought between March 28 and April 1, killed or captured most of Villa’s men. Villa himself avoided capture and continued south toward the town of Parral in Chihuahua.

The Mexican government, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly concerned about the spectacle of six thousand U.S. troops deployed deep within Mexican territory. President Carranza, who had never formally agreed to allow the U.S. troops to enter Mexico, now addressed a series of notes to Washington, requesting that the expeditionary force be withdrawn on the grounds that it had already accomplished all that could be hoped for, and that Mexican troops were now adequate to police the border. Villa, the self-taught son of a field laborer, enjoyed widespread popular support among the ordinary people of northern Mexico. Carranza knew that the continuing presence of foreign troops on Mexican soil could serve only to weaken his own government and strengthen Villa’s guerrilla movement.

While the negotiations over the status of Pershing’s forces were being conducted, a mob attacked a detachment from the U.S. Thirteenth Cavalry attempting to purchase supplies in Parral. In the ensuing fight, a large number of Mexicans and two U.S. citizens were killed. In an atmosphere of increasing tension, Carranza agreed to send Obregón, his minister of war and marine, to meet with General Hugh L. Scott, the U.S. Army chief of staff, at El Paso. After much argument, the two generals succeeded in drafting an agreement for the gradual withdrawal of the U.S. expeditionary force. Carranza, however, refused to accept the agreement. It is doubtful whether the U.S. government could have honored it in any case, because on the same day that the agreement was signed, a band of Mexican raiders attacked the towns of Glen Springs and Bougilas in the sparsely populated Big Bend country of Texas, killing three U.S. settlers, one of whom was a nine-year-old boy.

Although the raiders had no connection with Villa, a new wave of anger and exasperation swept the country following this latest demonstration of the defenselessness of the border area. Amid renewed demands for war with Mexico, President Wilson mobilized the National Guards of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico to patrol the border and ordered an additional four thousand regulars to the Southwest.

The Mexicans also were nearing the end of their patience. On June 16, 1916, Carranza warned the U.S. government that if U.S. soldiers in Mexico made further moves in any direction but north, they would be fired upon. Five days later, Captain Charles T. Boyd, Boyd, Charles T. commanding a troop of the Tenth Cavalry, attempted to enter the town of Carrizel in disregard of orders from Pershing to avoid places garrisoned by Carrancista troops. The Mexican soldiers in the town opened fire. Twelve U.S. soldiers, including Boyd, were killed, and twenty-three were taken prisoner.

War with Mexico now appeared certain, but President Wilson was determined to avoid it, if at all possible. Carranza, anxious to prevent American occupation of his country, released the prisoners and offered to enter into direct talks with the U.S. government to settle the dispute. The long, drawn-out negotiations opened at New London, Connecticut, on September 6, 1916, and ended in a stalemate four months later. They had, however, served to relax tensions and to remove the embarrassing issue of Mexico from the 1916 presidential campaign.

Although the New London talks failed to produce an agreement with Mexico, Wilson and his advisers decided to withdraw the remaining troops. Villa, while still a threat to the Carranza administration in Mexico, was now operating in an area far from the border. In addition, war with Germany was now a distinct possibility, and Pershing’s forces might need to be deployed to Europe. On February 5, 1917, the last troops of Pershing’s expeditionary force reentered the United States.


The punitive expedition into Mexico by the United States constituted an act of abatement and thus was lawful under the customary norms of international law. That is, a state is permitted to intervene temporarily into the territory of a neighboring state when the latter is unable or unwilling to prevent the use of its territory for activities that either injure or threaten the security of the former. This kind of intervention is allowed as long as the forces withdraw once the threat is abated and the intervening nation advances no claims to territory. Although technically lawful, however, the Pershing expedition served to reinforce anti-American sentiment among Mexicans and to increase charges of American imperialism.

After the expedition was concluded, Villa continued to plague the Carrancista forces for several more years. In 1920, following the death of Carranza and other changes in the Mexican government, Villa accepted a pardon in exchange for his agreement to leave politics. He retired to a ranch near Parral, where he died in 1923. Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)
Pershing expedition (1916-1917)

Further Reading

  • Harris, Larry A. Pancho Villa: Strong Man of the Revolution. Reprint. Silver City, N.Mex.: High Lonesome Books, 1996. Biography emphasizes Villa’s role as a revolutionary and military leader.
  • Link, Arthur S. Wilson. 5 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947-1965. Definitive study of Wilson’s life and career is an indispensable resource. Volume 4 addresses U.S. relations with Mexico and the Pershing expedition.
  • Machado, Manuel A. Centaur of the North: Francisco Villa, the Mexican Revolution, and Northern Mexico. Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1988. Combination of biography and history provides social and political context for Villa’s activities.
  • McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001. Focuses on events of the Mexican Revolution involving Villa and revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata. Includes black-and-white photographs, bibliographical essay, and index.
  • Mason, Herbert Molloy. The Great Pursuit: Pershing’s Expedition to Destroy Pancho Villa. 1970. Reprint. New York: Smithmark, 1995. An account of the Pershing expedition from the perspective of the U.S. military. Includes index.
  • Meyer, Michael C., William L. Sherman, and Susan M. Deeds. The Course of Mexican History. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Interesting and readable history devotes several chapters to the Mexican Revolution and surrounding events, including the Pershing expedition. Features maps, illustrations, and index.
  • Rippy, James Fred. The United States and Mexico. New York: F. S. Crofts, 1931. For many years the standard work on Mexican-U.S. relations, this book is now somewhat out of date but still contains useful material.
  • Smith, Gene. Until the Last Trumpet Sounds: The Life of General of the Armies John J. Pershing. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. Biography includes discussion of Pershing’s role in the U.S. expedition into Mexico. Features photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Tompkins, Frank. Chasing Villa: The Last Campaign of the U.S. Cavalry. 1935. Reprint. Silver City, N.Mex.: High Lonesome Books, 1996. Firsthand account by one of Pershing’s commanders who played an important part in the expedition.

Mexican Revolution

Mexican Constitution Establishes an Advanced Labor Code