On September 11, 2001, terrorists invaded the United States and killed Americans on our own soil. The nation grieves to this day. This was not the first time foreign aggressors crossed our borders and spilled American blood. On March 9, 1916, around 485 Mexican Troops commanded by Francisco “Pancho” Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, and took American lives. That assault was the closing chapter in the history of the Old West.
Colonel Frank Tompkins, at the time a major in the U.S. Cavalry and second in command of the 266-man army garrison in Columbus, Lieutenant John P. Lucas and Sergeant Michael Fody saw the fight firsthand. Their words, taken from Tompkin’s book, Chasing Villa, give a chilling account of a town under fire.
The town of Columbus . . . did not present an attractive appearance. A cluster of adobe houses, a hotel, a few stores and streets knee-deep in sand, combined with the cactus, mesquite and rattlesnakes. . . . Life at Columbus was not exciting. There was little to do and plenty of time to do it in. As I look back on it, however, I forget the sand storms, the heat and the monotony of existence in this sun-baked, little desert town. I forget the habit of the rattlers to occupy our houses. I forget also the fact that the nearest tree was in El Paso, 75 miles away. I remember only the pride with which I commanded my troop.
On the afternoon of March 7th I patrolled about 15 miles east of the border gate. Close to midnight . . . I accompanied Colonel Slocum [commander of American forces at Columbus] to the border gate to interview the commanding officer of the Carranzista troops [Mexican soldiers loyal to Villa’s rival, Venustiano Carranza] stationed there. When these soldiers heard our horses approaching, they sprang to arms and took shelter designed to offer protection from attack from the direction of the United States. Their conduct showed all the symptoms of a guilty conscience. I believed then and I believe now they were aware of Villa’s movements and intentions and I am convinced some of them took part in the attack.
The Mexicans [Villa’s troops] crossed the international boundary line at a point about three miles west of the border gate. They sifted across in small bands, united at a point safe from observation from our patrols, then marched northeast until within about one half mile of the American camp when they split into two attacking columns. The first column moved to the south of the camp, then east and attacked the stables from a southeasterly direction. The second column crossed the drainage ditch immediately west of the camp at the custom house, where they divided, the first half attacking the camp from the west and the second half moving into the town where they proceeded to loot, murder and burn.
Private Fred Griffin, Troop “K,” 13th Cavalry, was the first man killed in the fight. Griffin was a sentinel on post No. 3, around the regimental headquarters, so he was nearest to the first point of attack by the Mexicans. He challenged a Mexican who answered by shooting the sentinel, but Griffin killed this Mexican and two others before he died.
Private John D. Yarborough, sentinel on post No. 1 at the guard house, was very badly wounded in the right arm when that side of the camp was attacked, but he fought through the entire action with his arm hanging useless.
[Hearing the firing, Sergeant Michael Fody headed toward it with F Troop.]
Just as we cleared the width of the barracks to the lane leading towards headquarters, Lieutenant James Castleman came running to me with his revolver in his hand and took command of the troop. We proceeded towards headquarters and after advancing about 200 yards we encountered a heavy fire, so close that the flash almost scorched our faces. Instantly every man in the troop dropped to the ground and opened fire. On account of the darkness it was im-possible to distinguish anyone, and for the moment I was under the impression that we were being fired on by some of our own regiment who had preceded us to the scene. The feeling was indes-cribable, and when I heard the Mexican voices opposite us you can imagine my relief. As soon as there was a lull in the fighting, Lieutenant Castleman ordered the troop on towards the town, where the heaviest firing was concentrated.
About 4:30 a.m. I was awakened by someone riding by the open window of my room. I looked out, and although the night was very dark, I saw a man wearing a black sombrero riding towards camp. From the sounds I heard, it seemed to me he had quite a few companions and that the house was completely surrounded. I knew who they were because Villa’s officers affected the type of headgear I had noticed. We heard later that this party was composed of Villa himself and 35 or 40 of his officers. They were the only ones who approached on horseback.
I got hold of my gun and stationed myself in the middle of the room where I could command the door, determined to get a few of them before they got me. I was saved, however, by a member of the guard, and I have always felt that I owed him a great debt of gratitude. Unfortunately, he was killed. This soldier [Private Griffin] was posted at regimental headquarters, which was within sight of my house. He evidently saw the Mexicans approaching because he opened fire on them and they immediately left my house and charged him. They galloped right on through camp and down to the stables which were 400 or 500 yards east of the barracks.
When the Mexicans left my house, I was able to get out and follow them on into camp to turn out my men. In the dark I was unable to find my boots so that I was forced to go barefooted for about an hour and a half and had very little skin left on the soles of my feet. It took me over six months to get all of the sand burrs out. The sentinel who had saved my life had gotten one Mexican but had been shot through the belly and was dying when I went by.
I reached my barracks and told the acting first sergeant to turn out the men and follow me down to the guard tent. The guard tent was near the stables and standing order required that we keep the machine guns under lock and key in the guard tent as they could be sold to the Mexicans for $500 or $600 apiece. Without waiting for my troop I took two men, a corporal and the horseshoer, and proceeded immediately to the guard tent. My idea was to get a gun out and in action to keep the Mexicans out of camp. By this time the town was full of them.
So far I had seen no other officers. All those who lived in the town, and a majority of them did, had been surrounded in their houses and had been unable to get out. Two officers, Lieutenant Stringfellow and myself, lived in camp, and were the only ones present in the first phase of the conflict. . . . The officer of the day was required to sleep in a small adobe house in the center of camp. I had looked into this house as I passed and had seen that it was empty. Lieutenant James Castleman was officer of the day and . . . he had turned out his troop—I have forgotten which one he commanded—and marched it over to town, where he took station in front of his residence and opposite the bank.
The Mexicans were poor shots and to this fact we certainly owed our light casualty list. One of them fired at me with a rifle while I was on my way to the guard tent. He missed me even though he was so close that I easily killed him with a revolver and I was never noted for my excellence in pistol practice.
We reached the guard tent and got out one of the guns. The sentinel on post No. 1 [Private Yarborough] was lying across the door of the tent. He died later. The three of us set the gun up where we could command one of the crossings over the railroad. It was very dark but we could see the flash of the Mexican rifles. They burned up thousands of rounds of ammunition. As I remember the affair, the corporal acted as gunner while I loaded the piece. The gun was the old Benèt-Mercier, a very complicated weapon, which required perfect conditions in order that it might function. The conditions not being perfect the gun jammed after a few rounds, and we left it in position and went after another. The corporal’s remarks were enlightening but not printable. The jam was reduced later and the gun returned to action.
By this time, the remainder of the troop had arrived and I stationed the guns in what I considered to be strategic positions to fire on the Mexicans in town. Also about 30 men with rifles had shown up, and these I deployed along the railroad track to fire on the same target. Lieutenant Stringfellow also came up about that time, and, being senior to him, I sent him with some men to protect our left flank from any further invasion from the west.
This may sound like an account of “Alone at Columbus,” but, as a matter of fact, none of the officers who were marooned in town were able to get to camp until our fire had cleared up the situation to some extent. About the time I got my “army” nicely deployed the Mexicans set fire to the hotel in town. This lit up the terrain so effectively that we were able to see our targets very plainly. Also, Castleman’s move to town with his troop proved to be strategically correct as it enabled us to bring a cross-fire on the enemy. The Mexicans stood it for a few minutes only, when they commenced to fall back. Captain Hamilton Bowie was the first officer to be released and he immediately came into camp.
I turned over my command to Captain Bowie, and, taking a few men with me, worked around the enemy left into town. My idea was to clear the town and do what I could to protect the families of our officers from the Mexicans. To my surprise I found Castleman and his men there already. I had no idea of his whereabouts before. It was just about daylight when I joined Castleman and a few minutes later the Colonel appeared. I then returned to camp and, after daylight, was sent by the Colonel with 15 or 20 men to relieve Captain Stedje at the gate and allow his troops to pursue the enemy who were, by this time, in full retreat.
Major Frank Tompkins
The kitchen shacks of the camp were of adobe construction, erected by the troops and bullet proof. The desert around Columbus was full of rabbits and quail. It was customary for each troop to keep in the kitchen a company shotgun with ammunition. This enabled one of the kitchen crew to go out in the afternoon and bring back a mess of quail or rabbits. When the Mexicans made their attack, the unexpected resistance they met broke them up into small groups. The fire of the American soldiers was so hot and accurate that these small groups sought shelter behind the bullet proof kitchen shacks. The kitchen crews could hear them talking outside the kitchen windows—so they promptly fired into them with the shotguns. Those of the Mexicans who were not killed by this fire took back into Mexico some American shot under their hides.
One group of Mexicans broke in the door of a kitchen shack. The crew were waiting for them: one cook soused them with boiling water while the other cook sailed into them with an axe. When the smoke of battle cleared the only Mexicans left on that particular spot were dead Mexicans.
Another group [of Mexicans] took shelter against a kitchen wall. They were located by one of the machine guns. The gun crew gave them a burst of fire at short range, firing low to get advantage of ricochets. Few of that party of Mexicans ever saw Mexico again. They were literally cut to pieces by these ricocheting bullets. On my return from the pursuit I took a look at this place and saw several pieces of human skull as large as my hand, with the long hair of the Yaqui Indian attached.
One soldier of the stable crew killed a Mexican with a baseball bat. As a matter of fact the Mexicans were getting it from all sides. In the darkness and confusion some [of our] soldiers became separated from their troops. These men carried on a private war of their own, shooting Mexicans whenever they saw one or more. This reception was so totally different from what they [Villa’s troops] had been told to expect that the camp and the town too, was soon cleared of the enemy.
Captain Rudolph E. Smyser, with his wife and two children, occupied a house on the western edge of town across the street from my quarters. The Mexicans battered in their front door as Smyser and his family climbed out of a back window and took refuge in an outhouse. They heard the Mexicans talking of searching the place, so Smyser and family abandoned the outhouse for the mesquite and got pretty well filled with cactus thorns in the process.
Lieutenant William A. McCain lived with his wife and little girl in a house near the southwest edge of the town, not far from the railroad track. In the first moments of the attack this house was surrounded by a swarm of Mexicans. In the building at this time, in addition to the family, was . . . McCain’s orderly. As soon as the first Mexican wave passed, the McCain party evacuated the house, moved south across the railroad tracks, and hid in the mesquite.
[As the Mexicans fell back, they] . . . passed all around the bush under which the McCain party were hiding. Captain George Williams, the regimental adjutant, who had been cut off from camp, stumbled into McCain at this moment. McCain and his orderly had between them a pistol and a shotgun. Captain Williams had his pistol. It was still dark. The retreating Mexicans were thinning out; falling back in small groups, in pairs, and singly. They would halt, fire towards the camp and then continue to retreat. Finally, an isolated Mexican discovered the Americans. Before he could give the alarm, Lt. McCain shot him with the shotgun but did not kill him. They pulled him under a bush. He struggled and tried to give the alarm. McCain did not want to shoot him again for fear that the shot might betray their hiding place. Something had to be done to silence the cries of the wounded Mexican. They tried to cut his throat with a pocket knife but the knife was too dull. They finally killed him by hammering in his head with the butt of a pistol.
Realizing that the Mexicans were whipped, I [Major Thompkins] asked Colonel Slocum to allow me to mount up a troop and take the offensive. He authorized me to take Troop “H,” commanded by Captain Rudolph Smyser. In about 20 minutes we managed to mount 32 men and left camp. We proceeded southwest, and in the dim light of early morning saw the Mexican column retreating south towards the border. We paralleled their march with the object of cutting off as many as possible as soon as we could get clear of the wire fences. We finally reached the border fence with the loss of one horse killed.
There was an isolated hill about 300 yards south of the fence between the Mexican column and my forces. This hill was occupied by Mexican troops. [The Americans charged.]
The fire of the enemy went high, but they held on until we hit the lower slopes of the hill when they broke and ran. We galloped to the hilltop . . . dismounted, and opened fire with rifles on the fleeing Mexicans, killing 32 men and many horses.
[Realizing he was in Mexico, Major Thompkins requested reinforcements from Columbus. After they arrived, he continued the pursuit south of the border and hit Villa’s rear guard.]
We deployed at wide intervals and advanced towards the enemy at a fast trot, the enemy firing all the time but their shots going wild. When we were within 400 yards of them . . . we dismounted, and opened fire, driving the rear guard back on the main body and killing and wounding quite a few.
We again took up the pursuit, and in about 30 minutes overtook the rear guard. I received a slight wound in the knee, a bullet through the rim of my hat, and my horse was wounded slightly in the head.
[After the Mexicans were again driven back, Major Thompkins’ troops continued to dog their heels.] I again overtook the enemy, but this time on a plain devoid of cover. They soon saw our weakness (but 29 men) and started an attack with at least 300 men, while the remainder of the Mexican forces continued their retreat. We returned their fire until one horse was wounded and one killed when we fell back about 400 yards where our horses had excellent cover. But the Mexicans refused to advance against us in this new position.
After waiting about 45 minutes I returned to Columbus . . . having been gone seven and one half hours, covered 30 miles of rough country, fought four separate rear guard actions without the loss of a single man, and inflicted a loss of from 75 to 100 killed and actually counted.
Tucson native Neil Carmony has been writing articles and books about the natural and human history of the Southwest for 20 years. He is the editor, with David E. Brown, of Tough Times in Rough Places, University of Utah Press, 2001.