Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems

General of the Army, John Joseph "Blackjack" Pershing

John J. "Blackjack" Pershing John J. Pershing was born in 1860 in Linn County, Missouri. He was a great American general who led the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe during World War I (1914-1918). Educated at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, he served in the Apache campaign in 1886, Sioux campaign 1890-1891, Cuba 1898, and the Philippines 1899-1903.

In 1916, he headed a punitive expedition into Mexico in pursuit of Francisco "Pancho" Villa. Villa had attacked Columbus, New Mexico, killed 18 people, and burned the town. In September of that year Pershing was made a major general.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Pershing was appointed commander-in-chief of the AEF in France and conducted its operations with great success. He convinced congress to increase the number of men needed for the army. In October of that year he was made a full general.

He preserved the unity of the American army in spite of pressure to divide it among other Allied forces. He also supported the Western strategy of concentrating forces within France to fight against Germany rather than diluting the forces to attack lesser enemies such as Turkey and Bulgaria. The success of the Americans at Saint-Mihiel, France, greatly stimulated Allied morale.

When the armistice came Pershing was almost in sight of his goal, the Sudan. For his contribution to the Allied victory in September, 1919, he was made General of the Armies of the United States, a rank shared with only one other American general, George Washington. Appointed chief of staff of the U.S. Army in 1921, Pershing embarked on the unprecedented task of combining into one organization the regular Army, the National Guard, and the permanent reserves.

After his retirement in 1924, he headed a commission supervising American war memorials in France. His memoirs, My Experiences in the World War, were published in 1931.

The Military Excursion Into Mexico

Between the fall of 1910 and the summer of 1916, Mexico had been embroiled in a violent revolution with opposing political and military forces struggling for control of the country. In 1913, United States President William Howard Taft sent a large military force into Texas and stationed them along the Rio Grande to protect Americans in the region. This show of American military force caused Mexican militants to redirect their violence from their own countrymen to Americans. In 1913 Woodrow Wilson became President and denounced the new revolutionary government in Mexico, refusing to recognize it as the legitimate government. The result was intensified violence toward Americans including property destruction, murder, robbery, and kidnapping for ransom.

President Wilson responded by sending 4,800 regular Army troops under General Pershing to defend the border towns and their citizens. On February 24, 1913, fighting commenced along the border near Brownsville, Texas and on March 2, Mexicans attacked U.S. troops along the border near Douglas, Arizona. The struggle for control continued throughout 1914. Mexico elected a new government and president, Venustiano Carranza, in 1915. Carranza had one major opponent, a bandit-turned revolutionary named Francisco "Pancho" Villa. President Wilson's recognition of Carranza’s constitutional government created an enemy in Pancho Villa.

Longstanding resentments simmered between the United States and Mexico, boiling over in 1915, when two signal corps officers took off in a small airplane in April from the Fort Brown cavalry drill field. Their mission was to spy on the movements of Mexicans allied with the revolutionary Villa. The pilots claimed that they never crossed over into Mexican territory, but whether or not they did, Mexicans shot at them with a machine gun and other weapons. The pair managed to return to Fort Brown safely, earning the distinction of flying the first U.S. military plane ever to be targeted by gunfire.

In October 1915, bandits lassoed railroad tracks six miles north of Brownsville, splitting them apart, then waited until an approaching train derailed. The engineer was killed in the crash, clearing the way for the bandits to climb quickly aboard the train, where they robbed the passengers and shot two dead.

An increasing number of border incidents early in 1916 culminated in an invasion of American territory on 8 March, when Villa and his band of 500 to 1,000 men raided Columbus, New Mexico. Elements of the 13th Cavalry repulsed the attack, but there were 24 American casualties (14 military, 10 civilian). Immediate steps were taken to organize a punitive expedition of about 10,000 men under Brig. Gen. Pershing to capture Villa. The 7th, 10th, 11th, and 13th Cavalry regiments, 6th and 16th Infantry regiments, part of the 6th Field Artillery, and supporting elements crossed the border into Mexico in mid-March, followed later by the 5th Cavalry, 17th and 24th Infantry regiments, an engineer detactment, and other units.

Pershing was subject to orders which required him to respect the sovereignty of Mexico, and was further hindered by the fact that the Mexican Government and people resented the invasion. Advanced elements of the expedition penetrated as far as Parral, some 400 miles south of the border, but Villa was never captured. The campaign consisted primarily of dozens of minor skirmishes with small bands of insurgents. There were even clashes with Mexican Army units; the most serious was on 21 June 1916 at Carrizal, where a detachment of the 10th Cavalry was nearly destroyed.

On June 18, 1916, President Wilson mobilized the National Guard. Before the National Guard could be mobilized and sent to the southwest, soldiers had to be gathered and equipment distributed. The command of the National Guard faced a tremendous challenge in organizing the units, preparing sufficient housing, and issuing uniforms and equipment, all while continuing training. To further compound the challenge, the federal government did not provide any equipment for the guardsmen, thus placing the entire burden on the state. This was a significant departure from the Army's normal practice of providing all necessary equipment to the National Guard while in federal service.

War would probably have been declared but for the critical situation in Europe. Even so, virtually the entire Regular Army was involved, and most of the National Guard had been Federalized and concentrated on the border before the end of the affair.

Fighting was limited to guerrilla warfare since Villa’s forces could not afford to confront the U.S. Army directly. Accidents, climate and disease were the primary killers of U.S. soldiers during the Mexican Border Campaign. The presence of U.S. troops on the border was a constant drain on resources and cost American taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars per day. As a result, on January 27, 1917, President Wilson ordered their withdrawal. However, with the escalation of World War One in Europe, the United States Army and National Guard would soon be redirected to the battlefields of France. Normal relations with Mexico were restored eventually by diplomatic negotiation, and the troops were withdrawn from Mexico in February 1917.

After withdrawal of the Pershing expedition, minor clashes with Mexican irregulars continued to disturb the border from 1917 to 1919, as US troops entered Mexico in pursuit of bandits. Engagements took place near Buena Vista, Mexico on 1 December 1917; in San Bernardino Canyon, Mexico on 26 December 1917; near La Grulla, Texas on 8-9 January 1918; at Pilares, Mexico about 28 March 1918; at Nogales, Arizona on 27 August 1918; and near E1 Paso, Texas on 15-16 June 1919.

Source: US Army Center for Military History

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