Pancho Villa Expedition

14/03/191607/02/1917View on timeline

Punitive Expedition in Mexico, 1916-1917

The Punitive Expedition into Mexico that the United States Government undertook in 1916 against Mexican Revolutionary leader Pancho Villa threatened to bring the United States and Mexico into direct conflict with one another. However, careful diplomatic maneuvering by Mexican President Venustiano Carranza and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson successfully resolved the crisis.

Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary leader who controlled much of northeastern Mexico during 1914 and 1915, experienced military setbacks after breaking with the Carranza government and being subjected to a U.S. arms embargo. The Wilson Administration supported Carranza as the legitimate Mexican head of state and hoped that U.S. support could end Mexican political instability during the revolutionary period. Prior to the Mexican Revolution, the U.S.-Mexico border had been only lightly policed. The instability of the revolution led to an increased U.S. military presence, while U.S. citizens along the border often sympathized or aided the various factions in Mexico. As part of a campaign against U.S. interests in Northern Mexico, Villa's forces attacked U.S. mining executives in Mexico on January 9, 1916, provoking public anger in the United States, especially in Texas. Pancho Villa's forces then raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916, resulting in the death of sixteen Americans and much larger casualties for Villa's forces.

In response, the Wilson Administration decided to order a punitive raid into Mexico with the goal of capturing Pancho Villa. Because of earlier, more minor raids, Wilson had already considered ordering an expedition a cross the border, and so directed Newton Baker, the Secretary of War, to organize an expedition specifically to pursue Villa. Wilson also attempted to mollify Mexican President Venustiano Carranza by claiming that the raid was conducted "with scrupulous regard for the sovereignty of Mexico." Nevertheless, Carranza regarded Wilson's actions as a violation of Mexican sovereignty and refused to aid the U.S. expedition.

The task of capturing Villa was given to U.S. Army General John J. Pershing. Pershing's forces entered Mexico, but failed to capture Villa.

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Archive of the U.S. Department of State

"United States support for Carranza prompted an aggressive reaction from Villa. After 1916 Villa frequently raided United States border towns and then retreated to Mexico. United States General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing's troops crossed the border in pursuit of Villa several times during 1917."

— Country Studies. U.S. Library of Congress.

Mexico. Country Studies. U.S. Library of Congress.

1916 cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman, via National Archive Berryman collection.

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Francisco "Pancho" Villa (1877–1923), Mexican revolutionary general, wearing bandoliers in front of...

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Pancho Villa. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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Published in 27/06/2019

Updated in 19/02/2021

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