After driving across New Mexico Highway 9 from El Paso, Texas my wife and I pulled into the small town of Columbus, New Mexico. This small border town would likely be regulated to just being another obscure border town on the US-Mexico border if it wasn’t for an event that happened nearly a hundred years ago the assured that this small town would forever be a footnote in American history.
What makes Columbus historically significant is the fact that it was the site of the last hostile action by a foreign force in the Continental United States when Francisco “Pancho” Villa attacked the town and its army base, Camp Furlong on March 9, 1916:
Several people were killed, many others were wounded, and many buildings were burned down. One of the buildings though that did survive the attack by Pancho Villa and his men was the town’s railway station:
Trains no longer run into Columbus, but back in the day this would have a busy place with numerous trains coming to Columbus to supply the Camp Furlong as well as the rest of the town. The only other sign left of the town’s railroad past is these caboose that sits next to the railway station:
From the railway station my wife and I then drove over to the nearby Pancho Villa State Park where a new visitor center had been recently constructed:
Outside the visitor center was a few static displays of some of the military equipment that General John “Blackjack” Pershing would use as he led the US military Punitive Expedition into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa:
After checking out the static displays outside we then entered the visitor center. Inside the visitor center was just as nice as the outside and featured an incredibly helpful and informative staff that provided much insight into the attack on their city. Here is a map of the five routes that the Villistas used to attack the town and Camp Furlong:
Pancho Villas men launched their attack on these routes at approximately 4:11AM. Needless to say, everyone was extremely surprised by the attack, but the surprise wouldn’t last long as the villagers and the soldiers at Camp Furlong responded to the attack. Villa and his men may have been successful in destroying the town but the attack ended up being a disaster for Villa. Villa led a force of 500 men to attack Columbus with and left with 80 dead and over 100 that were not fatally wounded. The people of Columbus by comparison suffered only 10 killed and 2 wounded while the soldiers at Camp Furlong suffered 8 killed and 6 wounded.
Here is a picture of the damage done to the city from the attack:
The best place to learn about the attack is definitely inside the visitor center. This newly constructed building featured many displays and items from the attack that March day in 1916 on Columbus such as this car that was littered with bullet holes from the attack:
The visitor center also hand many displays of weapons and equipment used during the punitive expedition into Mexico in response to the attack:
Here is how Camp Furlong looked like back then during the Punitive Expedition:
Something interesting about the punitive expedition was that it would be the first military action in US history to use aircraft:
These planes would actually fly from an airstrip that was constructed at Columbus and scout for Pancho Villa’s positions:
The plane was reportedly not very useful at the time, but nevertheless an important first for the US military. Another piece of equipment used for the first time by the United States in warfare was the automobile:
However, these vehicles were not very reliable and difficult to use in the rough desert terrain, thus the trusty horse and wagon still saw plenty of use during the expedition:
These vehicles and wagons were used to supply US troops that after the first month of the expedition had marched 500 miles to the city of Parral:
During that first month the expedition had killed, wounded, and captured a number of Pancho Villas troops, but were never able to capture Pancho Villa himself. However, this month of fighting was enough to convince the US and Mexican diplomats to work something out and General Pershing was ordered to halt his advance while negotiations were being held. The bulk of US forces withdrew from Mexico by January 1917 without capturing Villa but the US military did gain invaluable combat experience before entering into World War I, which once again General Pershing would be tasked to lead:
What I found interesting reading about the Punitive Expedition was how the response to the attack on Columbus was similar to the US response after 9/11. An attack was launched into a foreign country in each case with inconclusive objectives for the military to accomplish. The differences though are also interesting. In Mexico’s case the US decided to pull out while in Afghanistan we are still there 10 years after the fact. It got me thinking that Punitive Expeditions are maybe a pretty good strategy. The military goes in with the sole purpose of killing our enemies instead of the present day paradigm of the US invading a country and then staying for years to rebuild by ungrateful locals.
After finishing checking out the displays inside the visitor center my wife and I then proceeded to go back outside and walk around a little bit to see some of the historic buildings such as this old custom’s house:
This meeting hall:
Here is a picture of the city’s old and new watertowers:
Finally another view of the nearby train station:
From there we then proceeded to follow the short trail up Cootes Hill:
At the base of Cootes Hill was the old headquarters building of Camp Furlong. Due to its adobe construction a shelter had to be built over the building to protect it from erosion:
Cootes Hill is about the highest piece of terrain within Columbus, thus it provided some great views of the city:
The hill of course also provided some great views of the state park:
Here is a view of the RV park that is located on the grounds of the state park:
Besides views of the immediate area, Cootes Hill also provides views north towards the Florida Mountains outside of Deming, New Mexico:
Towards the south were views across the border into the small town of Puerto Palomas, Mexico:
This Mexican city is a small town like Columbus with a population of 7,500 people. Despite its small size this town has seen more than its fair share of drug violence. The crime from the wars with the drug cartels has even spilled into Columbus with the Mayor, a city councilman, and the police chief recently arrested for weapons smuggling into Mexico to supply these cartels. Wouldn’t that be something if the out of control cartel wars going on across the border leads to another future provocative attack on Columbus?