COLUMBUS, N.M. — As you drive into this dusty little village just three miles north of the Mexican border, you wouldn't guess that a bloody event here would have affected a world war and kept the town's name in the history books for more than a hundred years.
Just before dawn on March 9, 1916, Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa ordered his troops to attack the sleeping town. It was a mistake; Villa was defeated in less than two hours.
But the U.S. military's quick response made Columbus the first test of the fledgling American air force and contributed to Germany's defeat in World War I.
"This is the last time the United States was attacked by a foreign power — with boots on the ground," said Annette Schneider, a volunteer at the Columbus Historical Society's museum in the old railroad depot, one of the few buildings that remains from the time of the raid.
The raid's centennial — and my curiosity — drew me to Columbus in March. I went because I wanted to know more about Pancho Villa, a general in Mexico's Revolution. Until I arrived here, though, I had no idea how the Columbus raid had influenced America's future.
About 1,650 people live in Columbus now, but it feels much smaller, with buildings widely spaced along streets where horses look more at home than cars.
In 1916, though, Columbus "was a going place," Schneider told me: a town of about 600 on the El Paso & Southwestern Railroad with three hotels, a bank, half a dozen stores, a lumberyard, a Ford dealership, a Coca-Cola bottling plant and its own newspaper.
It also had an encampment of about 400 soldiers from the 13th U.S. Cavalry stationed at Columbus to help protect the border during Mexico's revolution. Villa had expected a much smaller American force.
"He got bad intel," said John Read√, superintendent of Pancho Villa State Park, which adjoins the town.
By 1916 Villa's army had shrunk from 20,000 to only about 450 men, and the United States — his onetime ally — had switched its support to a rival revolutionary.
"Pancho Villa felt betrayed," Read said. "Would Pancho Villa have raided Columbus if we hadn't gone against him? No."
Now the ragtag remainder of Villa's army "needed everything," he said. Villa figured "we can hit this little military camp, and we can get horses and blankets and food and money" — and some revenge on America too.
"It was 4 a.m. — pitch-dark," Schneider said, sounding as if she'd seen it happen. Villa's raiders stormed into town from different directions, shooting, looting stores and starting fires. Terrified townspeople hid or fled.
One family managed to drive 30 miles north to Deming, N.M., even though the father was bleeding so badly from gunshot wounds that his wife had to take the wheel. They made it to a hospital in time to save him, and their bullet-riddled Dodge is on display in the state park's handsome exhibit hall.
"The Villistas took it on the chin," Read said. "The 13th Cavalry were really highly trained soldiers." Even the cooks, already up and working on breakfast for the troops, fought back, throwing boiling water at the attackers.
The raid left 18 Americans dead — 10 townsfolk, eight soldiers. But close to 90 of Villa's men were killed, largely by the cavalry's four machine guns. The guns fired 20,000 rounds during the hour-and-a-half fight.
American military response was blindingly swift. Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing dispatched 10,000 troops by train from Ft. Bliss at El Paso to Camp Furlong at Columbus, making it temporarily the largest town in New Mexico.
The entire United States air force — all eight Curtiss JN-3 biplanes, nicknamed "Jennies" — was also sent to Columbus and began flying reconnaissance missions over Mexico.
All the planes were out of commission by the end of April but their presence made history: This was the first time the U.S. military had used airplanes in battle.
That makes Columbus "the cradle of American air power," U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) told a cheering crowd this spring at the centennial commemoration of the raid.
Columbus is also "where Germany lost World War I," historian Heribert von Feilitzsch said in a lecture later that day.
Germany had supplied Villa with money and ammunition in hopes of provoking a war between the U.S. and Mexico, Von Feilitzsch said. The idea was to distract America and prevent it from entering the war in Europe.
The plan not only didn't work, it gave the U.S. Army a real-world chance to train for World War I. It even changed how wars would be fought, Read said: This was the last true mounted cavalry action by the U.S. Army and the first U.S. military operation that used mechanized vehicles.
Gen. Pershing's Punitive Expedition chased Villa around northern Mexico for the next 11 months but never caught him. Then the U.S. entered World War I, and troops were pulled from the border and sent to Europe. Villa survived until his assassination in Mexico in 1923.
I'd read that there would be reenactors at the centennial, so I came to Columbus expecting to see a battle reenactment — the kind of thing that Civil War buffs stage at Gettysburg, Pa., and Antietam, Md.
There were enough soldiers in town that day —100 real ones in fatigues and black Stetsons from the 13th Cavalry, still stationed at Ft. Bliss, as well as hobbyists, military collectors and history buffs dressed in the 1916-style uniforms of the U.S. and Mexico.
But instead of a reenactment, what I saw was a recommitment to friendship across the border — something the town has done on
the second Saturday in March for the last 17 years and will again next year, said Norma Gomez, secretary of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
It's called the Fiesta de Amistad — a celebration of friendship — and its centerpiece is the arrival of the Cabalgata Binacional, when horsemen from Mexico and the U.S. gather at the border and ride the last three miles together into the heart of Columbus, carrying the flags of both nations.
It was as showy as any battle reenactment I've ever seen — and a whole lot happier.
Some of the Mexican riders had dressed like Villa's men, with sidearms, wide sombreros and bandoliers crisscrossed over their chests. A few shouted "¡Viva Villa!" and "¡Viva Mexico!" echoing the raiders in 1916.
But everybody smiled, and the crowd lining the highway into town welcomed the horsemen with cheers, applause, waves and a few fist-bumps.
Even one of Villa's descendants was in town for the centennial. It was the first time anyone from his family had come, said Antonio Villa, who lives in Juárez, Mexico. How do they feel about Pancho Villa now, I wondered.
The young man smiled. "We are very proud of him," he said. "He was a big part of history."
Later that day, there were speeches, lectures on border history, rousing band music, Mexican folk dancers and homemade Mexican food dished up by local ladies in the town's small, park-like plaza.
Not everyone in town thinks a fiesta is appropriate to commemorate an act of war, however, even if it's a fiesta of friendship. Richard Dean, president of the Columbus Historical Society, is one of the most vocal — and with reason: His great-grandfather, a shopkeeper, was killed in the raid.
Dean's organization holds a separate memorial service on the March 9 anniversary of the raid. Attendees this year included descendants of victims as well as Helen Patton, whose grandfather, Gen. George Patton, first saw military action as part of the Punitive Expedition.
This is why organizers of the Fiesta de Amistad are careful not to say they're "celebrating" the raid. "We're just trying to make things better for everyone," said Gomez, who was one of the fiesta's founders.
Opinions also differ about the state park's name. Dean objects to its being named after Pancho Villa. It's disrespectful, he said, akin to having "a Bin Laden Park in Lower Manhattan.''
Read, the park superintendent, takes a different view. "The name does actually benefit both countries," he said. "It helps reconcile a disaster for both sides."
Explore the raid's legacy
Pancho Villa State Park
Excellent bilingual displays explaining events in Mexico that led to the raid and the fierce U.S. reaction. Hanging overhead is a full-sized replica of a "Jenny" — the airplane first used by the U.S. in the hunt for Pancho Villa. The name of the park, dedicated in 1961, was approved unanimously by the New Mexico Legislature. The park includes Coote's Hill, near where Villa was spotted observing the raid; a 1902 customs house and a barracks that the troops used as a recreation hall. Info: 400 W. Highway 9, Columbus, N.M.; (575) 531-2711, www.nm
parks.com. The exhibit hall is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., year-round; 9 a.m.-noon on certain holidays. Park admission is $5 per car.
Columbus Historical Museum
This two-story frame building was the original depot for the El Paso & Southwestern Railroad, which made it possible for the U.S. Army to dispatch thousands of soldiers to Columbus within a week of Villa's raid. Displays include a scale model of the town as it looked afterward, dozens of period photos, and medals and equipment used by U.S. soldiers. Info: (575) 531-2620, www.cnmhs.org. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in winter, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in summer; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends, year-round. The depot museum and the state park lie within the Village of Columbus and Ft. Furlong National Historic Landmark park, www.lat.ms/1Qlnrdr.
Annual memorial service
Held on the grounds of the depot museum every March 9, the date of Pancho Villa's raid, to honor 18 Americans who were killed.
Fiesta de Amistad
Held annually on the second Saturday of March, the Festival of Friendship features the Remembrance Ride, also called the Cabalgata Binacional. Horsemen and women from Mexico and the U.S. meet at the international border crossing at Palomas, Mexico, then ride together three miles north to Columbus.
Deming's county museum includes a collection of pre-European-contact Mimbres pottery, along with antiques from every period of regional history that followed. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturdays in summer, Free. (575) 546-2382, www.lunacountyhistoricalsociety.com.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO COLUMBUS, N.M.
From LAX, American and Southwest offer nonstop service to El Paso, Texas, and American, Southwest and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfare from $214, including taxes and fees. El Paso is 80 miles from Columbus, N.M.
WHERE TO STAY
Los Milagros Hotel (formerly Martha's Place Hotel), 204 Lima Road, Columbus; (575) 531-2467, www.marthasplacehotel.com. Five rooms ($49 single, $59 double, plus tax) and three RV sites.
Hacienda de Villa Motel, 220 S. Highway 11, Columbus; (575) 531-1000, www.haciendadevillamotel.com. Seven rooms; doubles from about $55.
WHERE TO EAT
La Casita, 309 Taft St., Columbus; (575) 531-2371
Patio Cafe, 23 Broadway, Columbus; (575) 531-2495
TO LEARN MORE