Magazine article VFW Magazine

Texas-Mexico Border Aflame

Magazine article VFW Magazine

Texas-Mexico Border Aflame

Article excerpt

On June 16, 1919, the U.S. Army fought a battle with Mexican revolutionaries in and around Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. It included the last major use of a wholly American cavalry unit in mounted combat, and was the last action to qualify for the Mexican Service Medal.

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in 2009 is once again a battleground. Fighting between the Mexican army and drug cartels has yet to spill across the border, but the possibility clearly exists. Still, there was a time in the early 20th century when the border between Texas and Mexico took on the trappings of the "Wild West." It was like something out of the 1969 Hollywood movie The Wild Bunch focusing on the Mexican Revolution (1910-20).

Ninety years ago, cross-border shooting into neighboring El Paso, Texas, prompted a brief punitive expedition (3,600 troops) ranging 15 miles into the Mexican state of Chihuahua. It held little martial glory, but it earned a niche in the annals of American military history.

By 1919, Mexican revolutionary turmoil had been under way for nine years. One faction was led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa, notorious to Americans for killing 16 U.S. citizens in Columbus, N.M., in 1916. Though severely weakened, Villa's 4,000 men (known as Villistas) nonetheless attacked government troops (Carrancistas) in Juarez, dragging Texas-based U.S. soldiers into the fray.

The U.S. Army assembled a formidable force across the Rio Grande River. At its core, it consisted of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, including squadrons of the 7th and 5th Cavalry regiments. Both the brigade and the 7th Cav were com- manded by the flamboyant CoI. Selah R.H. "Tommy" Tompkins, among the last of a dying breed of old-time horse soldiers.

The 24th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Field Artillery (FA), 8th Engineers (two mounted battalions), one company of the 7th Field Signal Battalion, one battalion of the 9th Engineers, a field hospital and a searchlight section of the 8th Engineers emplaced on the mesa above El Paso High School rounded out the force.

'Attack, Pursue, Disperse'

In early June, U.S. commanders received indications that Villa was moving his rebel forces north to attack the Mexican military troops at Ft Hidalgo near Juarez. The Army chief of staff ordered Army Maj. Gen. De Rosey Cabell, commanding the Southern Department, to cross the border and disperse Villa's troops if they fired into El Paso. But U.S. troops could penetrate no farther than 15 miles into Mexico.

Villa, incidentally, dismissed the threat of U.S. military intervention, saying he had enough bullets to fight off the Americans.

On June 12, James B. Erwin, commander of the Military District of El Paso (and former leader of the 7th Cavalry Regiment), received orders to: "Attack, pursue and disperse Villistas wherever found." He immediately ordered the 24th Infantry Regiment, led by Col. G. Arthur Hadsell, to Ft. Bliss. The next day, reports indicated Villa was advancing on Juarez and had stopped to regroup at El Barro.

The attack on Ft. Hidalgo, in the hills overlooking Juarez, on the morning of June 15 was followed by another assault by Villistas in a separate part of the city. The battle raged back and forth for most of the day.

Rebel snipers foolishly began shooting across the Rio Grande River into El Paso, wounding several civilians. Erwin reported an investigation "showing that shots undoubtedly coming from Villistas had been fired into El Paso." Simultaneously, scores of scared Mexican civilians began surging across the border into the U.S. for safety.

The 82nd FA, converted from the 24th Cavalry in 1917, consisted of approximately 495 men. It deployed with Headquarters Company, the 1st Battalion with batteries A and B, the 2nd Battalion with batteries C and D, and the 3rd Battalion with batteries E and F.

The 2nd Battalion joined the 2nd Cavalry Brigade as direct support artillery. Artillery was positioned in the Union stockyards, Camp Cotton and the El Paso Milling Co. …

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