Fort Bliss historian helps others ride with Pancho Villa
USASMA historian and Soldiers explore the historical battle
Fort Bliss — In the predawn hours of March 9, 1916, Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his band of several hundred villistas descended upon the town of Columbus, N.M., in hopes of obtaining needed military equipment, supplies and horses in the hands of the 13th Cavalry, garrisoned in Camp Furlong. Villa needed the supplies and weapons for his fight against Mexican president Venustiano Carranza.
Warned the day before, Villa was moving his army north towards the border, leadership dismissed the warning and the Soldiers of Camp Furlong went about their daily business. Taken by surprise when Villa’s Army attacked just shortly after 4 a.m., Soldiers of the 13th Cavalry were able to rally and force Villa’s Army out of the town, but not before Villa got what he came for. Successful in obtaining what he needed – capturing more than 300 rifles and shotguns, 80 horses and 30 mules – Villa’s attack, however, was considered a tactical disaster as it cost him more than 100 casualties from his small Army of 400 to 500 men.
The story of this battle intrigued Lt. Col David Anderson, 745th Forward Surgical Team commander, so he wanted his Soldiers to learn more about it and the military’s involvement in the area. He tasked Capt. Jorge Mendoza, an operating nurse in the unit, to find out what resources were available to help him get his team out to Columbus and learn about Pancho Villa’s raid.
“I read about Pancho Villa and his history, and I know a descendent of his, so I read more about him and thought this would make a good visit for our team,” Anderson said. “[Capt. Mednoza’s] initial mission was to actually call the welcome center in Columbus and see if we could find somebody who would help us guide ourselves around the site.”
With task in hand, Mendoza set out to fulfill his part and soon found his way to the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy where he met up with the Academy’s historian, Dr. Robert Bouilly who developed a staff ride to Columbus for the students of the Sergeants Major Course.
“After doing some research I learned about Bouilly who I ended up talking to and he was very helpful,” Mendoza said. “He brought out a lot of information I really needed and he volunteered to come and do a recon of the area and go through all the steps so the team would be more capable of providing a better briefing.”
With the research done and the team prepared to explore history, Bouilly and Mendoza, led an expedition of 16 surgical Soldiers from the 745th FST on a staff ride March 21, to the small town of Columbus.
“The staff ride is a learning methodology primarily made up of three steps: studying the battle, walking the terrain and restudying it, and drawing conclusions hopefully for a relevance to present day military situations or future contingencies,” Bouilly said. “We are trying to get them to look at the larger picture – where does this fit in? This was a tiny little battle out in the middle of nowhere. How does it fit in to the bigger picture? What the Army was doing at the time and how they reacted to a rather fluid situation along the border.”
That larger picture was not lost on Spc. Trey Meeker, an operating room specialist, honored by the unit by presenting him with a Good Conduct Medal atop of Cootes Hill, overlooking Camp Furlong.
“It was very interesting to see places where the events actually occurred and picture in my head what was going on, what they were going through and the distances between things,” said Meeker. “That was the biggest thing I took away from this, is you never really know what is exactly going on. The distances seemed shorter than I had pictured when I did the research. Then when I saw the whole course, it was close but far enough away that you couldn’t have communications without a runner. So they had to trust whoever was leading the section, was going to do the right thing.”
Bouilly explained all military students in the TRADOC system must go through a staff ride and because of budget constraints, he had to find something close to Fort Bliss to study, thus Pancho Villa’s raid came into view. What he found when he started researching the site some 15 years ago was that much of the history of that day focused primarily on the residents of Columbus and not the Soldiers of the 13th Cavalry. Hence has spent the last 15 years researching and updating the story to ensure the story of the 13th Cavalry’s involvement was told.
“I collaborated with people, the head of the historical society in Columbus and trying to build up the Army’s story of what happened,” said Bouilly. “One of the ways I have done that is by getting pictures off the Internet, doing research and filling out the story. They can tell the story much better now than they could 15 years ago – what the military was, what they were trying to do, their associations with the railroad and moving people along the border as they needed, and so on. I also got some background on the 13th Cavalry; it was hardly 15 years old at the time of the raid. They were just formed in 1901.”
Bouilly explained the staff -ride explored 12 points of interest; from the initial entry point along the border in Palomas, Mexico, to places within Camp Furlong and the Columbus township. Villa’s men looted and burned several homes and structures in the town, which ended up thwarting his raid as the burning building lit up the dark skies making it easier for the Soldiers to identify Villas men.
At the end of the day, Anderson praised the efforts of his team and Bouilly for his involvement in making the ride a success.
“Dr. Bouilly has made this visit happen for us. He gave us the resources, he and Capt. Mendoza came out to Columbus to do a recon of the area, he told us what to bring, we knew what to be studying ahead of time,” he said “Then we split out the presentation between the entire team so each person had a small segment to present. Because of that advance planning and execution we had very good students and I thought we had very good presenters. Nice insights, a lot of good information and I think it all worked very nicely and I have Dr. Bouilly to thank for those resources and really making it happen the way it happened today.”