In the pre-dawn hours of March 9, 1916, around 600 Mexicans under the leadership of Pancho Villa raided a town and an army base in Southern New Mexico. The raiders burned down part of the town and killed 18 Americans, half of them civilians, but took heavy casualties themselves (sources say anywhere from 90 to 200 Mexicans were killed). The raiders stole food, supplies, horses, mules, and military equipment and ammunition. In the town, Villa’s men robbed guests in the hotels of cash and valuables. As dawn broke, the Mexicans retreated to nearby Palomas, Mexico ...and were never apprehended. The raid was the last successful military invasion of the United States.
Columbus, New Mexico, is in the boot-heel part of New Mexico, between El Paso, Texas and the state of Arizona. This part of New Mexico, along with Arizona south of the Gila River, was not originally part of the territory ceded to the United States following the U.S.-Mexican War under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Rather, it was purchased from Mexico later, in 1853, in a deal that became known as the Gadsden Purchase.
In 1912, New Mexico became the 47th State. Meanwhile, in Mexico, President Porfilio Diaz, the dictator of Mexico for 30 years, held what was supposed to be a free election in 1911. The election was a farce, and an armed insurrection led by Francisco Madero swept the country, backed by Pancho Villa in the North and Emiliano Zapata in the South. Madero, however, was assassinated. By 1916, Pancho Villa was among the leaders vying for power and foreign recognition as the legitimate government of Mexico.
Pancho Villa had nothing against gringos, personally. In fact, he had a number of American mercenaries in his forces. The problem was, the United States government had backed Venustiano Carranza, Villa’s opponent in the chaotic revolution. President Woodrow Wilson not only recognized Carranza as the legitimate President of Mexico but also gave his forces free passage through United States territory to attack Villa’s forces. Villa did have a personal animosity toward some bankers in Columbus, New Mexico, who Villa believed had cheated him on an arms deal (they sold him movie blanks instead of real ammo). This, along with the potential for loot, is probably the reason why Villa’s men attacked and burned the town of Columbus, itself, instead of directing their attention exclusively to the U.S. 13th Cavalry base at Camp Furlong.
Also, the raid may have been inspired by agents of Germany, who were trying to distract the Americans with problems on their Mexican border to prevent them from entering World War I on the side of the British. The German government certainly provided some financial assistance to Villa to buy weapons.
A retaliatory response from the U.S. came quickly. General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing was authorized to enter Mexico to get Pancho Villa and disperse his forces. For 11 months, 10,000 U.S. soldiers chased Villa around the mountains of Chihuahua. The Punitive Expedition, as it was called, was one of the last major cavalry actions of the United States Army, but also its first motorized action. The Army used over a hundred different kinds of cars, trucks, and armored cars, as well as aerial reconnaissance with early biplanes. Villa was never caught, so in that sense the Expedition was a failure. The Army learned some valuable lessons, however, about maintaining and using motorized vehicles. Pershing went on the lead U.S. forces in World War I.
Today, Pancho Villa State Park is 35 miles south of Deming via New Mexico Highway 11. The Park includes extensive cactus gardens and a visitor’s center housed in the old U.S. Customs Service building with exhibits describing Pancho Villa, the Columbus raid, and Pershing's Expedition.