As it were

An Ohio pursuit in a distant place

Enlarge Image
COURTESY OF THE COLUMBUS METROPOLITAN LIBRARY
Troop B of the Ohio National Guard in 1916 at Camp Willis, in what today is Upper Arlington.
Buy This Photo
By

This is a story about Columbus, New Mexico. But first, it needs a little background.

In the 1970s, when the house I had lived in for some time in German Village had gotten to be a bit small, I moved to Clintonville. The house stood at the top of the long hill from High Street on Fallis Avenue.

Clintonville in those days was a very nice place to live. To all appearances, it still is. In Clintonville, we lived by the block. People knew everybody on their block. And they knew them very well. We even had yearly block parties to celebrate our friendship. Beyond that one block, we knew hardly anyone at all. That may seem strange in a time when people are so closely linked across entire cities by social media. But, then again, it was a different time.

There was a sadly neglected grape arbor behind our house. Trained at a young age in the care of such vines by a grandfather, I was soon outside trimming and tying and trying to revive the vines. My next door neighbor came forth and greeted me across the picket fences that ran between our houses.

He had bought a lot and built his house on that lot in 1926 for about $2,000. Having paid quite a lot more for my house, I mentioned that perhaps money went a lot farther back then. He said to me, "Of course it did, but then so did we. I bought the lot after I returned from riding after Villa in 1916."

I am an historian by training and I wanted to hear all of this story. Why was a man -- who I later learned worked for Jeffrey Manufacturing, a company that made coal mining machines -- riding into Mexico in 1916? As it turned out, it was because President Woodrow Wilson did not like Pancho Villa very much.

It was not hard to see why.

By 1916 the Mexican Revolution had been underway for more than six years. A rather overweight, overblown and overrated dictator named Porfirio Diaz had been overthrown. In his place had come a democratic republic which itself had been quickly replaced by a military dictatorship. The fall of the dictatorship led to a civil war among diverse factions in the country -- notably Venustriano Carranza in the north, Emiliano Zapata in the south and Pancho Villa, anywhere he chose.

Born Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula in 1878, the man who came to be called Pancho Villa was one of the most important men in the Mexican Revolution. Villa became a folk hero by robbing trains, redistributing land to the peasants and even printing his own money.

Generally President Woodr-ow Wilson did not like the Mexican Revolution very much and felt compelled to intervene in it from time to time "to protect American interests" in a land wracked by bloodshed and strife. In 1914, he ordered American forces into the port city of Vera Cruz and lent his support for a time to Pancho Villa.

Woodrow Wilson was a man of many dimensions -- scholar, diplomat and master political strategist. But he simply could not abide unpredictable people of humble origins. And Pancho Villa was just that. So Wilson shifted his support to Venustriano Carranza. He shipped Carranza guns and permitted Mexican troops under Carranza's command to redeploy by crossing American soil.

In retaliation Villa's forces struck with more than 1,500 men across the border and attacked Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916. Columbus had been named by a one-armed Civil War veteran named Andrew Osmond Bailey who established the first post office in the area. He named for a town where he had once lived -- Columbus, Ohio.

Villa picked the wrong town to attack. An American army unit of more than 300 well armed men was camped near the town. Columbus sustained a lot of damage and 18 Americans were killed. More than 80 of Villa's men died that day.

Outraged by the attack, President Wilson ordered General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing to lead a punitive force against Pancho Villa. For the next two years he did just that with the eventual help of more than 8,000 men from Ohio. Forming up at Camp Willis in what is now Upper Arlington on July 29, 1916, the last troops left for Mexico on Sept. 6.

Pershing never caught Pancho Villa and the expedition ended as America prepared to enter World War I. The troops came home. Each of the Ohio soldiers received a medal. On one side it said "Mexican Border Service, 1916-1917." On the other side it said, "Presented by the State of Ohio."

My old neighbor from Clintonville was among them. He once told me that, successful or not, it was the great adventure of his life. And to the men of the old army -- of long days on horseback and relentless pursuit -- it was probably just that.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek Community News.

Comments