As Villa’s men roamed through northern Mexico in the winter of 1915-1916, they were in need of arms, ammunition, food, clothing, and other supplies to revitalize their revolutionary goals. Villa had recently suffered a series of devastating defeats by Mexican co-revolutionary Caranza. Villa’s lack of resources forced him to begin praying on American mining companies and ranches in northern Mexico, robbing payrolls and taking supplies. It became obvious to him that more drastic measures were needed to obtain sufficient weapons and supplies.
On March 8, 1916, Villa sent two trusted officers as spies to Columbus, New Mexico to gather information on the feasibility of raiding the town and the army camp there. They reported to Villa that only 30 to 50 soldiers were garrisoned at the U.S. camp.In reality, there were approximately 350 soldiers at the camp. The underestimation would have disastrous consequences for Villa. To the misinformed Villa, Columbus seemed like a town that could be taken with relative ease. Additionally, Villa believed he could obtain horses, small arms, and machine guns from the under-manned Camp at Columbus. If successful, the morale of his troops would be bolstered and they would be well prepared to continue their revolutionary quest.
In the middle of the night on March 9, 1916, Villa’s 485 troops crossed the U.S./Mexican border and headed toward Columbus using his usual strategy of stealth and surprise. The weather was clear and the sky almost pitch black. An arroyo 4 to 5 miles to the southwest provided cover for the raiders as they approached Columbus. The terrain over which Villa’s troops made their incursion is much like it is today─ virtually no trees, plenty of rocks, sand, and plants like cactus, creosote, and mesquite. Villa divided his troops into several units and attacked Columbus from the Southwest at approximately 4:20 a.m., although it is not known if Villa was actually in Columbus during the raid. This attack caught the entire town and the army camp by surprise.
Alerted by the gunfire and burning buildings, the U.S. 13th Cavalry sprang into action. With the flames of the burning buildings providing illumination, U.S. soldiers set up Benet-Mercie machine guns near the railroad tracks and aimed northward toward the business district producing a murderous rain of bullets. Other U.S. soldiers firing Springfield rifles from the east part of town caught the raiders in deadly crossfire. The battle lasted until dawn– approximately one and a half hours. The death toll totaled 70 to 75 raiders, ten American civilians, and eight U.S. soldiers. Interestingly, Villa’s men seemed more eager to get supplies rather than killing citizens, otherwise there surely would have been more American deaths.
There are several other theories concerning Villa’s motivation behind the raid. For replenishment of Villa’s supplies; a major target was Sam Ravel’s general store. Legend has it that Ravel may have been involved in the “hoodwinking” of Villa in a shady business deal, so revenge may have been a part of Villa’s motive for the raid. The theory states that Ravel sold ammunition to both Villa’s buyers and Caranza’s right-hand man General Alvaro Obregon, but that the cartridges delivered to Villa were deliberately underloaded, resulting in the victory og Obregon over Villa at Celaya. Over 3,000 of Villa’s troops were killed.
After the raid, President Woodrow Wildon ordered General John Pershing to capture Villa in the “Punitive Expedition.”
After the Punitive Expedition, Villa remained in hiding from Caranza, whose forces occupied the northern cities of Chihuahua. In 1920, Adolfo de la Huerto became president, and Villa negotiated peace with him, retiring to a hacienda in El Canutillo. He was assassinated three years later in Parral, Chihuahua, and his assassins were never arrested.
Today, Villa is remembered as either a folk hero or a ruthless criminal. The location of Villa’s remains is in dispute. In 1926, grave robbers reportedly decapitated the corpse and his skull supposedly rests in the Skull and Bones Tomb in New Haven, Connecticut. Others maintain that his body rests in the city cemetery of Parral, Chihuahua, where it was initially laid to rest, and others maintain that it was removed to the Revolutionary Monument in Mexico City when it was built in 1972. Tombstones for Villa are in both places.