The Punitive Expedition, 1916

By Stephen J. Greenberg

A parade of many men on horseback, four abrest, with a Mexican flag, riding through a village as a few people watch.
Carranza Garrison, El Valle, Mexico

The political situation in Mexico, always a matter of great concern to the United States, was particularly volatile in late 1915 and early 1916.  There were several revolutionary armies in the field, fighting the remnants of the government of Victoriano Huerta as well as each other.  The fragmented opposition, with a constantly changing list of enmities and alliance, included some names of renown such as Venustiano Carranza, Emiliano Zapata, and Francisco “Pancho” Villa.  In October of 1915, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson decided to support Carranza against the other revolutionary forces, and allowed American railroads to be used in transporting Carranza’s troops. This mobility allowed Carranza to inflict heavy losses on his opponents. Pancho Villa retaliated by attacking U.S. nationals in Mexico. Then, on March 9, 1916, Villa crossed the border into New Mexico and attacked the town of Columbus and a nearby U.S. Army base, Camp Furlong. There were casualties on both sides: sixteen American soldiers and civilians, and perhaps as many as sixty-three of Villa’s raiders (the U.S. soldiers were able to deploy machine guns in defense of the base).

A man in a cavelry uniform sits outside a canvas tent.
Major General John J. Pershing

President Wilson was furious. National Guard units were massed on the United States-Mexico border, and on March 16, a force of 6600 men, commanded by Brigadier General John J. Pershing, crossed into Mexico in pursuit of Villa. For nearly a year, Pershing and his “Punitive Expedition” chased Villa all over the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sonora, and Coahuila, and sometimes back into Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. Pershing’s force was not recalled until February of 1917, when Carranza finally began to object to the extended presence of U.S. Troops on Mexican soil.

Many modern (for 1916) inventions were called into play for the campaign, including airplanes, gasoline-powered trucks, and small, mobile cameras.  In the historical collections of the National Library of Medicine there is a black paper scrapbook of nearly 100 photographs recording the expedition and the events that led up to it.  The first picture is of Pershing himself, resplendent in riding boots and spurs (not everyone rode in a truck).  Also included are pictures of the very impressive-looking Army Hospital at Fort Sam Houston, a motorized field hospital, a very casual-looking operating theater “in a Mexican Garden,”  and a collection of “old” (that is, horse-drawn)  and “new” (motorized) ambulances.  The name of the photographer is not recorded, but he clearly had access to all parts of the expedition.  There are also photographs of Mexican officers and soldiers.

Throughout the album, there is an odd kind of innocence.  The pictures are strangely bloodless and still—one could easily take them as the record of maneuvers on some hot, dry plain. Some are downright touristy. The First World War had been underway in Europe for over two years, and some of its bloodiest battles had already been fought.  There is no sense, in the casual poses of the dusty soldiers or the well-shined boots of their commanding general, that these men would soon be in the sodden trenches of France.

By most measures, the expedition was a failure. Villa’s forces were scattered, but he was not captured. He remained in the field until 1920, when he brokered an amnesty of sorts with yet another Mexican government, and retired to a hacienda in Canutillo. He would be assassinated in 1923.  A more serious result was how European powers, especially Germany, rated the performance of the U.S. Army in Mexico. Enmeshed in the war in Europe, the German government was not impressed by Pershing and his troops, and this lack of regard may have contributed to the dispatch of a telegram from the Imperial German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German ambassador in Mexico City in January of 1917.  The telegram directed the ambassador to approach the Carranza government with an offer of a German-Mexican alliance in the event that the U.S. entered the war in Europe.  It was this message, the infamous “Zimmerman Telegram,” intercepted and decoded by British Naval Intelligence and presented to the American government, that helped convince Woodrow Wilson to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany and its Allies in April.  The American Expeditionary Force, the U.S. contribution to the ground war in Europe, would be led by Pershing.

The “U.S. Punitive Expedition into Mexico-1916 under General John J. Pershing” album now resides in an acid-free storage box in the NLM stacks; its images have been scanned and can be viewed through the NLM Digital Collections.

Steven GreenbergStephen J. Greenberg is Coordinator of Public Services for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


  1. Was the telegram intercepted before it it could be presented to the Mexican government ? If not , was the attitude of the Carranza government favorable to the proposed alliance with Germany or not . I realize that the proposal was never implemented but it would be interesting to know the attitude of the Mexicans.

    1. The timetable of the events have been variously reported, but most likely Carranza had the note for about two weeks and had already dismissed the German proposals as impractical before the British gave the decoded text to the United States government.

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