|Pancho Villa, ca 1914.|
Library of Congress.
Since about 1910, Mexico had been wracked by fighting between various revolutionary factions. In 1914, a coalition headed by Venustiano Carranza gained the upper hand. Because Carranza promised a constitutional government, eventually, the United States recognized him as President of Mexico in 1915.
However, Carranza’s refusal or inability to propose deep social reforms caused a split with more reformed-minded revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.
As a revolutionary ally of Carranza, Villa’s success and charisma attracted support from the United States, including guns and ammunition. That ended after his split with Carranza. Angered, Villa turned against his erstwhile allies. In early 1916, Villa’s troops killed seventeen Americans working for a mining company in Mexico.
In March, Villa raided the border town of Columbus, New Mexico, about 70 miles west of El Paso, Texas. The garrison reportedly inflicted heavy casualties (60-80 killed) on the revolutionaries. However, 18 Americans – soldiers, militia, and civilians – were killed and many structures burned.
Newspapers all over the country clamored for action against Villa. Less than three months later, Congress passed the National Defense Act. At the time, the Army was badly undermanned to handle all its commitments, so they needed reinforcements from the Guard. Authorization to call up these units had one major string attached: Guard soldiers were not to operate on foreign territory.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 had established the position that the government could nationalize Guard units for a declared war. Because the Villa campaign was not part of a declared war, the troops could only "defend the border."
That turned out to be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” stance for the government. Some units resented being hauled across the country to watch over a stretch of barren desert. This hardly fit the traditional scenario where militiamen were called out to protect their home state from imminent invasion. But other Guard units wanted to march into Mexico and fight.
|National Guard troops bivouacked in Nogales. National Archives.|
For several months, the Idaho regiment drilled and conducted patrols across the rugged border country. They were mustered out of Federal service in late January 1917. (Some Guard units did see live action and had soldiers killed or wounded.)
A fundamental flaw in the militia/national guard concept appeared even that early: What do we do with the demobilized soldiers? A sergeant wrote to the Idaho Statesman (January 2, 1917), “All of us were working or going to school before we left, while now our positions are filled … ”
Business groups made some sincere, but spotty attempts to alleviate their plight. Yet even today there are few good answers to the problem. For the 1917 soldiers, the issue went away a few months later: Guard units were recalled for duty in World War I. Thus, the border duty became a “dress rehearsal.” It toughened the men to field duty and provided officers and men experience in coordinating the regiment's actions as full units.
|References: [Brit], [Hawley]|
|Cornelius James Brosnan, History of the State of Idaho, Charles Scribner’s sons, New York (1918).|
|Jerry M. Cooper, The Rise of the National Guard: The Evolution of the American Militia, 1865-1920, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (2002).|
|Richard W. Stewart (ed.), American Military History, Vol 1, Center of Military History, U.S. Army, Washiongton, D.C. (2004).|