A bullet stopped the clock in the railroad station at Columbus, N.M., at 4 a.m. on March 9, 1916.
The small border town was experiencing its only rendezvous with history, one spark of violence in the otherwise silent desert. Flames from burning buildings lit bullet-whipped streets where troopers of the 13th Cavalry Regiment and outragedcitizens fought hundreds of Pancho Villa’s raiders. Villa’s men pulled out as dawn approached, cavalry troopers chasing them back into Mexico.
Villa’s attack on Columbus is assumed to have been a guerrilla raid for supplies and horses, although other explanations have been proposed. Eighteen Americans were killed, others wounded, and property damage was enormous. There had been other cross-border outrages, but this time President Woodrow Wilson was fighting mad. On March 15, columns of U.S. Cavalry rode into Chihuahua, the sun in their eyes, grit in their teeth and Pancho Villa in their sights. This was the last full-fledged cavalry campaign of the U.S. Army.
The first few months of the Punitive Expedition are called the “pursuit period.” Flying columns of the 7th, 10th, 11th, and 13th cavalry regiments crisscrossed Chihuahua. Units of the 11th rode into Parral, 400 miles south of the border. Small engagements were fought, up to a few hundred on each side. Villa’s men were ridden to the ground, and never again did he menace the U.S. border.
The Punitive Expedition was a tough campaign in hostile country. The last troopers to leave Mexico rode into Columbus on Feb. 5, 1917. When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, interest in the Punitive Expedition was lost. Ever since, it has remained a hazy episode in American military history.
On March 16, 1916, the day after U.S. Cavalry troopers rode into Mexico, aviation history was made. On that day, the first “aggressive” sortie of what would eventually become the U.S. Air Force lifted off from the field at Columbus and flew into Mexico on a recon mission, with Capt. T.F. Dodd at the controls and Squadron Commander B.D. Fulois riding along as observer. The unarmed airplane was a “Jenny” (Curtiss JN-4) that belonged to the 1st Aero Squadron, then part of the Signal Corps. The squadron had eight Jennys, the only operational planes available for the campaign. Dodd and Fulois returned to Columbus without anything of great importance to report.
Six Jennys cracked up during the campaign, and the remaining two were condemned. The squadron flew an estimated 20,000 miles on 540 flights, scouting and delivering messages. The squadron’s mechanics repaired the many trucks that had to be purchased to help supply the troops in Mexico and the trained drivers. And so the U.S. Army started to catch up with the 20th century as its entry into the war in Europe approached.
Histories of cavalry campaigns rarely discuss horses, almost as if they are simply a convenient conveyance. However, as an old trooper would say, the cavalry was only half man. The other half was horse, and cavalrymen knew precisely what sort of horse worked best for them. A cavalry mount, fully loaded, had to be able to march 20 to 30 miles per day, day after day, or 60 miles on a forced march. Finding thousands of suitable mounts during the Civil War had been a perennial problem, and so the Remount Program was born.
The Army purchased 700 stallions, most of them thoroughbreds, although some Morgans and Arabians were drafted. The Army’s stallions were placed with farmers and ranchers and matched with mares of generally no definite bloodline. Cavalrymen visited the ranches and farms to choose the young horses they needed, always looking for the conformation of a suitable cavalry mount. They paid up to $150 for each young horse – a lot of money in those days. Many of today’s fine horses are descendants of the Remount Program. To avoid horse jargon, suffice it to say that a typical cavalry mount looked much like a modern quarter horse.
Retired Maj. E.A. Capen, interviewed in 1983, was a young trooper when he chased through Mexico on Villa’s trail in 1916. His unit lost only one horse – and that one, they thought, because it might have eaten locoweed.
George Moseley joined the 8th Cavalry Regiment in 1927, leaving an orphanage where he’d been since 1919. He was almost 16. When he received his first mount he was called out of formation, and the drill instructor passed the halter shank to him, saying, “Recruit, this is a horse. His name is Buddy, Preston brand 2W56. Take him over to the picket line.”
The first lesson with a cavalry horse is to groom it the cavalry way, introducing horse and rider. Cavalry mounts were groomed daily, but certainly after a workout. Buddy was a typical mount, about 15 years old when the young recruit received him, and so well trained that he stepped higher when he heard a military band.
Moseley admitted that without that horse he might not have survived basic training. Buddy died in a stable fire in 1929.
Then came the introduction of tanks on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. Mechanization was considered. But in 1919, 72 military vehicles pulled out of Washington, D.C., bound for San Francisco. Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower took part in the expedition. Sixty-two days later, after driving hundreds of miles over minimal roads and through a lot of still-wild country, the expedition reached its goal. Yes, cavalrymen could point out, much of the Far West was still cavalry country.
In 1940 the Army still had 12 regiments of cavalry, with thousands of horses and men to ride and care for them, plus National Guard regiments. But the fast-moving war in Europe was a shock. Cavalry regiments were dismounted one after another. Troopers and officers were promoted to help train the burgeoning army. When the 8th Cavalry dismounted in 1942, Sgt. Moseley was sent to OCS. He then taught at Fort Riley, Kan., before going to the Pacific as a troop commander.
The 26th Cavalry Regiment (PS) was the only regiment of horses to fight from the saddle during World War II. When the Japanese invaded Luzon in the Philippines, the 26th Cavalry fought a series of desperate rearguard actions to gain time while other Filipino and U.S. troops retreated to Bataan.
The 26th Cavalry were Philippine Scouts, trooper Filipinos and U.S. officers. Prior to World War II, the 26th had no combat history. Before their retreat to Bataan, this gallant band of horsemen wrote some extraordinary action-filled chapters. Surviving horses and mules were put down before the surrender to the Japanese.
The last U.S. Cavalry regiment to dismount was the 124th, in June 1944. The troopers cleaned bridles and saddles, stuffed them into burlap sacks and groomed their mounts for the last time, saying goodbye. Capen served though World War II as an instructor of marksmanship. Moseley retired after the Korean War. The last cavalry mount was Chief, who died in 1968 and is buried at Fort Riley.
Al Manchester is a writer and photographer living in New Mexico.