The Mexican civil war erupted in 1910. For the most part, the violence remained south of the Rio Grande. But when the United States pulled their support from Mexican revolutionary Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa, he felt betrayed.
So, in the pre-dawn hours of March 9, 1916, Villa led a column of guerillas across the border into the small town of Columbus, New Mexico. They left the town in flames with 17 Americans dead. Word of the attack raced across the nation’s telegraphs. Newspaper headlines called for immediate action. Brigadier General John J. Pershing would lead troops across the border in pursuit of Villa. At the same time, President Wilson called out 112,000 National Guardsmen for border service. They would act as a show of force to prevent further raids. Among them were 1,000 men of the First North Dakota Infantry National Guard. They were sent to Mercedes; a small town in Hidalgo County, Texas, about 7 miles from the Rio Grande.
Over the next eight months, their days were spent drilling, marching and as one guardsman noted, “we have guard duty and plenty of it.” They would battle tarantulas, scorpions, obscene heat, wind, rain and mosquitoes.
But not all was bad, most evenings were spent listening to bands from the various regiments, playing ballgames or fishing in the Rio Grande. While the North Dakota guardsmen saw no real action during their time in Texas, the experience would prove valuable. The training they received would be put to good use later that year when the United States declared war on Germany.
By January 1917 the Punitive Expedition withdrew, having been unsuccessful in the hunt for Pancho Villa. The National Guard units were also sent home. As the North Dakota guardsmen prepared to depart, they were given written testimonials of thanks from the citizens of Mercedes, one of which read: “The citizens of Mercedes – having been witness of your daily drill, your fidelity to work, your soldierly qualities and manly bearing under the restraint of inaction – desire to compliment you upon these facts and desire to congratulate your governor and the people of your home state upon the splendid military efficiency you have shown under circumstances most exacting.”
Forty-three years later, on this date in 1960, a historical marker was erected near the town of Mercedes in further recognition of the men from North Dakota.
Written by Christina Campbell
Stenberg, Richard K., “Dakota Doughboys in the Desert: The Experiences of a North Dakota National Guard Company during the Mexican Border Campaign of 1916-1917” North Dakota History, Vol. 71, No 1 and 2, 2004, pg 50-64