The Mexican civil war, sometimes called the Mexican Revolution, erupted in 1910. For the most part, the violence remained south of the Rio Grande. But when the United States pulled their support from the legendary outlaw and Mexican revolutionary Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa, he felt betrayed by the American government.
So in the pre-dawn hours of March 9, 1916, Pancho Villa led a column of Mexican guerillas across the American border into the small town of Columbus, NM. They would leave in their wake a town in flames and 17 Americans dead. Word of the attack raced across the nation’s telegraphs and 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 from across the country for border service. They would act as a show of force to prevent further raids across the border. 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, TX, about 7 miles from the Rio Grande and the Mexican border.
Over the next eight months, their days were spent drilling, marching and as one guardsman noted in a letter, “we have guard duty and plenty of it.” They would battle tarantulas, scorpions, obscene heat, wind and rain storms and mosquitoes. One guardsman wrote, ‘Our first night in camp was a continual uproar…We imagined everything in the insect line had bitten us.” 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 to be a valuable one. The grueling training they had received while patrolling the border would be put to good use later that year when the United States declared war on Germany.
By January 1917 the Punitive Expedition into Mexico, unsuccessful in their hunt for Pancho Villa, decided to withdraw. 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, TX. 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 day, April 7, 1960, a historical marker was erected near Mercedes, TX in further recognition of the officers and enlisted men of the North Dakota National Guard.
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