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North Dakota Guards Entrain to Mexico

7/21/2006:

The troops of the First North Dakota Infantry had waited anxiously for several weeks to receive the order that would send them to the Mexican border for duty. Finally, on this day in 1916, they got it.

The next day, the men were to entrain to the Mexican Border. Hostilities had begun as early as 1911 when the Mexican dictator was overthrown. The revolution was of some concern for the United States, and troops were sent to the border to ensure the battles stayed in Mexico and did not spill over into the United States. Though the United States troops were mainly there to keep peace at the border, relations between the two countries slowly deteriorated. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the occupation of Vera Cruz from April to November 1914. The conflict reached a climax in March 1916 when the famed Mexican bandit Franciso “Pancho” Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico and shot up the town, killing several people.

Troops were then sent into Mexico to hunt Villa’s gang. As US troops went deeper into Mexico, General Frederick Funston of the Southern Department found he did not have enough troops to both pursue Villa and to patrol the border. He asked for more help, and on June 18, 1916, the National Guard was called up for duty.

Among the troops called was the First North Dakota Infantry. They reported to the Fort Lincoln Military Base in Bismarck on June 24th and awaited their orders to entrain for Mexico. The troops left on July 22nd, and after a four day train ride, reached their destination of Mercedes, Texas.

When they first arrived in Mercedes, the men’s spirits were high and they were ready to do their share for their country. Yet, though the men felt prepared for duty, their camp was not. The troops’ first assignment was to clean camp, which was covered in “chapparal and mesquite and rubbish” and get it ready for drills. This took them until the end of August to finish. But, the troops were still not needed for battle. Instead, they began a rigorous six-month training program. While the men expected to see some military action, it seemed the only adversaries they faced were of the natural kind: “The main objection to this country is its poisonous snakes and insects. Many tarantulas and scorpions are killed each day in the camp,” wrote one soldier. The heat was another cause for complaint, but the main complaint was the lack of action.

The camp in Texas slowly began to resemble that of Fort Lincoln. Duties were dull and men yearned for some activity other than patrol. “I am ready and willing to sacrifice my all for a cause, but my blood boils when I stop and think that I must be part and parcel to stupid dress parades, grueling marches and military maneuvers for the pleasure and edification of such persons as Secretary of War Baker, et al., who are toying with the army,” wrote one soldier from Company C.

Their training culminated in November when over 23,000 regular and guard troops were sent on a ten-day maneuver. The maneuver consisted of forced marches, reconnaissance, and trench work with day and night operations. The troops were later reviewed by General Parker. The review was reported to be the largest in the United States since the final review of the Union Army in Washington at the close of the Civil War. One soldier from Company C wrote home to his parents about it: “You should have heard the cheering and yelling when Company C went past the General. We passed him in Company front and had a line just as straight as an arrow, not a break or crook in the entire line. There were several regular army officers watching the parades and they said that North Dakota had the finest looking companies in the parade...Two Regular outfits were faded out of sight by us. This is all straight from a regular army officer too.”

While the men thought all this training and preparation was for naught, others suspected the importance it would play in the next few years. Herman Brocopp of Company A said it was apparent that these troops would later be used in Europe. Many others agreed. For now, however, their service in Texas was coming to an end. The North Dakota troops gladly left Texas on January 23, 1917 for Fort Snelling in Minnesota and mustered out on February 14. Years later, on April 7, 1960, a plaque was erected near the campsite at Mercedes in memory of the First North Dakota Infantry’s service.

By Tessa Sandstrom

Sources:

Cooper, Jerry & Smith, Glenn. Citizens as Soldiers. North Dakota State University: Fargo, 1986.

Dedication of the First North Dakota Infantry Plaque. Adjutant General’s Office. Historical Records Division.

“Members of Co. C writes about life on border,” Walsh County Record. December 13, 1916:1.

“Soldiers anxious to be returned home,” Walsh County Record. November 8, 1916:1.