Pancho Villa Crossed the Border…and got US into the Great War

Pancho Villa crossed the border in the year of ought sixteen
The people of Columbus still hear him riding through their dreams
He killed seventeen civilians you could hear the women scream
Blackjack Pershing on a dancing horse was waiting in the wings

Tonight we ride, tonight we ride
We’ll skin ole Pancho Villa, make chaps out of his hide
Shoot his horse, Siete Leguas, and his twenty-seven bride
Tonight we ride, tonight we ride

We rode for three long years till Blackjack Pershing called it quits
When Jackie wasn’t lookin’ I stole his fine spade bit
It was tied upon his stallion, so I rode away on it
To the wild Chihuahuan desert, so dry you couldn’t spit

Tonight we ride, you bastards dare
We’ll kill the wild Apache for the bounty on his hair
Then we’ll ride into Durango, climb up the whorehouse stairs
Tonight we ride, Tonight we ride

When I’m too damn old to sit a horse, I’ll steal the warden’s car
Break my ass out of this prison, leave my teeth there in a jar
You don’t need no teeth for kissin’ gals or smokin’ cheap cigars
I’ll sleep with one eye open, ‘neath God’s celestial stars

Tonight we rock, Tonight we roll
We’ll rob the Juarez liquor store for the Reposado Gold
And if we drink ourselves to death, ain’t that the cowboy way to go?

Tonight we ride, tonight we ride
Tonight we fly, we’re headin’ west
Toward the mountains and the ocean where the eagle makes his nest
If our bones bleach on the desert, we’ll consider we are blessed
Tonight we ride, Tonight we ride

Tom Russell, “Tonight We Ride” off Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs (2004)


On 28 January 1917, President Wilson ordered Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing back home from his punitive expedition against Pancho Villa into Mexico.  Back in March 1916, Pancho Villa had led a raid on the town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing 17 US citizens in retaliation for US recognition of his rival and former ally Venustiano Carranza as president of Mexico.  Pershing charged back across the border and chased Villa across Northern Mexico all summer and into the fall.

While American leaders put a brave face on the expedition, it was clearly a farce.  As Pershing later wrote, “Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs.”  Instead, Carranza used his rival’s travails to whip up anti-American sentiment and solidify his own position.

Even more damning, failure of the incursion likely gave Germany the confidence to approach Mexico as a potential ally against the United States in World War I, as exposed in the Zimmermann Telegram.  The British intercepted the telegram, send on 16 January 1917, and provided a decrypted copy to the United States on 19 February.  President Wilson released the text on 28 February, whipping up American sentiment against both Mexico and Germany, and leading to American involvement in the Great War—World War I.

Words lead to action—America’s taking sides in Mexico led to actions against American citizens.  Actions lead to consequences—a small military action helped lead to a very large military action.  And, to paraphrase Santayana, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.



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