Pancho Villa, El León del Norte, has been smoldering with resentment against the United States for months. Convinced that the US Army took part in his defeat at the border town of Agua Prieta in November, incensed that President Woodrow Wilson has recognized his rival José Venustiano Carranza Garza as the legitimate President of Mexico, Villa has been killing every American he could get his hands on while riding through northern Mexico these last four months. Fallen far from his peak of power, he has not been able to replenish the losses that General Álvaro Obregón inflicted on his División del Norte last April, nor has he been able to convince Germany to sell him guns. As logistics has never been his strong suit, Villa needs everything — food, horses, weapons, ammunition, etc. — if he is to secure his dominion in the north and challenge the new Mexican government.
There have already been episodes of cross-border violence during this phase of the Mexican civil war, mostly by bandits but also by policy. Thirsting for vengeance and hungry for loot, today Villa aims to raid an entire American town. Approaching in the wee hours of morning, his band of less than 500 men cuts the wire marking the border and steals across it. Setting up his observation post on Cootes Hill, Villa assigns his trusted Dorados (‘golden ones’) to lead elements of 40-125 men each in an envelopment of Columbus, New Mexico.
But Villa has acted on poor intelligence. Beefed up due to the border violence, the garrison at Camp Furlong is much larger than he thinks. Posted at the regimental headquarters just south of the rail station, Private Fred Griffin challenges the figures looming out of the dark just after 4 AM. Mortally wounded, he returns fire, killing three Villistas and alerting everyone to the raid.
The next 90 minutes are hardest on civilians. Worried that the thin walls of his home will not protect them, railroad employee Milton James attempts to hurry his pregnant wife Mary across the street to the thick-walled adobe Hoover Hotel only to see her shot dead. Hiding from the banditos, a Mrs. Riggs stuffs a pillowcase in her five month old baby’s mouth, nearly suffocating it before the searching men leave. Escaping in a Model T car with their three month old child, a Mr. Frost is wounded and his wife must take the wheel. Families climb out of windows and hide in the scrub. Hauled from their rooms at the Commercial Hotel, three men are robbed and killed. Altogether, ten civilians are murdered and the town center is set aflame.
Lieutenant James P. Castleman, the Officer of the Day, leaves his quarters and is nearly shot, but kills his attacker and begins to organize a counterattack. Already awake to make breakfast, the cooks fight back with whatever lies at hand; so does the stable detail, one of whom allegedly uses a baseball bat to lethal effect. Meanwhile, the troopers of the 13th Cavalry surge from their barracks, break into their armories, and begin to lay an increasingly heavy fire on the attackers. Deployed to retake the town, machine gunners and riflemen engage the Villistas with a withering crossfire, for they are nicely silhouetted by the flames of their arson.
Seeing the tide of battle turn against him, Villa has his bugler sound the retreat. It will not be an orderly one. Post commander Colonel Herbert Slocum had received rumors of Villa’s approach, but he was unable to confirm and discounted them as another false alarm, leaving last night for a polo match in Deming. He arrives by motorcar one hour into the battle to find matters well in hand, and when the Villistas fall back he gives Major Frank Tompkins permission to carry out a hot pursuit into Mexico. Riding fifteen miles past the border, Tompkins suffers no casualties, killing scores of Mexicans; the Villistas must drop almost everything they have stolen in order to make their escape, and Tompkins only turns around when his ammunition has given out.
Meanwhile, the garrison has counted 67 dead at the cost of eight American soldiers killed. Tragically, most of the dead Villistas are teenage boys taken off the haciendas. Their bodies are burned; the five captured alive are later hanged as bandits. News of the raid has reached every corner of the country, dominating the afternoon headlines and spurring calls for retaliation. El León del Norte has awakened the Giant of the North.