The desert night was dark, and the small town seemed asleep. In the pre-dawn hours of March 9, 1916, however, at least one man remained awake— Private Fred Griffin, 13th Cavalry, on sentry duty, who was making his usual rounds. On turning the corner of the headquarters building, he saw three riders emerge from the blackness. As was his duty, Private Griffin challenged the horsemen. His greeting was returned with gunshots. He fired back, and all three toppled from their horses, dead. The signal had been given. Pancho Villa and his men converged upon the town of Columbus, New Mexico, and the raid began.1

For over half a century scholars and laymen alike have quarreled over the particulars of the raid. The focal points in the debate have been the motives behind Villa’s assault, the strength of his band, and Villa’s whereabouts at the time of the attack. Historiographically Villa’s raid upon Columbus and the earlier outrage at Santa Isabel have been glossed over in order to provide room for more significant events. One factor which has hitherto received too little attention is the influence of German intrigues in deciding Villa to invade the United States.2

A brief analysis of the historical antecedents and events leading to Villa’s descent on Columbus will make the raid more comprehensible. In December 1915, Villa had formally disbanded his army and fled into the hills of Chihuahua, taking with him a few hundred of his more faithful followers. At this time, his officer corps numbered from 100 to 1503—a conglomeration of men and boys, whose rank ranged from capitán segundo to general.4 It was to this group that Villa would present his plans and ideas; he expected them to accept his proposals without question. Any arguments with the jefe were resolved with a bullet.5

Perhaps the single most influential man on Villa’s general staff and one to whom he would listen was Dr. Lyman B. Rauschbaum.6 Rauschbaum was an Austrian-German who had originally come to Juárez with Venustiano Carranza and then entered El Paso, Texas, with his family in 1911. The United States authorities refused him medical accreditation, but as the number of Mexican refugees began to increase, he was given permission to practice medicine among them. Through his practice on both sides of the boundary he made the acquaintance of Villa.7El alemán, as Rauschbaum was known, became Villa’s personal physician8 and treated the entire staff.9 Since he was fluent in both Spanish and English, he also served as translator for Villa’s men, most of whom were at best a semiliterate lot. It was with this German that Villa would confer before presenting his plans to the rest of the general staff.10

In addition to his duties as physician, translator, and advisor, Rauschbaum also maintained ledgers for many of Villa’s financial transactions.11 Since Villa himself was totally illiterate, he was forced to rely upon someone who could read and write to maintain his correspondence and records.12 Thus, although Rauschbaum held only the rank of colonel on the general staff, he exercised power and influence far beyond the dictates of his official position.13

The seed of Villa’s decision to attack Columbus seems to have been a quarrel with one of the town’s banks, where he apparently maintained an account.14 In late December, through Rauschbaum, Villa sent a written request to the Columbus State Bank for a withdrawal.15 The bank—or la judía, as his men called it—responded to the general that his account lacked funds.16 Insisting that this was a lie, Villa had Rauschbaum continue the correspondence but without effect.17 Probably encouraged by his German adviser, through whom all letters came and went, Villa jumped to the conclusion that la judía was deliberately cheating him.18 After considering the matter privately for a few days, he denounced the bank to his staff, and Rauschbaum produced the pass book as proof of the swindle.19 Then Villa asked his men what he should do about it.. They agreed that he must go to Columbus and personally make the withdrawal.20 As one of his officers, José Orozco, put it, the attitude of the bank was past all understanding. After all, the money deposited there came from the sale of cattle—and cattle that had not been stolen in the United States !21

Villa had other reasons for wanting to settle accounts in Columbus. He had purchased foodstuffs, clothing, and ammunition from Sam and Louis Ravel, brothers who operated a general store there22 and who also served now and then as fences for much of his illicit goods.23 By December 1915, the Ravel brothers had defaulted on their commitments; Villa had paid for $2,500 worth of supplies which Sam Ravel had failed to deliver.24 What was worse, the ammunition which Ravel had provided him was defective—cartridge cases loaded with a primer and sawdust.25

Indeed the problem of supplying his band with any sort of war materials was now becoming critical, thanks to the effects of the arms embargo imposed by Woodrow Wilson against Carranza’s enemies on October 19, 1915. The embargo, while not totally effective, seriously restricted the flow of munitions across the border. In November the Attorney General learned that ammunition was daily smuggled into Mexico via El Paso and that a large cache of rifles and machine guns was even then being held in the city for transportation to Villa.26 In December Zachary Cobb wrote the Secretary of the Treasury, informing him that without added manpower he could not adequately enforce the arms embargo.27 Cobb was given permission to hire more men, and Villa’s munitions stayed in El Paso.

Thus from a purely practical viewpoint Villa had considerable interest in going to Columbus. His problems with the bank, his grievances against the Ravel brothers, and the need for arms and ammunition all served as inducements to the guerrilla. Furthermore, the town contained a garrison of the Thirteenth Cavalry under the command of Colonel Herbert Slocum.28 The cavalry detachment possessed rifles, machine guns, ammunition, and horses—in short, all the provisions that a marauding outlaw needed to supply his men.29

By December 1915 Villa was committed to the attack, but before he could take any action, he needed time to prepare. On New Year’s Day 1916 he struck the pose of vanquished leader and announced to the press his intentions of retiring from political life.30 Meanwhile, he invited his compatriot Emiliano Zapata to join in his American venture. In a letter of January 8, discovered after the raid, he asked Zapata to bring his troops to Chihuahua in anticipation of an incursion into American territory.31 This document helps to establish that Villa planned his invasion of the United States several months prior to its actual execution.32

Meanwhile American businessmen with interests in Chihuahua were beginning to return to their jobs in Northern Mexico.33 In September 1915, the State Department had advised Americans living in Villa’s territory to withdraw, but by the beginning of the New Year it again appeared safe for citizens of the United States to venture into Mexico, for Venustiano Carranza’s power seemed consolidated and secure, and Villa’s whereabouts were unknown.34 In this pacific atmosphere American mining engineers and workmen entrained for their return into Chihuahua.

On the morning of January 10, 1916, a train left the town of Chihuahua destined for the rich mining area of Cusihuiriachic. Aboard the passenger ear were seventeen Americans, among them the manager and some employees of La Cusi Mining Company. Traveling with them were a British subject and several Mexicans who lived and worked in the neighborhood of the mines. All of the passengers had passports and were traveling under a safe conduct from the Carranza government. Foreigners were prohibited from carrying firearms into Mexico, and, as a result, none of the Americans was armed. An exception had been made in the case of two men who had brought their shotguns for duck hunting, but both of these weapons had been taken down and stored in the baggage ear. There was no guard on the train.

Five miles beyond Santa Isabel the train was suddenly forced to stop, for ahead on the track was a derailed car. Thomas B. Holmes and two other Americans got off the train to see if they could be of assistance in clearing the track Then they noticed there was no one working on the overturned car. Gunshots took the men by surprise ; looking back, they saw a band of armed Mexicans firing upon the train. The Americans began to run, and Holmes saw his two comrades fall, but he kept running until he dropped into the safety of some tall weeds. The Mexicans apparently thought him dead, for after he fell, Holmes reported that there were no more shots fired in his direction. He was the only American survivor.35

The Mexicans, commanded by Pablo López, one of Villa’s generals, quickly boarded the train. Cursing both Wilson and Carranza, López and his men dragged all the Americans to their feet, ordered them to strip to their underwear, and marched them single file from the coach. Outside the villistas were quarreling over who should execute the prisoners; they resolved the problem by shooting them one at a time. Then the villistas savagely mutilated the bodies, took some silver from the baggage ear, and fled.36

The massacre at Santa Isabel seems to have been a rather hastily conceived and executed venture, and it was not allowed to interfere with the attack on Columbus. The town was Villa’s main objective, and he had prepared the groundwork for his border crossing well in advance of the attack on the train. In the weeks following the incident at Santa Isabel, Villa added new recruits to his small band until it numbered approximately 500.37 Then on March 1, 1916, he began the difficult tactical maneuver of moving his men several hundred miles north, towards the American border.38

As he did so, he aroused much speculation about his intentions. Zachary Cobb wired Lansing on March 3 that Villa was coming to Columbus and from there was planning to go to Washington.39 Three days later Cobb reported that the garrison at Juárez was requesting reinforcements in anticipation of a villista attack.40 Rumors were also being circulated to the effect that Villa would attack El Paso or Palomas, Mexico.41

Perhaps the most prevalent rumor was that Villa was coming to the United States io surrender. He planned to seek out President Wilson in Washington, so it was said, in order to exonerate himself of any blame for the atrocities committed at Santa Isabel. An Associated Press correspondent, George Seese, arrived in Columbus three days before the raid, increasing the speculation. Through an intermediary Seese had allegedly arranged to give Villa safe conduct to Washington so he could see President Wilson.42 A few days before the attack, Seese entered the office of the American Consul in El Paso and inquired if Villa could enter the United States.43 The rumored plans were supposedly squelched, however, by Melville Stone, director of the Associated Press, on the day before the raid.44

Amidst such rumors border authorities hardly knew what to anticipate. On March 7 it was reported that Villa was camped only fifteen miles south of Columbus.45 On the following day he and his men were said to have turned west into Sonora.46 Whatever the origin or truth of these tales, they served as an effective shield for Villa’s approach. Even the news that Villa was hut a few miles from Columbus failed to arouse any alarm on the part of Colonel Slocum,47 although he did move one of his cavalry units to the border the day before the assault.48

On the morning of March 8 Villa and his men were camped in a deep ravine a few miles below the carrancista garrison at Palomas, Mexico.49 The day before Villa had sent three men, Eligio Hernandes, Carmen Ortiz, and Alberto García, into Columbus to observe military activities within the town. These men had reported to Villa that the detachment was small and lightly guarded.50 Wishing to make absolutely certain, Villa sent Cipriano Vargas and another man into town for a final reconnaissance. Returning in the afternoon of March 8, the two men confirmed the earlier findings.51 Still Villa hesitated to make his final decision, for a few officers on his staff thought it inadvisible to enter the United States, although the overwhelming majority favored the action.52 At last Villa decided upon the line of march. From the Pershing papers it is possible to reconstruct the formation and estimated strength of each detachment:

The rear guard consisted of ten men belonging to Beltrán’s detachment. Altogether there were 485 men in the attacking party.53

Moving north, the villistas crossed the border just west of Palomas, and at 3:00 A.M., March 9, they reached a deep arroyo which parallels Columbus.54 There in the trench Villa gave the final orders for the deployment of his forces. Candelario Cervantes and Pablo López were to direct the attack on the town and especially to capture Sam Ravel, alive or dead. They were also to set fire to his property, which included the Commercial Hotel.55 Jesús Castro and Martín López were to lead the assault on the bank.56 Francisco Beltrán and his men were to invade the military encampment and capture what arms and horses they could.57 Juan Pedrosa was to remain in the trench with Villa and the reserves.58

At shortly after 4:00 A.M., the sentinel, Private Griffin, saw the first of the raiders, challenged them, and killed them. This was the signal, and the villistas charged out of the trench toward their objectives chanting, “¡Viva Villa!”59 In two converging columns they launched a double-pronged attack, assaulting the military garrison and the town simultaneously.60 Despite the surprise of the raid, the defenders of the camp reacted quickly and efficiently. Repulsing the raiders from around the detachment, various segments of the Thirteenth Cavalry then moved into the town to assist in its defense.61

Meanwhile, Castro and Pablo López began their hunt to ferret out Sam Ravel. Failing to find him in his store, the villistas moved on to the Commercial Hotel, entered it, and demanded of the manager, Mrs. Laura Ritchie, where he was hiding.62 Mrs. Ritchie replied that she had no knowledge of Ravel’s whereabouts, but the raiders conducted their own fruitless search,63 while other villistas began to rob the guests, dragging some from their rooms and killing them on the spot.64

But where was Pancho Villa? This question has been the source of controversy for over fifty years. Some of Villa’s apologists maintain that he never crossed the border at all, but was somewhere in Mexico on the day of the raid.65 Villa’s critics claim that he was in the thick of the battle leading his men in every assault.66 Since neither group can offer any proof stronger than personal opinion, both stories must be rejected.

Recently another view has been advanced which maintains that Villa was near Columbus, but never entered the town.67 Instead he supposedly remained in the arroyo parallel to the town, and from this vantage point directed the assault without personally participating in the action. This account seems to be based upon the report of Jesús Paiz, a Mexican boy of twelve who crossed the border with the raiding party, but is said to have remained with Villa during the entire attack, holding his horse.68

A more careful examination of the testimony later given by Paiz before the Fall Committee reveals an entirely different version of what happened. Paiz testified that he held his father’s horse, not Villa’s, and that his father ordered him to remain in the trench until he could return.69 But Paiz, by his own admission, left the arroyo after returning villistas told him that his father had been killed.70 Therefore, Paiz was not in the trench during the entire time of the raid, and shortly after entering Columbus he was captured by American troops. To be sure, Paiz stated categorically that Villa remained outside of town and did not enter, but he never presented any evidence in support of the assertion.71 Since Paiz had left the ditch before the attack was consummated, he was in no position to render an eyewitness report on Villa’s activities. It must be concluded that his testimony is not totally reliable concerning Villa’s presence during the raid.

As previously suggested, a clue to Villa’s role in the attack may be found in his relationship with the bank. One of the main reasons for his descent upon Columbus was his conviction that the bank was withholding his money. José Orozco, a member of his personal escort, maintains that Villa and Rauschbaum went in person to settle the account.72 Waiting until Castro and Martín López had led the advance, they and the bodyguard left the trench and entered the town. Having made his withdrawal, the bandit leader and his men headed west, down the street returning to the ditch.78 It was at about this time that a group of the Thirteenth Cavalry commanded by Lt. James Castleman approached the bank.74 Seeing the marauders retreating, the American troops fired several volleys after them and inflicted numerous casualties.75

Returning to the ditch, Villa awaited the arrival of his men. Beltrán and his troops, driven back from the cavalry encampment, had advanced to the stables and captured several horses and mules.76 But the speed with which the cavalrymen organized their defense stemmed the attack and forced Villa and his men to withdraw.77 By 7:30 A.M., the retreating bandits had crossed back into Mexico hotly pursued by American troops under the command of Major Frank Tompkins.78

What had Villa achieved at Columbus? The answer to this question can be found in the balance sheet of the raid. From Villa’s orders to his generals until the final retreat, the operation itself lasted approximately three hours. The villistas’ spoils included American horses, mules, rifles, and an undetermined amount of money from the bank and from patrons of the Commercial Hotel.79 In terms of mass murder and wholesale destruction the raid was much less impressive. According to official records, during the entire three-hour fracas only seventeen Americans were killed and eight others wounded. The dead included eight soldiers and nine civilians, the wounded five and three respectively.80 There were no reported incidents of rape.81 The villistas set fires over an area of slightly less than a block, centering in Sam Ravel’s Commerical Hotel.82 Sam himself escaped. In return for his booty, Villa lost two machine guns,83 assorted small arms, and some horses. Ninety of his followers were killed and seven captured.84 Six of these prisoners were subsequently hanged.85

The last raider had scarcely retreated into Mexico before the Americans began to speculate on the reasons for the attack. The one most often given in both textbooks and monographs is that Villa raided Columbus for revenge. Mexican and American historians alike adhere to this idea.86 This desire for vengeance supposedly stemmed from President Wilson’s recognition of Carranza, and his permission for carrancista troops to pass through the United States and reinforce Agua Prieta. By preferring Carranza and rendering him material assistance, the United States so enraged the guerrilla that he actively engaged in an anti-American campaign to expose the weakness of the Mexican government. It is within this framework that the Santa Isabel massacre and the assault upon Columbus are usually explained.

This argument would be very persuasive if it were confined to the atrocities committed at Santa Isabel. When applied to the Columbus raid, however, it appears only as an improvisation to reconcile two dissimilar events within one all-encompassing schema. It fails to take cognizance of the marked differences between the two acts. If Villa wanted revenge, he achieved it at Santa Isabel. The savage mutilation of the dead Americans bespeaks barbarism and bestiality; robbing the victims was only incidental. Indeed, when their bodies were brought to El Paso, the inhabitants were incited to anti-Mexican riots, and General John J. Pershing had to employ three Army troops to restore order.87

At Columbus, the scene was quite different. There were no reported incidents of rape or mutilation. Pablo López, the man responsible for Santa Isabel, could have executed everyone in the Commercial Hotel, but he did not. Villa even released two of his American prisoners during the raid, a woman, Mrs. Maude Wright, and a Negro man, “Bunk” Spencer.88 Surprising the sleeping town at 4:15 A.M., and fighting for over three hours, Villa certainly could have killed more than seventeen Americans, had he wished. If Villa attacked Columbus for vengeance, he failed miserably in his purpose.

There seems little doubt that Villa did expose the weakness of Carranza’s government at both Santa Isabel and Columbus. But he had planned his invasion of American soil prior to the events in Chihuahua. Embarrassing Carranza seems to have been a by-product rather than an intended result of the Columbus attack.

Recently, the opinion has been advanced that Villa sacked Columbus for booty and supplies, for his reserves of manpower and arms had rapidly diminished after his defeat at Agua Prieta. By March 1916 he badly needed to replenish his stock.89 In light of Villa’s concern for the horses belonging to the cavalry, the robbing of the bank and the occupants of the Commercial Hotel, as well as the bandit’s grievances against Sam Ravel, this explanation conforms well with the facts of the incident. Thus the descent upon Columbus is divorced from the massacre at Santa Isabel in both motivation and accomplishment.

Thus a careful examination of the facts surrounding both incidents leads one to the conclusion that attributing both events to Villa’s desire for revenge is inadequate. Instead of accounting for the incidents, the revenge theory tries to explain them away. Yet the desire for booty is also an incomplete interpretation of the Columbus raid. Another factor must be examined before a final assessment of the Columbus incident can be made.

This factor is the activity of German agents. In 1916 Germany was eager to precipitate war between the United States and Mexico, and there had been a host of German intrigues on both sides of the border prior to the Columbus incident. To bring German machinations clearly into focus, however, requires concentration upon one agent—Felix A. Sommerfeld.

German-born Felix Sommerfeld was a reserve officer in the Kaiser’s army who had emigrated to Mexico around the turn of the century. There he had been employed in a variety of positions including interviewer for the Associated Press. It was in this capacity that he first met and ingratiated himself with Francisco I. Madero. Sommerfeld and Madero became close friends, and when the latter assumed control over Mexico he commissioned Herr Felix as his arms procurer and head of his Secret Service.90 In this capacity Sommerfeld moved to El Paso, Texas, where he became affiliated with the Constitutionalist Junta, a pro-Madero propaganda organization.91 One of the more prominent members of this junta was Dr. Lyman B. Rauschbaum,92 Pancho Villa’s personal physician.

With the fall of Madero Sommerfeld came to Villa’s attention. The Lion of the North commissioned Sommerfeld as his purchasing agent and gave him the lucrative dynamite concession for the state of Chihuahua.93 Villa said of Sommerfeld: “From the very first I had confidence in him because of his devotion to Señor Madero.”94 Sommerfeld moved to the Hotel Astor in New York in late 1914, and from that residence he conducted his business for the next two years. His position involved more than the purchase of arms for Villa, for he was also Villa’s personal emissary to the American Chief of Staff, General Hugh L. Scott.95

Apparently Sommerfeld preferred serving two masters, for soon after his arrival in New York he became involved with Karl Boy-Ed, the German naval attaché, and Franz Rintelen von Kleist, the man whom Berlin had assigned to restore Victoriano Huerta to power in Mexico.96 Indeed, Sommerfeld served as Rintelen’s advisor during the latter’s stay in America and was well rewarded for his services.

Shortly before Rintelen arrived in New York in April 1915, a bank account had been opened for Sommerfeld with the Mississippi Valley Trust Company in St. Louis, Missouri. Two days after Rintelen’s arrival, another account was opened in the same bank by the German Embassy in the names of Bernstorff and Albert.97

Sommerfeld’s account indicates that deposits were regularly made and that drafts against this account were just as regularly paid. All of these drafts were made payable to the Western Cartridge Company, Alton, Illinois. The munitions firm then sent their shipments and the bills of lading to Pancho Villa’s brother, Hipólito, who lived in El Paso. During the entire life of the account, from April 5 to December 1, 1915, over $380,000 was paid to the Western Cartridge Company for Villa’s needed armaments. United States Department of Justice agents concluded that the account of the German embassy which was opened and closed in the same bank and at approximately the same time as Sommerfeld’s, was a ruse to cover the latter’s activities. They also implied that the embassy had financed Sommerfeld, since he served as one of Rintelen’s advisors from April to August 1915.98

Yet Sommerfeld must have been dissatisfied with the Rintelen scheme, for in May he initiated his own intrigue. It is impossible to determine whether he sensed that the relationship of Rintelen, von Papen, and Boy-Ed would eventually end in disaster or felt that he could gain more money on his own. What we do know is that he approached Bernhard von Dernburg, the German propaganda agent in the United States, with a personal proposal. Following their conversations, Dernburg sent a report to his personal friend, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the future chief of the Admiralty staff. After discussing Sommerfeld’s role in the Naco incident, Dernburg went on to say: “This opportunity would appear to be coming up again, and Felix A, Sommerfeld discussed it with me. He is firmly convinced that an intervention by the United States can be provoked . . . through General Villa. ...” Dernburg concluded his note with the “request that Herr Felix A. Sommerfeld be given a ’Yes’ or ’No’ answer either directly or through me.”99

Admiral von Holtzendorff sent the report to the secretary in the Foreign Ministry, Gottlieb von Jagow. The reply was unequivocal : “In my opinion it is absolutely necessary to answer ’Yes’ ... it is very much to be desired that America should get involved in a military action, and distracted from Europe, where it is friendly to England.”100

During the summer and fall of 1915, Sommerfeld’s efforts to develop his intrigues were seriously interrupted. At this time much of the German spy apparatus in New York was exposed, and Villa himself was being crushed by the military prowess of the carrancistas. Finally, on October 19, 1915, Villa was formally disavowed when Woodrow Wilson extended diplomatic recognition to Carranza’s de facto government. Along with this recognition the United States government imposed an arms embargo on all enemies of Carranza. Thus Villa lost an important source of war materials. Then on October 28 Sommerfeld was arrested on a seventeen-year-old charge of theft. The man who pressed the charges had identified Sommerfeld as he testified in one of the many passports trials involving German reservists.101

With the German schemes in ruin, Villa’s loss of power, and his own arrest, Sommerfeld’s prospects for provoking American intervention in Mexico seemed bleak indeed. But appearances are often deceiving. Under the embargo of October 19, he could no longer legally procure arms for his employer. Nevertheless, his bank account in St. Louis indicates that he continued to purchase munitions for Villa through December 1915.102 To all outward appearances, Sommerfeld was still representing Villa in the United States, but it should be remembered that this account was undoubtedly financed by the German Embassy.

The fact that Sommerfeld was still Villa’s agent makes his conduct in January and March 1916 seem rather peculiar. He began the new year with a cordial telegram of best wishes to General Hugh L. Scott and his family.103 Not so strange in itself, perhaps, since the two men did correspond. But on January 16, six days after the massacre at Santa Isabel, Sommerfeld wrote Scott a rather lengthy letter. He began by saying that he had quit Mexican affairs after the recognition of Carranza, and since that time he had, “never been in direct contact with General Villa.” Sommerfeld went on to describe the Santa Isabel massacre as “the vilest outrage ever committed in the history of the last five years” and concluded by offering to send a note to Villa telling him to punish the perpetrators of the act.104

All these statements have an unnatural ring—in particular Sommerfeld’s denunciation of the Santa Isabel massacre. From 1911 to 1916 the world had witnessed many acts of barbarism, previously unthinkable, by comparison with which the incident at Santa Isabel appeared minor indeed. Sommerfeld’s great emphasis on the massacre suggests that he was attempting to reinforce in Scott’s mind the impression that he had absolutely no connection with it and that Villa alone was responsible. Yet Sommerfeld was Villa’s personal agent.

On March 10, the day after the raid upon Columbus, New Mexico, Sommerfeld wrote to Scott again and made his point even clearer. “The terrible outrage committed by Villa on American soil has absolutely horrified me,” he began. “I was stunned by the news of Villa’s raid.” The rest of Sommerfeld’s letter is extremely interesting :105

You remember in a good many of our friendly conversations I told you that the elimination of Villa was necessary before peace would ever be restored. At the same time I believed him to be necessary to help in the restoration of peace. It seems that in the last few months the varnish of civilization Villa acquired in four years disappeared again leaving him the primitive brute he was years ago.

Such a letter from Villa’s personal envoy must have surprised Scott. He responded by asking Sommerfeld for more definite proof of Villa’s complicity in the raid before rendering a judgment on the matter.106

Thus the Chief of Staff of the United States Armed Forces expressed reluctance to condemn Villa for the attack upon American soil, whereas Villa’s representative pronounced him fully guilty of the charges against him. Sommerfeld’s strange behavior had not passed unnoticed in other quarters. On March 14 a Department of Justice agent, J. W. Allen, informed the Department that Sommerfeld was assisting Villa and recommended that Sommerfeld be watched and his effects searched for incriminating evidence.107

What did it all mean? What was Sommerfeld’s purpose? The facts already set forth supply a tentative answer to these questions. In May 1915, Sommerfeld had accepted a commission from Berlin to provoke American intervention in Mexico through Villa. His plans had been upset by German reversals in New York and Villa’s setbacks in Mexico. He had even been arrested and released on bail in late October 1915. Being free on bail, he could not leave New York, in order to carry out his intrigues.

Sommerfeld knew that manipulating intervention through Villa would prove a difficult task. At the apex of the Mexican’s career, in December 1914, the Japanese had made overtures to him. A Japanese naval officer had asked what course of action he would pursue if Japan were to declare war on the United States. Villa had answered that his troops would be at the disposal of the American president.108 If Villa refused to provoke the United States when he commanded a sizeable following, he could not be expected to do so with a band of only a few hundred men. A direct proposal would risk a rebuff, but deception might accomplish the desired end. Such was Sommerfeld’s quandary in December 1915.

Also in December Villa first learned of the allegedly fraudulent dealings by the Columbus State Bank. It was his problem with the bank that first suggested to Villa the possibility of his American invasion. All of his information regarding la judía had come from the same source—Dr. Lyman B. Rauschbaum.

Rauschbaum and Sommerfeld had known each other from the days of their affiliation with the Constitutionalist Junta. In fact, Rauschbaum himself had been helping German agents while serving as a member of the junta. In September 1913, Horst von der Goltz, a known German operative, had met him in the Ollendorf Hotel in El Paso, a frequent meeting place for German agents.109 Von der Goltz asked Rausehbaum if the doctor could arrange his safe conduct into Mexico. The following month von der Goltz, then in Los Angeles, received a wired message: “Dr. Rauschbaum proposition accepted come on next train.” The telegram was signed by Villa.110

Here was Sommerfeld’s link to Villa. Rauschbaum, as a good German, had already served the Fatherland and could be depended upon to do so again. Working in conjunction with the doctor he might manipulate Villa into creating an incident which would precipitate a war between the United States and Mexico. Subterfuge would be necessary to influence the Mexican guerrilla, and this subterfuge would be the supposed misdealings of the Columbus State Bank.

The fact that an Associated Press correspondent, George Seese, arrived in Columbus three days before the raid assured adequate news coverage of whatever would happen. It should be pointed out that Sommerfeld had once worked for the A. P., and his immediate superior appears to have been none other than Seese. It may have been mere coincidence that Seese left his Los Angeles office early in March 1916 to go to the small town of Columbus, but one cannot overlook the possibility that Sommerfeld gave him a news tip.111 Having set the plan in motion through Rauschbaum, Sommerfeld then had to await the results. This may explain his attempt to disassociate himself from Villa in his letters to Scott.

It would seem extremely doubtful that Villa had any knowledge of the Berlin-Sommerfeld scheme. If the raid had been directly planned by Germany, it would have been far more violent and bloody. Sommerfeld had found a more indirect way to achieve the same effect, using Rauschbaum and Villa to provide the occasion for American intervention in Mexico. In the months following the Columbus raid and the dispatch of the Punitive Expedition, Germany fervently hoped that another Mexican War was in the offing.

The double play recounted here—Sommerfeld to Rauschbaum to Villa—suggests that historians would do well to investigate German involvement in northern Mexico prior to American participation in World War I. If German intrigues lay behind the Columbus Raid, German interests in Mexican-American relations before 1917 need a thorough reevaluation.


The foregoing is based on the following sources: Frank Tompkins, Chasing Villa: The Story Behind the Story of Pershing’s Expedition into Mexico (Harrisburg, 1943), 48-49. Haldeen Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus: The Raid of 1916,” Southwestern Studies, III (Spring 1965), 16-17. James Hopper, “What Happened in Columbus?” Colliers, 57 (April 15, 1916), 11.


Friedrich Katz, in his article “Alemania y Francisco Villa,” Historia Mexicana (July/September 1962), 88-103, and in his book, Deutschland, Díaz und die mexikanische Revolution: Die deutsche Politik in Mexiko, 1870-1920 (Berlin, 1964), 342-348, raises the question of German complicity in the Columbus raid. Katz also introduces the possible role that Felix A. Sommerfeld may have played in this incident. Because of Katz ’ inability to utilize sources in the National Archives and the Library of Congress, however, his discussion of German involvement in the raid is limited.


Much new information has been obtained by the writer through several interviews with José Orozco. Orozco, born in Jalisco, Mexico, in 1899, was a former major on Villa’s command staff and was a member of the jefe’s personal bodyguard on the day of the Columbus raid. Orozco left Villa in 1919 and came to California where he has been residing since that time. Hereafter this material will be cited as Orozco, Interview.




Ibid. Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus.”


Orozco, Interview.


The writer obtained this information in a letter from Mrs. Virginia P. Hoke, Librarian, Southwest Reference Room, El Paso Public Library, August 29, 1967.


Martín L. Guzmán, Memoirs of Pancho Villa (Austin, 1965), 171. Horst von der Goltz, My Adventures as a German Secret Agent (New York, 1917), 125. Orozco, Interview.








Guzmán, Memoirs of Pancho Villa, xii. Hugh L. Scott, Some Memories of a Soldier (New York and London, 1928), 502.


Orozco, Interview.


The name of the bank at Columbus was furnished the writer in a letter from C. J. Thomasson, Librarian, Special Collections Department of the Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico, February 23, 1967.


Orozco, Interview.




Ibid. Confirmation of the possible existence of Villa’s account was given the writer in a letter from Bill McGaw, editor, The Southwesterner, March 27 1967.


Orozco, Interview.








Larry Harris, Pancho Villa and the Columbus Raid (El Paso, 1949), 82. Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 10.


National Archives, Records of the Special Claims Convention of September 10, 1923. R. G. 76, Sect. 162.


Harris, Pancho Villa, 81. Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 16-17.


Orozco, Interview. Villa’s widow, Luz Corral, confirmed these reports of worthless munitions. In an interview she stated: “President Woodrow Wilson made the General angry because he sent him defective weapons.” See the Arizona Daily Star, March 26, 1967. Louis Stevens, Here Comes Pancho Villa (New York, 1930), 283-284. Mexican Claims Case, R. G. 76, Sect. 162.


Asst. Attorney General Crawford to Attorney General Gregory, November 27, 1915. National Archives, Department of Justice Piles, Series 157013, #898. The problems of the Treasury Department were further complicated by the numerous exceptions which permitted the de facto government of Carranza and American businessmen to bring powder and munitions into Mexico. See Woodrow Wilson to Secretary of Treasury, November-December, 1915, in ibid., Series 157013, #897-910.


Zachary Cobb to Secretary of the Treasury, Ibid., Series 157013, #908.


Harris, Pancho Villa, 81. Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 16-17.


Ibid., 10.


“Villa’s First Aid to Washington,” Literary Digest, 52 (January 1, 1916), 5. Villa had given this information in an interview in mid-December 1915, when many of his generals were surrendering.


Francisco Villa to Emiliano Zapata, San Gerónimo Ranch, Chihuahua, January 8, 1916, included in a report from General Frederick Funston to Adjutant General of the Army, March 29, 1916. National Archives, Records of the Department of State Relating to International Affairs of Mexico, 1910-1929, Microcopy #274, roll 52, 812.00/17669. This letter was found in a portfolio of Villa’s documents dropped in Columbus during the raid. Numerous students have attempted to locate these papers but without success. This writer, following Arthur S. Link, Haldeen Braddy, and Clarence Clendenen, also tried to find the elusive manuscripts, but to no avail. These documents did exist, however, as affirmed by General Funston in transmitting the above letter. Also special agent George C. Carothers, who arrived in Columbus the afternoon of the raid, claimed to have found the saddlebags and examined their contents. See testimony of George C. Carothers, IT. S. Congress, Senate, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States, Investigation of Mexican Affairs, 66th Congress, 2nd session, 1920, Senate Document 285 (Washington, 1920), I, 1781.


George Carothers to Hugh L. Scott, March 13, 1916. Papers of Hugh L. Scott, Library of Congress, Box 22. This letter relates Carothers’ discovery in Columbus.


Clarence Clendenen, The United States and Pancho Villa : A Study in Unconventional Diplomacy (New York, 1961), 224-225.




The foregoing account of the Santa Isabel massacre is based upon the affidavit of Thomas B. Holmes, the sole American survivor of the outrage. See Evidence Submitted to the State Department in the Matter of the Killing of C. R. Watson, Manager of the Cusi Mining Company, and Others Near Santa Ysabel in the State of Chihuahua, Mexico, January Tenth, Nineteen Hundred and Sixteen. Submitted by the Cusi Mining Company, Winston, Payne, Strawn and Shaw Attorneys, First National Bank Building, Chicago, Illinois (n.d.) 1916. National Archives, State Department Decimal File, 1910-1929, R. G. 59, Box 3800.


This account is based upon the affidavits of César Sala and Manuel Silveyra, Mexican citizens, and passengers on the train in ibid.


Orozco, Interview. Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 15.


Cobb to Robert Lansing, March 3, 1916. State Department Papers, roll 51, 812.00/17340.




Cobb to Lansing, March 6, 1916, in Ibid., roll 51, 812.00/17355.


Harris, Pancho Villa, 81. Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 15.


Testimony of W. S. Murphy (telegraph operator, Columbus, New Mexico), Senate Document 285, I, 1579. Oliver Gramling, A. P. The Story of the News (New York and Toronto, 1940), 244.


Stevens, Here Comes Pancho Villa, 286-287.


Scott, Memories of a Soldier, 517-518. General Pershing also had heard this same rumor. See Papers of General John J. Pershing, Library of Congress, Box 372. It is only fair to point out that the Associated Press disclaims any knowledge of such a scheme. This information was given the writer in a letter from Ted Boyle, Administrative Assistant to the General Manager, Associated Press, March 8, 1967.


Cobb to Lansing, March 7, 1916. U. S. Department of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1916 (Washington, 1925), 479.


Carothers to Lansing, March 8, 1916, in ibid., 480.


Testimony of Lee Riggs (Deputy Collector of Customs, Columbus, New Mexico), Senate Document 285, I, 1590-1592.


Testimony of L. L. Burkhead (Postmaster, Columbus, New Mexico), in ibid., I, 1606.


Pershing Papers, Box 372.


Alberto Calzadíaz Barrera, Villa contra todo y contra todos: en pos de la venganza sobre Columbus, N. M. (Mexico, 1960), 40.


Pershing Papers, Box 372.


Ibid. Orozco, Interview.


Pershing Papers, Box 372. Orozco gives the figure of 450-500 men. This evidence clarifies a point of confusion, for the strength of Villa’s band is variously given at 1000 to 3000 followers. As Orozco points out, “If we had 2000 men, we would have stood Chihuahua on its head.” Orozco, Interview.




The following account of Villa’s orders to his men is based on the combined studies of prominent Mexican historians whose choice of emphasis has been Pancho Villa and this raid. Calzadíaz, Villa contra todo, 39. Nellie Campobello, Apuntes sobre vida militar de Francisco Villa (México, 1940), 124. The battle plan for the attack as described by General Pershing is somewhat different from that of Campobello and Calzadíaz. The essential difference is that the Pershing reconstruction outlines the attack along tactical lines and contains no references to the specific objectives of the assault such as the bank, the Commercial Hotel, Sam Ravel, or the cavalry mounts.


Calzadíaz, Villa contra todo, 39. Campobello, Apuntes sobre vida militar, 124.


Calzadíaz, Villa contra todo, 40.


Pershing Papers, Box 372.


See note 1. Orozco, Interview. Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 17.


Tompkins, Chasing Villa, 48-49.


Ibid. Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 20-21. Clendenen, United States and Villa, 240-241.


Testimony of Mrs. Laura Ritchie (manager for Commercial Hotel, Columbus, New Mexico), Senate Document 285, I, 1600-1601.


Testimony of Mrs. Laura Ritchie, ibid., I, 1601-1602.


Ibid., I, 1600-1604.


Elías L. Torres, Vida y hazañas de Pancho Villa (México, 1954), 44; Ira Bush, Gringo Doctor (Caldwell, Idaho, 1939), 243-244; William Lansford, Pancho Villa (California, 1962), 246-247; Edgcumb Pinchon, Viva Villa (New York, 1933), 339.


Harris, Pancho Villa, 90; “Villa’s Invasion,” Literary Digest, 52 (March 18, 1916), 700.


Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 30-31. General Pershing also maintained that Villa never entered Columbus, but, as the text will show, this view is difficult to maintain. See Pershing Papers, Box 372.


Braddy, ‘ ‘ Pancho Villa at Columbus, ’ ’ 30-31.


Testimony of Jesús Paiz (son of a villista officer and present at the Columbus raid), Senate Document 285, I, 1619.


Testimony of Jesús Paiz in ibid.


Ibid., I, 1621.


Orozco, Interview. See above, note 56. Orozco was one of the staff members who accompanied Villa and Rauschbaum outside, while Villa and the German entered the establishment, and Orozco saw them emerge carrying sacks which he alleges contained Villa’s money.


Orozco, Interview.


Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 19.


Ibid., Orozco, Interview.


Testimony of Edwin M. Dean (Resident, Columbus, New Mexico), Senate Document 285, I, 1613.


Pershing Papers, Box 372. Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 30-32.


Tompkins, Chasing Villa, 55-57. Clendenen, United States and Villa, 241.


Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 32, gives the figures of 80 horses, 30 mules, and 300 mausers. The New York Times, March 15, 1916, indicates that 94 horses were captured by the raiders. However, there are no official records of the exact quantities of these materials which were stolen; therefore, a definite figure has not been included in the text.


Testimony of Lee Riggs (Deputy Collector of Customs, Columbus, New Mexico), Senate Document 285, I, 1623. And testimony of Gus Jones (special agent of the Department of Justice reporting list of soldiers killed and wounded at Columbus) in ibid., I, 1622.


Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 37.


Ibid., 31. Testimony of Mrs. Laura Ritchie, Senate Document 285, I, 1602-1603.


New York Times, March 15, 1916.


Pershing Papers, Box 372.


Testimony of Judge E. L. Medler (Judge of the third Judicial District, New Mexico, who tried and sentenced the first captured villista), Senate Document 285, I, 1624-1625. Sixteen more raiders were later captured by the punitive expedition, tried and imprisoned. But on November 22, 1920, the governor of New Mexico, O. A. Larrazolo, pardoned them all. It was his contention that these men were merely following orders and therefore not subject to American jurisprudence. This document is reproduced in full in Calzadíaz, Villa contra todo, 165-175.


Ibid., 49. Campobello, Apuntes sobre vida militar, 125. Alexander De Conde, A History of American Foreign Policy (New York, 1963), 435. Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmerman Telegram (New York, 1965), 89. These sources are but a sampling of the authors who adhere to the theory which is presented below.


Pershing Papers, Box 372. See also General Funston to Secretary of War, December 8, 1916, in Foreign Relations, 1916, 622-623.


Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 29. Testimony of Lee Riggs, Senate Document 285, I, 1594.


Braddy, “Pancho Villa at Columbus,” 4.


Testimony of Felix A. Sommerfeld. U. S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States, Revolutions in Mexico, 62nd Congress, 2nd session, 1912 (Washington, 1913), 388-398.


Reports of agents of the Bureau of Investigation, April 14, 1914. State Department Papers M274, roll 36, 812.00/11515.


Mexican Claims Case, R. G. 76, Sect., 162.


Marion Letcher (U. S. Consul, Chihuahua) to William J. Bryan, August 25, 1914. State Department Papers M274, roll 40, 812.00/13232.


Guzmán, Memoirs of Villa, 181.


Scott, Memoirs of a Soldier, 510-512.


The activities of Rintelen are beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that he promised Huerta German arms and money to return him to the presidency. In return, Huerta was to wage war upon the United States. Sommerfeld was involved as Rintelen’s advisor. Assistant Attorney General Warren wrote Robert Lansing : “Huerta was dealing with German agents. Also that Sumerfelt [sic] (Villa’s agent) was also mixed up with German agents.” Charles Warren to Robert Lansing, September 15, 1915, in Lansing Papers, Box 13, Library of Congress Manuscript Division. See also Franz Rintelen von Kleist, The Dark Invader (New York, 1933). Rintelen’s relationships with his colleagues, Boy-Ed and Franz von Papen, were dangerously strained.


Testimony of Major Edwin Hume, Senate Document 62, III, 2166-2167.


Ibid. III, 2168-2174.


“Dernburg an Holtzendorff im Mai 1915. Auswärtiges Amt Bonn, Mexiko 1, Seer. Bd. 1, Staatssekretar im Auswärtigen Amt an Kriegsminister,” as cited in Katz, Deutschland, Díaz, 342-343.


Ibid., 344.


New York Times, October 29, 1915. The passports trials were those conducted against German agents in America who fraudulently obtained passports for German reservists who wanted to leave America and return to their units.


Testimony of Major Edwin Hume, Senate Document 62, III, 2169-2174.


F. A. Sommerfeld to H. L. Scott, January 1, 1916, Scott Papers, Box 21.


F. A. Sommerfeld to H. L. Scott, January 16, 1916, in ibid.


F. A. Sommerfeld, March 10, 1916, in ibid.


H. L. Scott to F. A. Sommerfeld, March 11, 1916, in ibid.


J. W. Allen (special agent of the Department of Justice) to Colonel M. M. Parker, March 14, 1916. State Department Papers, M274, roll 51, 812.00/17467.


Guzmán, Memoirs of Villa, 397-398. Scott, Memories of a Soldier, 512. Scott learned of the incident from Villa and related the information to Robert Lansing. See Lansing Desk Diary, February 23, 1915.


Von der Goltz, My Adventures, 125-126. Von der Goltz was a well-known German saboteur and had been employed by Franz von Papen to dynamite the famed Welland Canal in Canada. See testimony of A. Bruce Bielaski (Department of Justice) Senate Document 62, III, 1560-1561.


Von der Goltz, My Adventures, 126. The telegram is photographically reproduced in the book and can be found opposite page 112.


Grambling, The Story of the News, 243-245.

Author notes


The author is Instructor in History, Fresno State College.