by David L. Burrows
Based on recent news, you would think that border security, especially along the Mexican border was a new problem with illegal immigration and drug smuggling into the U.S. History tells us, however, that this is not anything new. More than 100 years ago, the U.S. was in a border war with Mexico from 1910 to 1919. Often called the Mexican Border conflict or even the Bandit War, the U.S. Army stationed along the Mexican border fought with Mexican rebels, bandits, or federal troops of Mexico.
A short history shows that the problems were rooted with the 1910 Mexican Revolution in which the rebel forces of Francisco Madero attempted to overthrow longtime dictator President Porfirio Diaz. President William H. Taft, fearing the conflict would hurt U.S. business interests, sent 16,000 troops to Texas in April 1911. The revolution was successful and Madero was elected president but it was short-lived. General Victorio Huerto arrested Madero and several days later Madero was presumed assassinated.
Madero supporters included Governor Venustiano Carranza and Pancho Villa who were forming a rebel army in the North. By 1914, the new U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize Huerta and lifted an arms embargo to help Carranza.
In 1914, a German war ship was believed to be bound for Mexico to deliver arms for Huerta. U.S. Naval forces occupied Vera Cruz to block the shipment, but a conflict resulted in bloodshed on both sides.
When the U.S. Fifth Army arrived in Vera Cruz, it assumed occupation duty from the Navy and Marines. In July, 1914 Huerta resigned from office and fled to Spain. The U.S. and six Latin nations recognized the Carranza government that was a direct insult to Pancho Villa and his followers who had parted ways with Carranza.
Feeling betrayed, Villa set off in a ravenous set of attacks and assassinated seventeen U.S. citizens aboard a train traveling to the Cusi Mine in Chihuahua. The next attack by Villa was a raid on Columbus, New Mexico for supplies on March 9, 1916. The raid did not go as planned. A force of 300 U.S. infantry soldiers who were stationed in a border fort near town defeated Villa’s 500 cavalrymen. Columbus was heavily damaged, with sixty to eighty of Villa’s men killed along with a dozen U.S. troops and civilians.
In a fast response to the border attacks, President Wilson sent Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing to the border with a horse-mounted column of Regular Army to bring the raiders to justice. In May 1916, other raiders hit the Texas towns of Glen Springs and Boquillas. This led Wilson to decide that the only way to maintain security was to activate National Guard units from Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Quickly, National Guard Units from 21 States were nationalized and eventually served on the Mexican Border. Fortunately for the U.S., the training for service on the Mexican Border would serve the U.S. troops in the soon-to-be-entered WWI. By August 1916, an estimated 117,000 guardsman were stationed along the border.
In 1917, the British intercepted a message famously named the Zimmermann Telegram in which the German Government formally requested Mexico to join the side of the Central powers. They asked Mexico to attack the southwestern U.S. with the promise to return lands that Mexico lost to the U.S.
Shortly after, United States Army intelligence detected a German military presence in Sonora. In August 1917, a Mexican suspected of gun smuggling crossed the border into Nogales. A US Customs agent and two US army troops were fired on by a Mexican soldier who had watched the incident. Returning fire, the Americans killed the Mexican soldier. From this small incident, both sides rushed to the border and began the Battle of Ambos Nogales. US forces attacked the Mexican positions on the top of a hill on the other side of the border. The assault was successful, and the Mexican troops and German advisors were defeated.
While skirmishes continued as late as 1919, Villa was never captured. The real importance of Wilson’s deployment of state militias was the modernization of U.S. forces. It transformedthe citizens soldiers of the National Guard into trained soldiers by the time the United States entered the war in France.
FOR SERVICE ON THE BORDER
This period produced a wealth of military medals awarded for service in Mexico and along the border. Because of the large number of medals issued by the Federal, State, and National Guard units this article will focus on several of more unique examples. A complete compilation by Anthony Margrave, Medals for Service in Mexico and on the Mexican Border 1911-1917 Second edition, will satisfied the most dedicated collector.
Because U.S. regular troops were involved in Mexico and along the border, a Mexican Service Medal was authorized in 1917 for Army, Navy, and Marine personnel who operated in Mexico during the 1910-1917 period. While the same ribbon design was used by the Army and the Navy and Marines, the obverse was different with one for the Army and one for Navy & Marines. The reverses were different for each with even separate reverses for both the Navy and Marines.
A Mexican Border Service medal was also authorized by President Wilson for the many State National Guard units called up. It was intended for those who served along the Mexican border any time during the period of January 1, 1916, to April 6, 1917. The obverse stated “For Service on the Mexican Border.”
During the National Guard call-up anywhere from 21 to 24 states provided units for service along the border. Pennsylvania led the states, providing 27 local National Guard units. Wisconsin followed with 13 local units. Other states provided anywhere from 1 to 8 local units.
Sixteen states specifically awarded their units with a State Mexican Border Service Medal. Some examples are rare such as Arkansas and Oklahoma. More common state medals are easily found by Mexican Border Medal collectors. In all, 115 local units issued medals, This article emphasizes only a few of the more uncommon examples.
Many of the Mexican Border medals used a common design made by the Whitehead & Hoag Company of Newark. Collectors havegiven these the designation, “Whitehead & Hoag, Type 4.” Even Whitehead & Hoag made variants of this design as well as other companies who used very similar designs.
Since many local units adopted variants of the design, it is important to check the unit designations on the reverse of the medal. Some local towns actually had a different reverse for each unit from the same town. Pennsylvania units are some of the more frequently found units. In spite of more than 50% of the localities using variations of the W&H, Type 4 designs, many interesting designs of other makers can be found.
One interesting variation was made by Bastian Brothers of Rochester, New York, with a standard design of a cross-patee with a red, white, and blue enameled U.S. flag in the center. It would appear that an aggressive Bastian salesman operated in South Carolina since a small cluster of communities that sent units to the Mexican Border used this design. They included Columbia, Sumter, Florence, and Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Another unique design was that used by East Orange, New Jersey, Battery A. The design featured a Maltese cross bearing an Eagle surrounded by a laurel wreath. The reverse has a small “H” in a shield by an unknown maker.
Another non-standard design was made by Robbins Company, Attleboro, Mass. for Albany, Georgia. It commemorates the Mexican border service of the Albany Guards and Baldwin Blues. It was unusual in that the Baldwin Blues were from Milledgville, Georgia, a town 120 miles away. Probably both units served at the same time on the border with the 2nd Georgia Infantry.
In addition to numerous other local State National Guard units, there were several souvenir medals sold as remembrance items to soldiers. These are in addition to the approximate 115 National Guard units, 16 State Mexican Border Medals and federally issued medals.
One rare example was a “corporate-issued”border service medal presented by the Wanamaker Department Store of Philadelphia. The department store supplied the ornate, two-piece bronze medal to 166 employees of the John Wanamaker Department stores in both Philadelphia and New York. One known example was issued to Corporal John Wilbur Dickey, Battery A, 108th Pennsylvania Field Artillery. Dickey enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard on June 19, 1916, and served on the Texas Border. On July 17, 1917, he was promoted to corporal and served at Camp Stancock, Georgia, until discharge in May 1919. Dickey returned to employment with the John Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia.
It appears that history is repeatingitself. With a new focus on immigration, there is the possibility that National Guard units will be stationed on the border to assist Border Patrol agents. They would be providing the same security that their great grandparents did during the 1910-1919 period.