On March 11, 1916, two days after Pancho Villa’s deadly raid on Columbus, New Mexico, Lieutenant George S. Patton, Jr., made a tentative first entry in his earliest war diary. “I was worried all day for fear the 8th Cav would not go to Mexico… after lunch [I] saw Capt Moses who told me 8th would not go.”
Worried the 8th Cavalry would be left out of the “punitive expedition” then being organized to pursue Villa’s forces, Patton was unwilling to miss his first opportunity to see combat. With a personal acquaintance in John J. Pershing, the expedition’s commanding general, Patton immediately began campaigning for a position as one of Pershing’s aides. Two days later, he was detached from the 8th Cavalry and made aide-de-camp to Pershing’s headquarters, an appointment which gave him his first experience of war. The expeditionary force crossed the border into Mexico on March 15 in pursuit of the Villistas. Patton crossed the next morning, writing:
“Mar. 16. Crossed Border 3:17, reached Carrijo at 7am having ridden 20 miles, had chow slept 2 hours. Started again at 12:02.”
The George S. Patton Papers document Patton’s entire military career, from his time at the United States Military Academy at West Point (1904-1909) to his accidental death in 1945, with the bulk of the papers relating to his service in World War II. Patton’s first diary, however, is unique in part because it records a novel time in U.S. military history. The 1916 diary documents Patton’s daily activities, observations, and experiences during the Pancho Villa Expedition. It offers descriptions of troop movements and engagements with Villista and Carancista forces, as well as more mundane activities such as routine inspections, many hunting excursions, opportunities to take baths and, and on some days, “nothing.”
The diary documents the U.S. Army’s traditional use of mounted cavalry in a combat role and its first operational use of airplanes, motor vehicles, and field radios. Patton’s entries are often short, but they offer revealing details about the army’s struggles to field these new technologies, including the trials faced by the fledgling 1st Aero Squadron, commanded by Capt. Benjamin D. Foulois. Of the squadron’s eight JN-3 “Jenny” biplanes, intended to fly reconnaissance missions, only five made it to Pershing’s headquarters in Casas Grandes during their first day of operations.
“Mar. 20. Duties around Camp, aeroplanes arrived in morning. Having missed camp in the dark. One flew south of Pearson and busted up landing in the dark another went back to Ascencion we thought it lost but found it later. Aeroplanes had great trouble landing on account of the altitude of 4000 feet. So the air is so light that they have to land at about 60 miles an hour.”
The diary records Patton’s encounters with the 10th Cavalry Regiment, an all African-American regiment formed fifty years earlier during the Indian Wars. In fact, one entry describes a ceremony likely held to commemorate that anniversary:
“July 28. Three truck trains got in. Gen. Dodd arrived from El Valle. Tenth Cav. Gave dinner celebrating 58th year. I forgot to go till after dinner. Quite impressive ceremony.”
Patton’s typed transcript of this same entry, provides additional details, noting that the “soldiers gave imitations of all the fights in which the regiment had been.” The edited transcripts of this and other diaries include many details that Patton added or embellished later in recollection. Alternatively, they also omit or make more diplomatic other observations more candidly recorded in the originals.
Throughout the diary, Patton mentions dozens of personalities involved in the conflict, including the names of prominent U.S. Army, Villista and Carrancista officers, but also newspaper correspondents, leaders of the local Mormon community, and official visitors to Pershing’s headquarters. For example, Patton encounters Webb Hayes, son of Rutherford B. Hayes and a distinguished veteran of the Spanish American War, on September 7, 1916. Patton later described Hayes in a transcript of the diary as a “politician from Ohio but [a] very nice man.”
All of Patton’s war diaries and diary transcripts are available online as part of the Library of Congress Digital Collections, where scholars, students, researchers and history enthusiasts are encouraged to explore them.
Martin Blumenson. The Patton Papers, 1885-1940. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972).
Julie Irene Prieto. The Mexican Expedition, 1916-1917. (Washington D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2016).
Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!