Immediately prior to World War I, a short-lived conflict called The
Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916-1917 occupied national attention.
Lost in the shadow of the "Great War," the conflict has disappeared from
most Rhode Island record books even though the Rhode Island National
Guard was called in to national service to assist.
In January 1916, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a bandit who opposed the
Mexican president, killed nineteen American rail passengers in Mexico.
Then in March, he and approximately 500 followers attacked the small New
Mexican community of Columbus. In this skirmish, at least fifteen
American soldiers died, as did a few Mexican troops. This was just one
of the many border conflicts in which Villa and his men participated.
Following the attack on Columbus, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson
directed Brigadier General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to command
14,000 Army troops. Additionally 140,000 members of the army and
National Guard protected the border between the United States and
Mexico. Rhode Island members of the Light Battery A, Rhode Island Field
Artillery, participated in this conflict.
The goal of the campaign was to capture Villa, but this never
happened. He and his followers proved impossible to detain despite being
greatly outnumbered. The “Punitive” Expedition failed to fulfill its
mission, but Woodrow Wilson campaigned for re-election with the slogan,
“He Kept Us Out of War,” meaning a war with Mexico, not the war looming
Despite its small size and scope, a wide range of materials exists on
the military operation, both on the state and federal level. It is
unknown how many Rhode Islanders served in the army during the
expedition. You can determine if your ancestor participated in the
Mexican Border conflict by first requesting service records that list
units they served with. The second step is to research general accounts
of the expedition to see if the unit took part in the military
An historical overview of the Punitive Expedition appears in a
two-part article by Mitchell Yockelson, “The United States Armed Forces
and the Mexican Punitive Expedition.” This is found on the National
Archives website (part
2 ) and in print in Prologue Vol. 29, nos. 3 and 4, (Fall
and Winter 1997). A concise version of the conflict appears on the
National Park Service website under the title “Pursuing
Pancho Villa." It includes photographs of the effort and
biographical materials on General Pershing.
Locating National Service Records
Yockelson’s articles include relevant collections of material in the
National Archives that contain data on individual soldiers and are
Begin your search by requesting military personnel records from the National
Personnel Records Center (9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri
63132). To request copies, obtain a NATF Form 180 by mail or download it
from their website. The following information is needed: name, branch
of service, and approximate dates of service. Be aware that a fire in
1973 destroyed many of the case records for Army personnel discharged
between November 1, 1912 and January 1960.
Consult Yockelson’s articles for complete descriptions of the record
groups. Here are the highlights:
Record Group 24, Records of the United States Navy
Use this resource for muster rolls of enlisted men and deck logs for a
roster of officers.
Record Group 45, Naval Records Collection of the Naval Records and
WE-Mexico includes casualty lists for Tampico and Vera Cruz.
Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster
You’ll find a list of recipients of Mexican Service Badges in these
files. According to Yockelson, entry 256 is a name index to “all the
medal and badge-related series in this record group.”
Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General, 1780s to 1917.
The scope of this record group covers more than two hundred years,
including materials relating to the Mexican expedition. According to
Yockelson, “it is possible to locate documents pertaining to enlisted
personnel in the regular army or National Guard particularly if a
solider was discharged, deserted or died while in the army.”
Record Group 112, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General
Contains personnel files for medical officers serving during the
Record Group 127, Record of the Untied States Marine
Includes muster rolls for marines occupying Vera Cruz.
Record Group 165, Records of the War Department and Special Staff
Photographs of the U.S. Army operations along the Mexican Border are
part of materials in this collection.
Record Group 407, Records of the Adjutant General, 1917.
In this series are the “Organization Records of National Guard under
orders, sick reports, rosters, payroll vouchers and correspondence
To learn more about the materials held by the National Archives and
Records Service consult their website
or the following publications:
Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United
States (Washington, DC: National Archives, 1996)
George S. Ulibarri, and John R. Harrison, comps., Guide to
Materials on Latin America in the National Archives (Washington, DC:
National Archives, 1974)
James C. Neagles, U.S. Military Records: A Guide to Federal &
State Sources (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1994).
Records on the State Level
On June 19, 1916, 658 men and 28 officers from the Rhode Island
National Guard were called in to serve with Pershing’s troops. They
consisted of four units of the Light Battery A Field Artillery: Cavalry
(companies A, B, C, and M), Ambulance Corps 85, a Quartermaster unit,
and Medical Corps. National Guard records for the Punitive
Expedition maintained by the Rhode Island State Archives (337
Westminster St., Providence, RI) include muster records and descriptive
rolls. These files are open to the public.
Archivist Ken Carlson of the Rhode Island State Archives has compiled
a list of officers in the Mexican Border Campaign, which is available
below. The list does not include all the names of enlisted men who
served with the National Guard during the Punitive Campaign. Included in
the list is Norman Case, who went on to become governor of Rhode Island
from 1928 to 1933.
Armington, Herbert H., Captain, Cavalry
Arnold, Davis G., 1st Lieutenant & Adjutant, 1st Cavalry Squadron
Babcock, Donald S., 2nd Lieutenant
Barker, Harold R., 2nd Lieutenant
Blair, Frederick L., 1st Lieutenant
Bugbee, William C., 1st Lieutenant
Buxton, Bertam H., Lieutenant
Calder, Augustus W., Major, Medical Corps
Carney, Harold E., 1st Lieutenant
Case, Norman S., 1st Lieutenant
Chaffee, Everitte S., Captain
Chandler, Earle W., 2nd Lieutenant
Dean, Herbert R., Captain
Gammell, William Jr., 1st Lieutenant
Garlick, William J., 2nd Lieutenant
Glines, Charles T., Major, Q.M. Corps
Greene, Clarence H., Captain, Q.M. Corps.
Hall, Samuel A., Captain
Hanley, Gerald T., 1st Lieutenant
McDonough, James P., 2nd Lieutenant
Merchant, Marcius H., Captain, Medical Corps
Montooth, Charles, 1st Lieutenant, Cavalry
Nield, Fred B., 1st Lieutenant
Rancourt, John J., 2nd Lieutenant
Richards, Charles H., Captain
Richards, John J., Major, Cavalry Squadron
Spratt, Charles W., Captain
In addition to military records, researchers should consider reading
local newspaper accounts of the conflict. See my earlier article All
the News Fit to Print: Rhode Island Newspapers for further
Research alert: The Rhode Island Historical Society Library has
reduced its hours of operation to Wednesday and Friday 10-5 and Thursday
Noon – 8. All manuscripts materials are now paged to the Reference
Department during regular business hours.