- The Old Army in the Big Bend of Texas: The Last Cavalry Frontier, 1911–1921 by Thomas T. Smith
This well-researched history deals with the military occupation of the far West Texas southern border by the U.S. military during the Mexican Revolution. The book is an extremely interesting read and makes considerable use of official U.S. Army records. For most of the twentieth century a number of these official army records had remained classified, and their scattered locations in various National Archive locations made them difficult to locate and to use. Another problem is that a disastrous 1972 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, destroyed sixteen to eighteen million documents, including most of those relating to the Big Bend Military District. Author Thomas T. Smith states correctly that newspaper accounts from these years have proved to be unreliable. The Big Bend border became off limits to newspaper reporters, who were forced to depend on U.S. Army press conferences to report the news during this time. Despite these obstacles, Smith does a commendable job of researching this difficult topic.
The U.S. Army largely had been absent from the Big Bend from the 1890s until the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. During a decade of civil war in Mexico, the resulting border raids, theft of livestock, and an immense and constant stream of refugees fleeing the war into the United States greatly compounded these problems. U.S. military presence expanded on the border at a steady rate until Pancho Villa's bold attack on Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916, in which seven American soldiers and eight civilians lost their lives in the first invasion of the United States by a foreign army since the War of 1812. This prompted [End Page 232] President Woodrow Wilson to order General John J. Pershing and some 10,000 U.S. troops into Chihuahua in an attempt to capture or kill the elusive Villa. Then on the night of May 5, 1916, a band thought to be Villista raiders attacked Glenn Springs, in the Texas Big Bend, killing three U.S. soldiers and a nineteen-year-old young man. About the same time, a second group of marauders robbed Jesse Deemer's store at Boquillas a few miles downriver from Glenn Springs. The bandits kidnapped Deemer and his storekeeper and crossed the Rio Grande. In Mexico, they robbed the American-owned Boquillas mine and took two more captives. On May 7, a U.S. Army punitive expedition headed by Col. Frederick W. Silbey and Maj. George T. Langhorne set out from Marathon with about eighty cavalry troopers. The expedition remained in Chihuahua for seven days and managed to free the two hostages and kill five of the raiders. On June 18, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson mobilized the National Guard, sending some 156,000 guardsmen to the U.S.–Mexican border.
Smith does an outstanding job of documenting these critical events that led to a huge military buildup in this remote border region. Using regimental returns and other primary source military records, the author details the locations of U.S. Army border outposts, their years of operation, the commanders of these units, and their tactics. He also provides valuable timelines that will be a great aid to future researchers. In view of today's not dissimilar border troubles, Smith's fine military history provides his readers with valuable insight from a historical perspective.