Tuesday, February 14, 2012

DeWitt Rucker: Buffalo Soldier of the M.P.E.

It was around Memorial Day 2011 that a high school friend posted a message on her Facebook page. In my hometown, there was a display on the town square honoring the veterans from Hart County who were killed in action. Predictably, there were veterans from the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, but one memorial was a mystery.

This memorial honored Private DeWitt Rucker. The conflict listed under his name was simply “M.P.E.” Since the memorial did not give the date of Pvt. Rucker’s death, my friend wondered what conflict the M.P.E was. After trying unsuccessfully to determine how and when Rucker died, she described the experience on Facebook to see if anyone else knew. Searches of the military and history websites for some clue to Rucker’s story yielded nothing. Googling “M.P.E.” did not turn up any relevant results. Eventually, with a handful of people scouring the internet, some details of how DeWitt Rucker died for his country became known.

The break came when Pvt. Rucker’s name was found listed on a memorial to Buffalo Soldiers at Ft. Bliss, Tx. The Buffalo Soldiers were black soldiers in the U.S. Army. The nickname was acquired during the Indian Wars, but all-black units of Buffalo Soldiers fought in several American wars until the armed forces were desegregated.

The key to decoding the “M.P.E.” reference was also on the website describing the Buffalo Soldiers memorial. Pvt. Rucker was among the casualties of the Battle of Carrizal, Mexico on June 21, 1916. The battle was part of a campaign known as the Mexico Punitive Expedition, the M.P.E.

The adventure into Mexico began on March 9, 1916 when Mexican bandits under Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who led one of the factions vying for control of Mexico, raided the border town of Columbus, N.M. according to the National Archives. The raid killed 10 American soldiers and eight civilians with another seven soldiers and two civilians wounded. An estimated 100 bandits were killed, seven wounded, and one captured before the remainder escaped back into Mexico. The Americans pursued the bandits several miles into Mexico, but were forced to turn back due to a shortage of ammunition and supplies.

As a result of the raid, President Woodrow Wilson, apparently without congressional authorization, ordered a U.S. force that eventually numbered 11,000 men under Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing to capture Villa. With tacit approval, but very little in the way of cooperation, from Mexican president Venustiano Carranza, the U.S. Army set out into the Mexican state of Chihuahua, south of New Mexico and west Texas. For the first time, trucks and airplanes were used in a military expedition (with less than stellar results).

Pancho Villa and his men retreated before the American onslaught, hiding in the rugged mountains of Mexico. Although the local Mexicans hated Villa, they like the Americans even less and offered little help. There were a few skirmishes with Villa’s men, but the bandit chief eluded capture.

To make matters worse, there were also skirmishes with the Mexican army. On April 13, 1916, the Mexican army attacked Americans of the 13th Cavalry at Parral. One American was killed and one was wounded, while the Mexicans lost at least 14 men.

Other skirmishes were fought against the bandits as well. Dozens of bandit were killed or captured with few American losses, but Villa remained at large. At the same time, Mexican raiders continued to raid border towns in Texas. In May and June 1916, Congress approved activation of National Guard units to patrol the U.S. side of the border.

On June 21, American soldiers again clashed with the Mexican army at Carrizal. Acting on intelligence that Pancho Villa was in the town, Pershing dispatched the Buffalo Soldiers of C and K Troops of the 10th Cavalry under Capt. Charles Boyd with orders “to avoid a fight if possible.” Instead of Villa, the cavalrymen ran into Mexican government soldiers who were guarding the town. Max Boot describes what happened next in his excellent book, “The Savage Wars of Peace:”

There was no good reason not to bypass the town, and that is precisely what Boyd’s civilian guides advised, but for some mysterious reason Boyd insisted on going through with it. He was not deterred even when the Mexican general commanding the Carrizal garrison informed him that if he advanced “he would have to walk over the dead bodies of Mexican soldiers.” Boyd was said to have instructed a messenger, “Tell the son of a bitch that we’re going through!”

Boyd dismounted his cavalry and ordered them to advance across a grassy field toward an irrigation ditch where the vastly superior Mexican force was dug in. When the Americans were about 250 yards from their position, the Carrancistas opened fire with rifles and machine gun. Nearly all the men in Troop C were wounded. The Buffalo Soldiers fought bravely, but with bullets “falling like rain,” and their own ammunition running out, they had no chance of prevailing. All the officers, including Captain Boyd, were killed quickly. The troopers, left leaderless, were routed by Mexican cavalry. Twelve Americans were killed that day, 10 wounded, and 24 captured. The rest ran away. The Mexicans lost more men – at least 30 killed, 40 wounded – but the battle of Carrizal was an unmitigated disaster for the U.S. Army.

Pvt. DeWitt Rucker, native of Hart County and U.S. Army Buffalo Soldier, was among the dead. It was rumored that Pancho Villa watched with amusement from a hideout in the mountains as his two enemies battled, but in reality he is believed to have been wounded at the time.

At this point, the U.S. and Mexico were on the brink of war. Leaders of both countries paused. Carranza agreed to release the U.S. prisoners who had survived the battle. According to Boot, these men blamed Boyd for provoking the battle in violation of his orders from Pershing, which helped calm the situation. Eventually, the U.S. agreed to withdraw its forces from Mexico if Carranza could control Villa. The American forces in Mexico began to return home in January 1917. The conflict officially ended on February 5. The National Guard was demobilized and the troops returned home.
Army units remained along the border to protect against further raids.

In spite of the failure to capture Pancho Villa, the expedition was officially considered a success. The National Archives records the words of Secretary of War Newton Baker: “[the] objective, of course was the capture of Villa, if that could be accomplished, but its real purpose was a display of the power of the United States into a country disturbed beyond control of the constituted authorities of the Republic of Mexico as a means of controlling lawless aggregations of bandits and preventing attacks by them across the international frontier.  This purpose is fully and finally accomplished."

Only a few months after the end of the American incursion into Mexico, President Wilson and General Pershing were fighting a new enemy as the United States entered WWI. Memory of the Mexico Punitive Expedition was overshadowed by the epic struggle against the Kaiser in Europe. A 1917 silent movie, “A Trooper of Troop K,” was based on Buffalo Soldiers at the Battle of Carrizal.

Fighting continued in Mexico as it had before the Americans had arrived. Carranza fought for control of Mexico against Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Carranza was assassinated in 1920 while fleeing a coup attempt. Pancho Villa was given amnesty by the new government, but was assassinated himself in 1923. Another rumor has him saying as he died, “Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something.” In reality, he is reported to have died instantly.

There are many similarities between current Mexican-American relations those of 100 years ago. Violence along the border is increasing and threatens to spill over into the United States. The National Guard has been called upon to patrol border areas. Tensions are running high between the two nations over illegal immigration and the Obama Administration’s policy of allowing guns to be smuggled to Mexican drug cartels. Perhaps, the lessons of the past can teach us to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Originally published on Examiner.com":

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