Our place in history

Curtis Varnell, PhD.
Western Arkansas Educational Service Cooperative
Col. Henry Stroup of the Arkansas National Guard.

The southern New Mexico desert is one of the most desolate places in the United States. Everything stings, bites or has thorns on it. There, in the middle of nowhere, sits the small town of Columbus, N.M., with a big sign proclaiming itself as the site the famous Mexican bandito Pancho Villa crossed the border and started the Mexican Expedition of 1916-17. His raid on the American border forces resulted in the deaths of some 20 Americans as well as the theft of American military property and the burning of the small, railhead town.

Villa needed supplies to carry out his revolution in Mexico and Columbus looked like an easy target. Probably unexpected, his actions brought swift retaliation from President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson assigned Gen. Blackjack Pershing the job of tracking down the bandit and bringing him to justice.

Needing troops immediately, Pershing called up the National Guard. Troops from small towns throughout the Arkansas River Valley responded. The regional National Guard commander was Col. Henry Stroupe of Paris. His unit included men from Magazine, Booneville, Paris, Dardanelle and other local towns. After reporting for duty in North Little Rock, the men were shipped by train to Columbus where they joined the 120,000 troops sent to chase Villa.

Stroupe and his men encamped in tents, sweltering in the desert heat and blowing dust. While the National Guard protected the border, Blackjack and his army crossed into Mexico and pursued the Mexican ghost with little success. Villa was too elusive to allow himself to be trapped, instead he fought a guerilla warfare of secret attacks and then disappeared into the countryside. One of the few success stories involved future Gen. George Patton. Patton, while on a scouting expedition with 12 other men in three large Dodge touring cars, discovered that Julio Gardenas, one of Villa’s top generals, was hiding out in a nearby village. Patton, demonstrating some of the traits that later made him famous, immediately attacked the hideout and killed three men, including Gardenas using his famous pearl-handled pistol. It is reported that he placed three notches on his gun, strapped the three dead men to the hood of his touring vehicle and returned to camp.

After months of pursuing Villa and with World War I approaching, America declared victory and withdrew. Pershing reviewed the troops, including those from Arkansas, while standing in a raised gazebo in Columbus. The photos of that review stand and the encampment are found in our local historical society albums, along with pictures of  Stroupe and many prominent citizens of our local towns.

Stroupe and his men returned home to a hero’s welcome and went on to become the mayor of Paris, a state legislator and ran for governor of the state. The Stroupe Building at Arkansas Tech University was named for him. Many of the men that returned with him, including his son, were later sent to France to fight during World War I.

Many times, we have to remind ourselves that we don’t just learn history, we are a part of it. Our young men rubbed shoulders with the famous men of history books. They suffered, and in many cases died, protecting the hills and valleys that make up our home.