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THE OLD ARMY IN THE BIG BEND OF TEXAS: THE LAST CAVALRY FRONTIER, 1911-1921 


The Texas State Historical Association recently published a new title: The Old Army in the Big Bend of Texas: The Last Cavalry Frontier, 1911-1921 by Thomas T. Smith. (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2018. Pp.240. Illustrations, bibliography, index).

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 make use of. Another problem is that a disastrous 1972 fire at the National Archives National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo. destroyed some 16-18 million documents including most of those relating to the Big Bend Military District. Smith also states correctly how unreliable newspaper accounts from these years have proved to be. The Big Bend border became off limits to newspaper reporters who were forced to depend on Army press conferences to report the news during this time period. In spite of these obstacles author Thomas Smith does a commendable job of researching this difficult topic.

The U.S. Army largely had been absent from the Big Bend from the 1890’s until the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. During a decade of civil war in Mexico, the resulting border raids, theft of livestock as well as 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 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 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 boy. 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 where 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 80 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.

Thomas Smith does an outstanding job of documenting these critical events that led to a huge military build up of this remote border region. Using Regimental Returns and other primary source military records the author details the locations of the U.S. Army border outposts, their years of operation, the commanders of these units and their tactics as well as providing valuable time lines that will be a great aid to future researchers, writers as well as history buffs. In view of today's not dissimilar border troubles, Smith’s fine military history provides his readers with valuable insight from a historical perspective.

Glenn Justice



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