Riding with Pancho Villa
Sitting in a silla
Saying to each other
Viva Pancho Villa.
-- Soldier's song
According to the
folklorist J. Frank Dobie in Apache Gold and
Yaqui Sliver, rancho Villa sent Holmdahl on a mission into
the mountains of Chihuahua.  According to Dobie, ban
dits seized a silver mine and Villa wanted them dead, and the silver
mine worked for the benefit of "the people." As Dobie tells it,
when Holmdahl arrived at the mine, the bandits fled, two of them
taking refuge in a rock-walled corral at nearby Rancho Guerachic.
Spotting them, Holmdahl drew his six-gun and spurred his horse.
Sailing over the wall, his revolver blazing, Holmdahl and the
bandits blasted away at each other until the bandits fell dead. The
gunfight was at such close quarters that Holmdahl was powder-
burned, but otherwise unwounded. After turning over the mine to
men loyal to Villa, he returned to his artillery command prepared to
fight under the banner of the famed Division of the North.
Pancho Villa was born in Durango in 1878, the son of a share-
cropper. During his early life he gained notoriety as a bandit and a
rustler, but when the Madero revolt began he was recruited by the
liberal politician Abraham Gonzalez. Gonzalez believed that Villa's
knowledge of the terrain and his leadership abilities would not only
prove of great value to Madero, but that his service in a good cause
would rehabilitate him into becoming a useful citizen. 
Villa's exploits during the revolution soon became the stuff of
legend. To some, "He was a monster who fills all Mexicans with
shame and will go down in history like a blot of blood."  To others
he was a "Mexican Robin Hood," who was "an avenger, and a
righter of wrongs."  "He was that genius of warfare to whom is
owed the triumph of the Revolution." 
On March 6, 1913, Villa learned of Madero's
murder. Villa, with
eight men riding beside him, crossed the Rio Grande from Texas
into Chihuahua bent on vengeance. He learned that his friend and
mentor, Abraham Gonzalez, governor of Chihuahua, had been
dragged from a train and brutally slain by Huerta's men. From that
time on the quality of Villa's mercy was rarely strained. Within
weeks his charisma, his bravery under fire, his genius for fighting,
and the support of the peasantry enabled him to raise an army that,
for a time, would be the strongest in Mexico. 
During the summer of 1913, in winning battles against Huerta's
armies, Villa reached the peak of his success. His Division of the
North had a strength of almost 50,000 tough, disciplined troops,
fanatically loyal only to the "Centaur of the North." Holmdahl, at
this time, was assigned to command Villa's machine-gun detach-
ments, while the old bandit's artillery was ably commanded by
General Felipe Angeles, a graduate of St. Cyr, the French West
Point. Villa also had good medical service and occasionally an air
plane flown by an American stunt pilot.
While Venustiano Carranza was the nominal leader of the anti-
Huerta forces, it was Villa and his men who did most of the fight-
ing, and his armies remained the best in Mexico. In short order they
smashed federal forces at Guerrero, Bustillos and Casas Grandes.
In late August 1913, Villa assembled his forces before the city of
San Andres. The city was garrisoned by a force twice the size of
Villa's army and commanded by the competent General Felix
On August 26 Villa attacked. After fighting all day, he was
unable to force his way into the city because of effective fire from
the federal artillery. The following day, Holmdahl and his machine
guns were brought up to the firing line. After pouring belt after belt
of ammunition into the enemy trenches, by late afternoon he suc-
ceeded in silencing the infantry fire. Martin Luis Guzman, a writer
on Villa's staff, reported that Villa complained to one of his officers,
"Senor Colonel, we cannot advance as long as their artillery keeps
bombarding us ... Silence their cannon." 
As darkness descended across the battlefield, Villa ordered one
of his patented golpe terrifico cavalry charges. Holmdahl turned his
machine guns over to a subordinate, mounted his horse, and rode to
the front of Villa's massed cavalry. He found himself riding along-
side the famed "Dorados," Villa's personal bodyguards and the best
mounted troops in Mexico, and he charged with them, literally into
the cannons' mouths.
As Villa's bugler sounded the charge, the cavalry spurred its
horses and, screaming "Viva Villa," rode into the guns while the fed-
eral artillery opened fire with canister. As he rode forward shouting,
one hand on the reins and the other on his .45 caliber revolver,
Holmdahl's hat was shot off by a shell fragment.
Somehow, Holmdahl found himself leading the charge, and,
reaching the enemy artillery, he fired to the left and right at cower-
ing gunners as the "Dorados" followed him. Suddenly he felt a
shock as a bullet or a piece of shrapnel ripped across his stomach
and he lurched from his horse and fell moaning onto the ground. 
The charge, however, overran the federal defense line, captured the
artillery, and battered the defenders into submission.
In his book, Guzman gave credit for winning the battle to dar-
ing and skillful officers, including one "of English ancestry, a certain
Hondall or Jontal."  This was, of course, Emil Holmdahl, who was
honored by the Mexican government which awarded him the Legion
of Honor and made him a honorary colonel in the Mexican army.
A contemporary pamphlet described Holmdahl's charge as heroic
and bold, noting that his courage should be memorialized in marble
and bronze.  Holmdahl spent six weeks in a Villista hospital, where
doctors stitched up his stomach and he quickly recovered his accus-
The fleeing federals abandoned almost 1,000 dead as well as los-
ing more than fifty artillery' pieces, 400 Mauser rifles, 20,000 rounds
of ammunition and seven railroad trains loaded with food, medical
supplies, and uniforms. The glory of the victory was soured, how-
ever, by the brutal murders of captured troops. According to one
of Villa's wives, Luz Corral, Orozco sympathizers had poisoned her
daughter. Villa, as outraged father, cried out for vengeance and
turned the prisoners over to his faithful killer, Rudolfo Fierro.
Fierro, who called himself a frugal executioner, lined up more
than four hundred helpless prisoners in groups of three. Forcing
them to hug each other back-to-front, Fierro then strode down their
lines firing one shot from a high-powered pistol into each trio, fatal-
ly drilling all three bodies. "Look how much ammunition I saved,"
he giggled to Villa. Everyone thought it was terribly amusing.
After the federal debacle at San Andres, Villa quickly captured
Torreon, and then used his captured trains to move his forces to
Chihuahua City. His old enemy Pascual Orozco, now allied with
Huerta, was commanding the garrison there. Villa sent him a
demand for surrender, and Orozco replied, "Come and take us, you
Enraged, Villa launched a series of massive cavalry attacks on
the city, but each one was repulsed with bloody losses. In one of the
golpe terrificos, Holmdahl took a bullet in the leg, but apparently it
not serious, because he had rejoined his unit by the time Villa pulled
a clever coup.
Leaving a smal1 force to surround Chihuahua City and keep up
desultory firing, Villa secretly' loaded the bulk of his army on trains,
abandoned the city and the hated Orozco, and sped toward Juarez.
At each station along the 500-mile-journey, he sent a phony message
to Juarez, reporting the progress of a federal train filled with rein-
forcements. Then he cut the telegraph wires.
The federal garrison at Juarez bought the ruse, and on
November 15 the Trojan horse pulled into the border city without
opposition. By the following day, Villa had captured the surprised
300-man garrison, and Fierro shot them all. Villa methodically loot-
ed the many banks, gambling halls, whorehouses, and saloons in the
city. With a large war chest, he bought fresh supplies of guns and
ammunition that had been smuggled across the nearby U.S. border.
Within the week, however, the reinforced federal garrison at
Chihuahua City had broken through his thin cordon and was head-
ing up the railway toward Juarez. Villa sent out patrols to wreck the
Central Railroad line leading to the city and deployed his men in a
line centered at Tierra Blanca, twenty miles south of Juarez. There
he occupied high ground overlooking the sandy desert through
which the federal army would attack. His men dug in on a low ridge
of dunes on each side of the railroad tracks.
The enemy force under Huerta loyalist, General Inez Salazar
collided with Villa's troops on November 24 at Tierra Blanca. The
battle would determine who would hold mastery over the northern
railway terminal at Juarez. According to British soldier-of-fortune,
I. Thord-Gray, commanding a Villa artillery battery, the Villistas had
5,000 men while the federal forces numbered 7,000.
Thord-Gray described the Villistas as "brave little Indians and
peons." They marched or rode, he said, without uniforms in shab-
by clothes. Some of them didn't have a gun but "proudly carried
their machetes and vicious-looking long knives." The British officer
remarked, "Scalping was not entirely out of fashion." Some of the
soldiers "looked about 10 years old," he said. Villa ordered the
Soldaderas, the famed women camp followers, to stay behind, but
Thord-Gray later wrote, "Hundreds of them, hanging on to the stir-
rups of their mounted men," trudged along the dusty road. 
Some did more than wash and cook and comfort their men.
Many picked up the guns of wounded soldiers and took their place
in the firing line, fighting as bravely' as any man. The corridos, the
folksongs of the peasants, captured the spirit of these tough, coura-
geous women, and one of the most popular, 'Juana Gallo" tells of
a young lady who was:
Always at the front of the troop
you saw her
Fighting like all the other soldiers
In battle no federal soldier escaped her
Without mercy she shot them with her big pistol.
Early on November 23 the federal army attacked on a 15-mile-
wide front in what became one of the largest and most fierce bat-
tles of the Mexican revolution. Federal cavalry attacks backed by
intense machine-gun and artillery fire went on well into the night.
Each was bloodily repulsed by the heroism of Villa's troops with
assistance from Holmdahl's blazing machine gunners.
On the following day, Pascual Orozco led 4,000 of his
"Colorados" in an attempt to circle behind the rebels' left flank.
Villa shifted his reserves and drove them back. Throughout the day,
hundreds of terrified Mexicans in Juarez fled across the interna-
tional bridge to El Paso, as the booming of the artillery shook win-
dow panes in the border cities. Trains full of Villa wounded began
to return from the front until the Juarez railway station resembled
the scene in Gone with the Wind where broken bodies covered the
At 5 o'clock on the morning of November 25, Villa's troops
took the offensive against a federal army exhausted after two days of
futile attacks. A drive from the rebels' left flank didn't net the elu-
sive Orozco, but, to Holmdahl's delight, isolated 2,000 troops under
General Salazar and pinned them against the Rio Grande.
Villa sent a courier to the front with a command to take Salazar
alive. "I will take him to the main square of the city and will have
the pleasure of shooting him myself," he pledged. The canny
Salazar, however, would not be taken, and many of his men escaped
by swimming with their horses across the river while those on foot
either swam or built rafts to float to the U.S. side. There they were
rounded up and interned by U.S. cavalry patrols.
Salazar and Orozco escaped to the east across 200 miles of wild
desert, leading a footsore caravan of 3,000 troops accompanied by
hundreds of federal sympathizers, including many women and chil-
dren. After a five-day trek the column, which straggled for 35 miles
across the bleak plain, reached Ojinaga. After scattering the small
Villista garrison, they seized the town and obtained food and pre-
cious water. They had left a trail of dead from Juarez to Ojinaga.
During the battle at Juirez, many El Pasoans, unable to sleep
because of the incessant firing, spent the days and nights on their
rooftops watching the fighting raging across the river. The specta-
cle became even more exciting when stray bullets whizzed over their
heads. At the rooftop ballroom of the Paso Del Norte Hotel, there
was a carnival atmosphere. Sedate couples interrupted their foxtrots
to peer over the rooftop colonnade to watch when a particularly
vicious storm of shooting drowned out the music.
Somehow, during the fighting, Holmdahl was interviewed by
reporters whose dispatches appeared in major U.S. newspapers.
Most credited Holmdahl with winning the battle, reporting that he
"led charge after charge until the enemy was repulsed." The San
Francisco Call added a touch of poignancy to the story, stating,
It fell to an American to display the most daring ability to fight
the fire of the enemy. Emil L. Holmdahl, now chief of Villa's artillery,
is given the credit of the rebel victory and the holding of the Federals
check. Holmdahl is an Oakland man. While he is fighting as a soldier of
fortune his white haired mother sits in home at 617 Angar
Oakland, and anxiously awaits news from the Mexican border." 
Another newspaper quoted Holmdahl's mother, "I fear I shall
lose my boy some day ... he is so impetuous and so devoted to the
cause of Madero that he will not be content to remain in the rear
ranks."  The San Francisco paper commented, "This American,
who is a major in the rebel forces, is the recognized strategist of the
defenders of Juarez. In this morning's battle he displayed great
fighting ability, and time after time led the charge against the feder-
al positions." 
Although inferior in numbers, artillery, machine guns, and
ammunition, Villa's wild cavalry attacks, covered by his machine
guns and artillery, routed the federal troops. Many, frightened fed-
eral soldiers, some only raw recruits, were found huddling together
under a white flag. Vil1a ordered them shot to a man. In all, the fed-
erals had more than 1,000 killed, while Vil1a's forces suffered 200
dead and 300 wounded. During the battle, Holmdahl's Maxim guns
did yeoman service in shooting fleeing government troops.
The aftermath of the battle was a bonanza for Villa, as his forces
captured four trains loaded with supplies, several artillery batteries,
a dozen machine guns, hundreds of rifles, and 400,000 rounds of
ammunition. The battle of Tierra Blanca, however, "showed both
the strengths and weaknesses of Villa's strategic thinking." On the
positive side, he maintained the morale of his troops, his cavalry
charges routed the enemy, and his position was well thought out. He
had, however, "no concept of reserves. ..was not coordinating the
battle ... This was in the tradition of guerrilla fighting, but was con-
trary ... to the command of a large army on the battlefield." 
A military expert later stated that Villa had no concept of how
to use or defend against artillery. These weaknesses would manifest
themselves in later battles, and, ultimately, would lead to the defeat
of his proud army. 
A few days after the battle, Holmdahl
led a patrol of forty
mounted men through the desert southeast of Juarez, searching for
a band of Huerta troops who were raiding Villa's supply lines.
Based in the Texas border town of Ysleta, fifteen miles east of El
Paso, the band crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico on daring raids.
Then they fled back to safety in Texas.
Holmdahl was tipped off to the whereabouts of the raiders by
a U.S. army officer patrolling the north bank of the river. The offi-
cer may have been an old crony from the 20th U.S. Infantry
Regiment now stationed in El Paso. They were patrolling the area
in order to protect that border city from raids by the bandidos accom-
paning both armies. With this information, Holmdahl was able to
slip up on the group's camp at dawn, and, although there were at
least 200 federals, Holmdahl struck hard and fast.
By positioning his
men between the Federal camp and the river,
Holmdahl's surprise attack cut off the enemy escape route and scat-
tered most of the band toward the Mexican river town of Zaragoza.
Riding into town, Holmdahl was hit with a rifle bullet entering at the
top of his shoulder near the base of his neck and coming out
beneath the shoulder blade.
Knocked out of the saddle, Holmdahl fell into the dusty main
street of Zaragoza. Laying there, he watched his infuriated men
shoot many of the raiders out of their saddles and overrun and cap-
ture twenty-eight of them. Propped up against an adobe building,
he saw the prisoners lined up against the wall on the opposite side
of the street and promptly shot. For most, mercy was as rare a com-
modity as loyalty.
Holmdahl was taken to El Paso, where under the care of
American doctors, he again demonstrated his recuperative ability.
He granted an interview to a newspaper reporter, and he was pic-
tured in a Chicago newspaper of December 13, 1913, looking fully
recovered.  He was now thirty years old and had been wounded
several times. There were streaks of gray in his hair and new lines
around the eyes, but his thirst for action and adventure remained
In December 1913, Villa and his army rested and reequipped in
Juarez. Villa realized he needed more guns and ammunition if he
were to drive to Mexico City. To this end, he organized a massive
smuggling operation in which Holmdahl became a key figure.
Setting up in the Sheldon Hotel in El Paso, Holmdahl made
contacts with U.S. businessmen who, in exchange for cattle, cotton,
copper, and silver appropriated by Villa, delivered guns and ammu-
nition to the border. Since the beginning of the revolution, a great
market in the purchase of "agricultural equipment" had suddenly
grown in El Paso.
Hundreds of crates labeled as plows, harvesters, and windmills
were delivered to El Paso by rail. From the freight station, they were
unloaded at night into wagons hauled by mules and taken into the
desert. There they were met by bands of smugglers who opened the
boxes and transferred the cargo of Winchester .30-.30 carbines, Colt
.45 caliber revolvers and cases of ammunition to pack mules. At
night, in small caravans, they dodged the few American patrols and
waded the shallow Rio Grande into Mexico.
Smuggling was big business in El Paso, and its leading citizens
were often involved. The Sheldon Hotel was a rambling, four-story
brick building in the center of downtown El Paso, and it was reput-
ed to be the finest hotel on the border. It featured a gourmet cook
and the best-stocked bar in Texas. In its paneled lobby Richard
Harding Davis, John Reed, and other famous correspondents often
swapped tall tales and more serious information with military men,
such as Major Generals Hugh Scott and Frederick Funston. They
were sometimes joined by the stiff-backed new brigadier John
"Black Jack" Pershing.
After the Diaz forces were defeated in 1911, Madero, Orozco,
and Villa held a victory dinner in the main ballroom. Later, after
Villa fell out with Garibaldi, the former bandit swaggered into the
hotel lounge, six-gun stuck in his belt, and announced "I'm going to
kill that Italian bastard." It required all the peace-making abilities
El Paso Mayor Charles Kelly to persuade Villa that the hotel was not
the proper place for an assassination. Soon after Garibaldi left
A few years later the tables were turned during the Orozco
revolt. Tracy Richardson smuggled a large pack train of guns and
ammunition across the border to General Salazar who was then an
Orozco ally fighting Villa. After the Salazar's men had used the
arms to shoot up a Villa detachment, Villa posted a $10,000 in gold
reward for anyone who would deliver Richardson to him dead or
alive. After Richardson had disposed of several of Villa's failed
bounty hunters, he learned the general and his side-kick Fierro were
holding forth in the Sheldon Hotel bar. Backed by a few friends,
Richardson entered the bar, pistol in hand. As the room suddenly
became very quiet Richardson told Villa he had a choice; he could
call off the reward or he could have his head shot off. Villa's face
lit up in a broad beauteous smile. "Amigo," he said, "I call it off.
Let's have a drink." Everybody, even Fierro, smiled broadly and the
event was closed. 
At that time, Holmdahl was working as a
Villa purchasing agent.
He and Richardson undoubtedly sat in the spacious Sheldon bar,
downed a few drinks, and swapped stories about the fine art of gun-
running. And they both might have laughed when Sam Dreben
changed sides and went to work for Villa. They, probably didn't have
to pay for many drinks themselves, as there were numerous arms
salesmen looking for contracts, and a bevy of U.S. newspaper cor-
respondents looking for colorful stories, who would gladly stand a
few rounds of bourbon and water. If there were few contracts,
there were stories aplenty.
The distinguished soldier and military historian, General S.L.A.
Marshall, commenting on the times, later wrote, "Gunrunning was
common along the border. A gunrunner was regarded as an adven-
turer, not a criminal." Marshall said that Holmdahl was "Villa's
agent in negotiations with the business community in El Paso." 
Somehow, a deal must have gone sour, or maybe Holmdahl got
a better offer. Or possibly, Holmdahl suffered pangs of conscience
as he watched Villa and Fierro slaughter helpless prisoners. If
Holmdahl had any remaining scruples, the last straw was an incident
described by Marshall. Marshall recounted to the Institute of Oral
History at the University of Texas at El Paso, that one evening he
was in a Juarez bar and gambling joint called "El Gato Negro"
("The Black Cat").
There, Villa, in an expansive mood, pointed to a high Spanish
comb worn by one of the dance hall girls. He bet Rudolfo Fierro
that he could shoot the comb off of the girl's head without hitting
her. Fierro bet him $25.00 he couldn't. Villa pulled out his big Colt
.45, aimed, and fired. The girl, shot through the head, fell dead.
Villa with a sheepish smile, counted out $25.00 and handed it over
to Fierro. It was considered quite a joke. 
On December 24,1913, Holmdahl
again wrote the adjutant gen-
eral in Washington D.C. stating,
Have just resigned as 1st Capt. of
Artillery, with Gen. Pancho Villa's
Rebel Forces in Chihuahua, my reasons for doing such; were on
ill feelings and petty jealousies shown me by my superior officers."
Maybe. Perhaps some of Villa's officers read the American news-
papers and learned how the gringo had "won" their greatest victo-
ry. Maybe Holmdahl had mentally resigned from Villa's service but
had not yet bothered to tell Villa.
The Washington letter also stated, "Can speak the Spanish lan-
guage fluently. While campaigning through 13 [Mexican] states, I
have learned the water holes, and trails." He gave as a reference
Brigadier General Hugh Scott, the commanding general of U.S.
forces along the border. In the letter, he added, "Before leaving
Villa 's forces, have taken a full list of all artillery and small
information to Washington, Holmdahl, now work-
ing for Carranza, could be said to be spying for three different
armies. It was something of a record, even for the Mexican revolu-
tion. The gunrunning business was characterized by double-cross-
es, with more than a little mordida (bribery), highjacked shipments,
unpaid bills, and failures to deliver paid-for arms. It was the latter
that was probably partially responsible for Villa's raid on Columbus,
New Mexico in March 1916.
In one case of chicanery during 1913, a "red-haired" con artist,
whose sole capital was an extra collar and a clean shirt, ensconced
himself in the Sheldon Hotel and convinced Villa supporters of his
credentials as an arms dealer. With introductions from them, he met
with Villa and announced he could "supply him with all the arms
and ammunition he would need. ..at incredible low prices."  Villa
then turned over $10,000 in American currency to the man.
After weeks elapsed without delivery, Villa crossed into El Paso
and, after a brief search, located the man who was frolicking about
the city's pleasure dens. At gunpoint he forced the man to refund
the money. The redhead was very lucky' that Villa cornered him
north of the Rio Grande. 
By January 1914, Pancho Villa, in undisputed control of all
Chihuahua, was the darling of the American war correspondents
and viewed favorably by the American government. But underneath
the surface -- resentment was ready to boil over. Holmdahl was
either lying to Washington in his December letter, or perhaps he
meant he had resigned from Villa's forces and joined Carranza with-
out telling Villa. Perhaps the New York Times got it wrong, for on
June 20, 1914, the newspaper ran a story stating:
U.S. ARMY VETERAN TO LEAD REBELS INTO
Douglas, Ariz. June 19 --
After the departure today of Major H.L.
Holmdahl of Gen. Villa's personal staff from Agua Prieta for Nogales
and Hermosillo, the statement was made by Constitutionalists, that he had
been delegated by Villa to equip and lead an expedition to take Lower
California for the insurgents. Such an attempt would require a
across the desert in order to capture Mexicali and Tia Juana. Three
previous expeditions have failed. 
Aside from this brief dispatch, there is no other record of
Holmdahl's expedition, if indeed it ever took place.
The disaster at Tierra Blanca and a series of other humiliating
defeats broke the back of the Huerta regime, and in August 1914,
the half-drunken general boarded a German ship and fled the coun-
try. The resulting vacuum of power left three major players on the
revolutionary scene: Venustiano Carranza, the titular head of the
revolution; Villa, whose Division of the North was the most feared
fighting force in the country'; and Zapata, who had triumphed in
Morelos and parts of southern Mexico.
There had been
growing conflict between Villa, the peasant, and
Carranza, the rico. Aside from the economic and social gap, perhaps
there was a generation gap between them. Villa was a vibrant, blunt,
man of action in his thirties and Carranza, in his fifties, was cold,
withdrawn, and intellectual. They were like people from two differ-
ent worlds. 
From the beginning ... Carranza attempted to subordinate Villa to
leaders he considered far more reliable and to limit his authority in
Chihuahua and other territories he controlled. 
Villa at first tried to conciliate their differences.
 But after
insults from the Carranza forces, he made a final break which led to
"The greatest bloodshed in the history of the Mexican Revolution,
and was also its most senseless episode." 
Zapata, interested only in his home province of Morelos, later
withdrew from the competition, leaving Villa and Carranza to con-
test for Mexico. The two, more in a battle of egos than idealistic dif-
ferences, cut relations and prepared for a showdown.
By December 1914, Villa was knocking on the gates of Mexico
City, and on December 4, still allied with Zapata, the two met at
Xochimilco on the outskirts of the capitol. Days later, he and
Zapata moved their armies into Mexico City. Holmdahl, during this
year of triumph for Villa, was secretly taking orders from General
Benjamin Hill, Carranza's chief officer stationed along the Texas
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