In June 1916, while the horrors of the Great War in Europe remained an ocean away, President Woodrow Wilson confronted a more immediate threat along the United States’ border with Mexico.
Earlier that year, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa had led a deadly raid into New Mexico that left an American town destroyed. In response, Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916 (NDA) on June 3, which authorized an increase in the number of troops in the regular U.S. Army during peacetime. In addition, the law also dramatically increased the strength and training standards of the National Guard.
Following the passage of the NDA, President Wilson called on National Guardsmen from every state to report to the U.S.-Mexico border for what was to be called the “Mexican Punitive Expedition.” On June 19, 1916, the day after the President’s call to arms, Connecticut Governor Marcus Holcomb mobilized the First Connecticut Infantry, part of the state’s newly-reformed National Guard unit. Over 3,500 troops gathered at the state’s military training grounds in Niantic before embarking on a week-long trip to the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
While Connecticut’s troops didn’t participate in any excursions across the border, they remained in Nogales and nearby Fort Huachaca for seven months. There, they completed training exercises that were viewed as valuable preparation should the Germans ever decide to invade the United States. In that respect, Connecticut’s first National Guard mobilization under the new National Defense Act was, despite its failure to capture or even encounter Pancho Villa, a success.
“Mexican Border, 1916,” Connecticut State Library ‘Connecticut in WW1’ photo archive
Donna Neary, “On the Border,” National Guard Heritage Series image gallery
Glenn Williams, “The National Defense Act of 1916,” U.S. Army Center of Military History