Wave a flag and cheer, Santa Rosa; your National Guard boys are going off to protect the border with Mexico! The year was 1916 and beneath the cheery patriotism was terror about what might happen – and for good reason. It looked like a full-scale war with Mexico would start at any moment.
While the soldiers going off to fight in Europe in 1917 get lots of attention from historians, the National Guard’s call up for duty a year earlier is lesser mentioned, often just dismissed as sort of a rehearsal for the real show. But it was their departure for the border that had the greater emotional impact on Santa Rosa, being the first time local men had been ordered to active service since the Spanish-American War, a full generation in the past.
The story has obvious relevance to us in 2018 because a president is again sending the National Guard to the Mexican border. But while researching those doings about a century ago, I found the story even more relevant to today than I expected – it was also a casebook study of “fake news.”
That innocent American civilians were killed in the lead-up to deployment was an indisputable fact. But depending upon which newspaper(s) you happened to read – and remember, this was 1916 and before radio or TV, so your daily paper was probably the sole news source available – your reaction might be the indignation someone feels when any fellow citizens are slain by terrorists. Or maybe you’d feel the situation in Mexico was so abominable that the U.S. Army should go down there and take over the whole damn country.
The most irresponsible coverage found anywhere was undoubtedly in the San Francisco Examiner and other Hearst papers, with anti-Mexican racism on a par with President “Some I Assume Are Good People” Trump.* Here in Sonoma county, however, the dailies were the Argus-Courier in Petaluma with the Santa Rosa Republican and Press Democrat delivered to homes and businesses elsewhere. Of the three, the PD stands out – for making everyone more jittery by portraying Mexico as a lawless wilderness, where life was cheap and outlaws roamed the countryside like packs of feral dogs.
Scan the front pages of the Press Democrat from the start of 1916 and discover there were detailed reports about the war in Europe – albeit mainly good news that WWI was going ever so swell for the Allies and the unpleasantness would be over soon, one way or the other. In sharp contrast, the PD’s account of the Mexico crisis was alarmist and became increasingly histrionic. Despite the enormous number of deaths in WWI, the articles about that had all the immediacy of chess match coverage; when it came to Mexico, PD editor Ernest Finley’s hair was on such fire he could not be troubled to worry about printing the truth.
Trouble loomed not long after the year began: “MEXICANS MURDERED AMERICANS,” read the headline in the January 12 Press Democrat. The incident – which became known as the Santa Isabel Massacre – would continue to dominate the PD’s front page for the remainder of that week, even pushing out most news about the World War.
(RIGHT: ‘Pancho’ Villa, in scene from 1914 docudrama)
In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, about 250 miles from the Texas border, sixteen Americans who worked for a mining company had been robbed, stripped, and murdered execution-style. Two other Americans in the area were killed three days later. The killers were part of the forces under the command of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, northern Mexico’s warlord and leader of a military faction in their ongoing revolution.
When word reached El Paso, the nearest U.S. city to the site of the crime and home to the big Army base at Fort Bliss, soldiers attacked Mexicans downtown, leading to an anti-Mexican riot involving about a thousand soldiers and civilians alike. Martial law was declared and Mexican residents were ordered to leave their homes.
President Woodrow Wilson – who recently had given his blessing to the current Mexican government – rejected calls for a counterstrike, saying he trusted their country to punish those responsible. There was also talk of the mining company and American ranchers creating a mercenary troop to sneak into the country to capture Villa. Provoking an invasion of Mexico by American forces, however, was exactly what he wanted.
At that point the Mexican Revolution had been underway for five or six or seven years (depending on who you ask) with the U.S. meddling at every step. By the mid-1910s it had strayed from its revolutionary goal of upending the country’s old feudalism and turned into a Game of Thrones-like contest for power with several factions locked in a civil war, Villa a major player among them.
As 1916 began, Villa and his once indomitable Army of the North (División del Norte) seemed headed for a small footnote in Mexican history. The previous year, better armed government forces had badly whipped them in three major battles – one of which lasted 38 days (!) – and the Villistas were reduced to a guerilla force unlikely to survive another direct encounter with the Army.
Villa believed the president of Mexico – a former ally of his, natch – was a sellout and conceding too much to American interests because he had some sort of secret deal with Wilson’s administration. (It turned out Villa had been suckered into believing a conspiracy theory.) In Villa’s mind the last hope to unify the country was to start a mouse-that-roared war with the U.S. And as the earlier attack had failed to spur necessary American wrath, he decided to lead his fighters across the border and attack a town in New Mexico. It would be the first time American soil had been invaded since the War of 1812.
Two months after the Santa Isabel Massacre, Villa and his forces targeted Columbus NM, a dusty bordertown about 70 miles west of El Paso. A very thorough and well-written description of the attack can be read here but all we need to know is that it was brutal; 18 Americans were dead and the little town was ransacked. President Wilson immediately ordered troops into Mexico to capture or kill Villa.
| “On the Border” by Donna Neary (Image: Army.Mil)
From that point on, all newspaper coverage of the crisis can be ranked on a scale. The better papers explained Villa was trying to provoke Wilson into invading, so their readers may have understood that while these were savage acts, they were part of his realpolitik gambit, and there were risks to the U.S. if we played into his hands. Rank the Press Democrat at the other end of the scale with the worst of the yellow press, painting Villa simply as the leader of a ruthless bandit gang on the prowl for horses to steal and gringos to slaughter.
Then there’s the the Press Democrat’s remarkable volume of stories. A week or more might pass without the Argus-Courier or Santa Rosa Republican mentioning Pancho Villa – but from April onwards, something about Villa appeared on the PD front page almost every single day, which by itself made the story appear as important as the World War. Most of those items turned out to be rumors and lies which the paper did not later correct, or made only a token effort to fix. The worst was probably when the PD made a big splash with a story about a Mexican Army general defecting to Villa and taking his 2,000 soldiers with him. When it proved untrue a day later there was a single sentence about it buried near the end of a long update of latest U.S. troop movements.
Even the best newspapers sometimes printed stuff that turned out false, but the PD was like a “fake news” clearinghouse. Villa had narrowly escaped capture, Villa was about to invade the U.S. again, Villa was dead, Villa was walking through passenger trains and murdering anyone he thought was American. Sometimes what was presented to Sonoma county readers slipped into outright propaganda – the PD featured a photo illustration showed a firing squad poised for execution with the caption, “How They Kill a ‘Gringo.'” It was actually a scene from a 1914 docudrama about Villa filmed during the civil war with other Mexican factions.
The crisis came to a head in June – a fact we know because the PD’s banner headline on the 18th shouted, “MEXICAN CRISIS NOW AT THE CLIMAX”. The Mexican president ordered American troops to leave the country. President Wilson refused. Soon after, troops from the U.S. Cavalry were confronted by the Mexican Army, and in the “Battle of Carrizal” 12 Americans were killed with 24 captured. The next day Wilson ordered the entire 145,000 member National Guard called to duty. On June 24, the northern California Fifth regiment was mobilized and ordered to assemble in Sacramento immediately. Santa Rosa was going to war.
“Goodbye Boys! and May God Bless You and Keep You”, cheered the Press Democrat headline on June 25. Half of the front page that day called for a big public turnout at 10:00AM as the local National Guard marched from the armory (Fourth and D streets) to the train station on North street. The other half of the page contained stories suggesting they were probably going to be walking into a trap and be slaughtered.
“The Carrizal battle was only an incident of what was planned to be a general attack on the American command,” one of those PD articles read, citing a report supposedly received in El Paso. “Americans were flanked on both sides by Mexicans who practically surrounded the little detachment,” read another story that described what happened at Carrizal. “In front was a concealed Mexican machine gun trench from which a stream of leaden death unexpectedly poured into the American ranks.”
This upsetting “we salute you who are about to die” theme continued in the PD alongside news about the current whereabouts of our company. Three days later, the PD claimed the “Buffalo Soldiers” captured at Carrizal were expecting to be executed, 30,000 Mexican soldiers were waiting to attack U.S. soldiers and a half million Mexican civilians were heading for the border to repel an American invasion. The Republican printed none of that crap and by contrast, balanced front page coverage of the National Guard deployment with news about the state political conventions and WWI developments.
Santa Rosa’s Company E, led by Captain Hilliard Comstock (more about that fellow’s soldiering later) had 75 members, one of them Fleming McWhorter, who already had been serving in New Mexico. He returned to join his Company E comrades even though he would be turning around the next day. An impromptu group met him at the train and carried him on their shoulders to the armory. It was a grand moment:
| Members of Co. E who have served their time as drummers, secured the drums of the Native Sons’ Drum Corps and headed the column. The company flag was carried and a mascot in the form of a little dog with a white blanket marked “Co. E,” was led in the line. About fifty men were in line and the column made an inspiring sight as it marched along Fourth street. The Santa Rosa Boys’ Brass Band, in full uniform, was at the depot and tendered several selections while the crowd awaited the arrival of the train. As it came in the band played one of its liveliest tunes, arousing the enthusiasm of all present…
Irregardless of the garbage the PD was feeding its readers about hordes of killer Mexicans, the paper’s coverage of their departure the next day was touching, promising it “…will always be remembered as one of the most notable of events that has ever occurred in Santa Rosa, and thousands participated in the many incidents marking the going away.”
| No one who was an eye witness will ever forget Sunday morning, June 25, 1916, the time when Company E of Santa Rosa went to the front at the country’s call for the defense of the flag. It was gigantic. It was grand, significant and true…Santa Rosa rallied magnificently in her saying of good-bye. Long before the hour of ten, when the whistles blew and the bells rang, people commenced to congregate in the streets adjacent, to the armory, and when the parade formed with the departing company as the center of attraction, the streets for blocks were lined with one continuous mass of humanity. The bands played and as the parade came along men, women and children fell into line and marched with the soldiers. Winding up the procession were several hundred automobiles carrying for the most part women and children. The line of march was down Fifth street to A then to Fourth, along Fourth to North, and thence out to the depot. All along the line of march the air was rent with cheers. And as the soldier boys passed down Fifth street each was presented with a beautiful bouquet of Burbank’s Shasta daisies, carnations, roses and greenery.
And then the moment of farewell came. “The troops’ train had disappeared around the bend in the track out from the Southern Pacific depot; the clanging of the locomotive bell was now an echo; Santa Rosa’s greatest public demonstration had ended; and the prolonging note of the mother’s prayer, sweeter than all else, for it really echoed the sentiment of thousands of hearts, came at the last.”
Tensions between the United States and Mexico remained high for a few following days but then the Carrizal prisoners were released unharmed, and even the PD grudgingly conceded on July 6 the “condition of [the] Mexican situation is improving.” News about WWI again began to dominate their front page.
And then letters from Company E began arriving back home. They were headed for Nogales, Arizona and in good spirits. It was so hot on the train that most of them stripped down to their underwear. They started a “beauty contest” to see who could grow the best chin whiskers and moustache.
Mostly they were bored after settling into camp. It was hot and there was lots of rain. They drilled every morning for five hours, then had the afternoon and evening free. They slept six to a tent and Charles O’Bear, one of the cooks, wrote that he and his bunkmates “have all sorts of fun amongst ourselves. We took a lot of freak pictures this afternoon.” (Let’s hope the O’Bears still have their family photo album.) They had brought along that little black dog named “Fox” which they now dressed with a canvas coat reading on each side “Co. E, Fifth.” After a couple of days they adopted another fox terrier as an assistant mascot.
In the letters printed or summarized in the Press Democrat they often described how good and plentiful the food was. There were 2,000 men in the Fifth California Regiment at Nogales and in two weeks they ate 14,000 pounds of fresh meat. “Today’s dinner consisted of cold boiled ham, corn on cob, French fried potatoes, iced tea, chocolate cake with bread and butter,” O’Bear wrote to his friend. The Sebastopol Merchants’ Association sent them a shipment of apples and a thank you note replied, “The apples which you were so kind as to send were, like all Sebastopol Gravensteins. delicious…”
Health was also a big topic; many were bedridden for a few days because of the typhoid vaccinations. They had been mustered up so quickly the men had not been examined by Army doctors here or in Sacramento, so everyone got a physical at the Nogales camp. An average of fifteen percent of the California National Guard failed and were sent home. Company E lost 17 – including Ezra Mortenson, who was too tall. The PD reported that an anti-smoking activist told the Santa Rosa Grange that many in the Guard were rejected because they suffered from “tobacco heart,” leading to a letter-to-the-editor from all of Company E, griping that “people should know what they are talking about before breaking into print.” (The same complaint could have been made about all of the PD’s prior Mexico coverage, of course.)
What they didn’t write about was military service, except for a letter from Al Mead. Nogales straddles the border and there wasn’t a fence between the two sides until after 1918. Mead wrote, “The main street of Nogales forms the international boundary line between the United States and Mexico. American guards, dressed in the customary olive drab uniforms, guard our side of the line, while the Mexican side is patrolled by half-starved, scantily clad Mexican soldiers, dressed mostly in ragged overalls and dirty shirts, the red hat cord being the only distinction between them and the ordinary citizen.”
After about a month at Nogales the Fifth Regiment was told to prepare for a 138-mile march, although they wouldn’t be going into into Mexico; they would be heading to Fort Huachuca which had a particularly good rifle range. But as August was about to end, surprising new orders arrived – they were to pack up and head back to Sacramento to be part of the state fair. Theirs was the only regiment sent away from the border so early.
“Bronzed and campaign-hardened by the active service on the Mexican border, the members of the Fifth Infantry swung into the State Fair grounds today to the strains of martial music and the cheers of thousands of spectators,” reported the Press Democrat. “Erect and with swinging stride of regulars, the men and their officers made a splendid appearance, clearly demonstrating the result of their arduous border service.” They took part in a sham battle where 16,000 rounds of blanks were fired and a prop bridge was blown up.
And that was that. They came home to Santa Rosa on October 7 with another parade and a banquet at the armory. They saw no action whatsoever. Any who dreamed of serving alongside Army regulars chasing Pancho Villa were certainly disappointed, but in truth President Wilson and the generals probably had no intention of letting them see combat – they were there to relieve the Army of policing the American side of the border and (to some degree) intimidate the government of Mexico.
More than anything else, it was an excuse to exercise the newly-enacted National Defense Act of 1916, which transformed the National Guard into an “organized militia” which could be folded into the regular Army during times of war or national emergency. All that drilling also made the experience sort of a pre-bootcamp bootcamp for all those men who would be drafted a few months later when the U.S. entered World War I.
But aside from the bad weather it seems the men of Company E had a fine time, and no one was hurt – except for Private Charlie Torliatt, who was declared to have an injury sustained in the line of duty because he was involved in a Sacramento auto accident in June.
* Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner is not available online, but the Los Angeles Herald was a de facto Hearst paper, particularly when it came to stories like this which relied entirely upon Hearst’s International News Service.
PEOPLE! ASSEMBLE AT 10 FOR BIG SENDOFF PARADE
Company E Will Entrain in Santa Rosa for Sacramento at 11 O’Clock This Morning, and Plans Are Made for a Big Demonstration
THE BOYS OF COMPANY E of Santa Rosa go away this morning!
They will entrain here at eleven o’clock. The orders came from Adjutant General Charles W. Thomas last night. Our gallant bovs leave Santa Rosa for the mobilization camp at Sacramento this morning, and the expectancy is that in a short time they will be sent with the other troops to the Mexican border.
Quoting again the sentiment of the headline —“GOODBYE! BOYS, AND MAY GOD BLESS YOU!”—Santa Rosa is with you today and will be with you in kindly thought and in prayer every day you are away.
Individually and collectively, “God bless you!”
GREAT DEMONSTRATION THIS MORNING
The going away of Company E this morning is to be the occasion of a great public demonstration. Every man. woman and child in Santa Rosa and vicinity should turn out to make it so. Gather on the streets outside of the armory, at Fourth and D streets, at ten o’clock and join in the march with the boys to the depot. Wear or carry a flag.
There will be a parade and it will be led by Mayor J. C. Mailer and the members of the City Council. Citizens are asked to follow in line behind the Mayor and precede the gallant officers and men of Company E as an escort. The Santa Rosa band will play for the march. Following the company, automobiles will be in line, and it is asked that in these machines women and children ride. But men are requested to walk with the soldiers to the depot.
LINE OF MARCH FOR THE PARADE
The line of march, as suggested by the committee last night after consulting with Captain Comstock, will be from the armory to Fifth street, along Fifth street to A street, along A to Fourth, up Fourth to North street, along North street to the Southern Pacific depot.
PETALUMA AND SAN RAFAEL, TOO
The National Guard companies of San Rafael and Petaluma will come to Santa Rosa on the special train provided for the troops. The train will connect with the Southern Pacific by means of the “Y” and Company E will embark at the Southern Pacific depot. That was the understanding last night.
Everybody assemble about the armory at ten o clock, and it is the wish of Santa Rosa, as expressed by her Mayor, Hon. James C. Mailer, that this be made one of the greatest demonstrations possible, to show the soldier boys in their departure that Santa Rosa and Sonoma county appreciates them. And the boys in khaki from our sister city will come in for a share of the sendoff. We appreciate them and their good commander, Capt. J. B. Dickson. And the lads from Marin county, all hail to them, too. God bless you all!
– Press Democrat, June 25 1916
…Fleming McWhorter, who had been serving in Columbus New Mexico, returned to join his Company E comrades, even though he would be turning around the next day. An impromptu group met him at the evening train Saturday night
Members of Co. E who have served their time as drummers, secured the drums of the Native Sons’ Drum Corps and headed the column. The company flag was carried and a mascot in the form of a little dog with a white blanket marked “Co. E,” was led in the line. About fifty men were in line and the column made an inspiring sight as it marched along Fourth street.
The Santa Rosa Boys’ Brass Band, in full uniform, was at the depot and tendered several selections while the crowd awaited the arrival of the train. As it came in the band played one of its liveliest tunes, arousing the enthusiasm of all present.
When McWhorter alighted from the train he was seized and tossed into the air by his comrades. He came down on the shoulders of A. M. Mead and Wm. Tabor, who carried him through the streets on the return march. The column marched around the courthouse before going to the armory, where McWhorter was cheered lustily. After reporting to the armory he was taken to supper and then returned to the armory, where he donned his uniform and prepared his roll for the return trip to the border. The evening was spent with friends.
While marching up Fourth street, Mrs. Crabtree, the florist, presented the company with a handsome and immense bouquet of red. white and bine flowers, which was carried in the parade and given a prominent place at the armory.
The impromptu parade was witnessed by a large crowd on the street and many followed the boys for some distance. There was much enthusiasm manifested and more interest was shown in the company than at any time since it left the city eighteen years ago for service during the Spanish-American war.
– Press Democrat, June 25 1916
VAST THRONG SAYS GOODBYE
Greatest Demonstration in Santa Rosa History When Soldier Boys Depart
Sunday Morning’s Tribute to the City’s Military Organization Will Always Be Remembered as One of the Most Notable of Events That Has Ever Occurred in Santa Rosa, and Thousands Participated in the Many Incidents Marking the Going Away—Cheers Also Given for the Petaluma and San Rafael Companies When They Arrived
“THEY’RE GONE! OH! GOD BLESS THEM!”
It came from a mother’s lips. A few moments previously that same mother had clapsed a soldier son to her heart and had given him a farewell kiss.
The troops’ train had disappeared around the bend in the track out from the Southern Pacific depot; the clanging of the locomotive bell was now an echo; Santa Rosa’s greatest public demonstration had ended; and the prolonging note of the mother’s prayer, sweeter than all else, for it really echoed the sentiment of thousands of hearts, came at the last.
No one who was an eye witness will ever forget Sunday morning, June 25, 1916, the time when Company E of Santa Rosa went to the front at the country’s call for the defense of the flag. It was gigantic. It was grand, significant and true.
Did anyone say that the. fires of patriotism were waning?
That vast outpouring of farewell in Santa Rosa Sunday morning, those marching thousands, flag-bearing and flag-waving cheering hosts; that wonderful moving picture that filled Santa Rosa’s principal streets, answers in behalf of every town and hamlet in this broad land an emphatic “No.”
THERE WERE THE PARTINGS …
CITY RALLIES MAGNIFICENTLY
Santa Rosa rallied magnificently in her saying of good-bye. Long before the hour of ten, when the whistles blew and the bells rang, people commenced to congregate in the streets adjacent, to the armory, and when the parade formed with the departing company as the center of attraction, the streets for blocks were lined with one continuous mass of humanity. The bands played and as the parade came along men, women and children fell into line and marched with the soldiers. Winding up the procession were several hundred automobiles carrying for the most part women and children. The line of march was down Fifth street to A then to Fourth, along Fourth to North, and thence out to the depot. All along the line of march the air was rent with cheers. And as the soldier boys passed down Fifth street each was presented with a beautiful bouquet of Burbank’s Shasta daisies, carnations, roses and greenery. These bouquets had previously been made up with the generous gifts of flowers left at The Press Democrat office, where the committee met to arrange them.
– Press Democrat, June 27 1916
CHARLES O’BEAR IN LETTER TELLS OF COMPANY E LIFE
Something That Will Be of Interest to the Relations and Friends of Our Boys on the Border – Sample Menu Card of a Mean in Company Mess Department
…We are now located in our new camp and like it very much…I’ll send you a bunch of pictures soon. I would have sent them before but couldn’t on account of not having the cash to buy films, as we of the Fifth and Seventh Regiments of California haven’t been paid yet, and we are all broke or badly bent. Believe me, when we do get cashed up we sure will have some time.
We have located on the side of a hill and we all had to dig out and level off a square for our tents so we would not fall out of our bunks.
Every company in all the regiments of the Second, Fifth and Seventh of the California Brigade have nice, big dining rooms and kitchens combined, and all are enclosed with wire screen to keep the flies out. The kitchen where I hash things is screened off from the dining room. It is big, nice and light, well aired, and is some swell kitchen all around.
Today’s dinner consisted of cold boiled ham, corn on cob, French fried potatoes, iced tea, chocolate cake with bread and butter – a regular Sunday dinner, eh? Dine with us? Come on up any time. I’ll serve you.
Everyone has become acclimated by this time and all are hardening up to a regular soldier’s standard and all are feeling fine and are in the pink of condition for the 136-mile hike that we are to take starting September 1 and ending about November some time, as it will take us two weeks to go there, a stay of two weeks while we into [sic] a stiff and continuous round of soldiers’ life, which consists of drilling, target practice on the rifle range, pitching of tents and all other soldier duties that one should do, with a lot of extras thrown in for good measure.
Then we will take two weeks to return to our present camp, and we expected to be on our way back to Santa Rosa some time soon – after six weeks, months or years. I wish it was tomorrow…
…Top Sergeant Campbell, Quartermaster Sergeant Pozzi, Cook Walker and I have a tent all to ourselves next to the cookhouse, and we have all sorts of fun amongst ourselves. We took a lot of freak pictures this afternoon. I’ll send you one when we get them developed.
Give my best to all my friends In Santa Rosa and remember me as your friend.
– Press Democrat, September 1 1916
Fifth Regiment Takes Part in Sham Battle Thursday in Capital
Bronsed and campaign-hardened by the active service on the Mexican border, the« members of the Fifth Infantry swung into the State Fair grounds today to the strains of martial music and the cheers of thousands of spectators.
Their course through the fair grounds and on the lawn, where they passed in review betore the multitude and Governor Hiram Johnson and his party, was an unceasing ovation. Erect and with swinging stride of regulars, the men and their officers made a splendid appearance, clearly demonstrating the result of their arduous border service. During the afternoon the command, together with apprentices from the United States Naval Training Station at Yerba Buena Island, in San Francisco Bay, and the Engineer Battalion. N. G. C., participated in an exciting sham battle, in which 16,000 rounds of blank ammunition was need by the opposing forces and a bridge was blown up.
– Press Democrat, September 8 1916
Fine Banquet Is Feature Much Enjoyed by All
Met at the Depot by Band and Citizens and Escorted to the Armory While Vast Crowds Accompany Marching Men—-Words of Welcome Bring a Hearty Response–Ladies Aid Materially in Arrangements and Affair Is a Great Success
Company E came home on Saturday night and Santa Rosa said at the home-coming–“God Bless You Boys! We’re Glad to Welcome You Home Again!”
The city welcomed its soldier boys with band music, cheers, parade, banquet and general enthusiasm…
– Press Democrat, October 8 1916