Charles Young and the Tenth Cavalry during the Punitive Expedition

Black and white photo of African American man standing in a muddy pasture with his hands on his hips. He is wearing a military uniform from the 1910s. Horse are a in group to the right of the photo.
Major Charles Young during the Mexican Punitive Expedition

Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio

On November 25, 1915, Major Charles Young left Monrovia, Liberia. He had finished his first tour as a military attaché there. After this assignment, Young was assigned to the Tenth Cavalry, which he joined at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on February 28, 1916.

Major Young’s old friend Chaplain George W. Prioleau met him at the train station. Young and Chaplain Prioleau met in 1894 when they both taught at Wilberforce University. For his first few weeks at Fort Huachuca, Young stayed with the Prioleaus. His stay was unexpectedly short, however. On March 9, Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa and 400 of his followers, known as Villistas, attacked Columbus, New Mexico, and killed 19 people before returning to their homebase in Mexico. Upon hearing the news of the attack, President Woodrow Wilson ordered General John Pershing and a provisional division of 6,000 soldiers, including the Tenth Cavalry, into Mexico to track and capture Villa and his men. The Mexican government welcomed the U.S. soldiers in pursuit of Villa.

Young and the Tenth Cavalry mobilized quickly and started staging in areas close to the border. On March 15, Young wrote to his wife, Ada, from Culberson’s Ranch on the border saying, “They say in a few hours we cross over the border into Mexico. I’m glad so that we can have the work over. I am second in command, as the lieutenant colonel and the other majors are detailed elsewhere. I have a good squadron and the officers and men are OK so am happy. No ‘shirkers’ among them.” In the early morning hours of March 16, Young, in command of the Second Squadron, Tenth Cavalry, crossed into Mexico. The men, including the officers, traveled light. They carried 120 rounds of ammunition each along with a few blankets for bedding and hardtack, bacon, coffee, and sugar for their rations.

During the first two days of their mission, Young and his men traveled more than 100 miles to Colonia Dublán. The next day, March 19, Young was ordered to entrain his squadron and head to Cuevitas, while the other squadron was sent to Las Varas. Once the squadrons were in place, they worked together to capture the Villistas that were in San Miguel. The soldiers endured harsh terrain with blistering hot days and freezing nights as they moved around the area, which was 7,000 feet above sea level.

On April 1, Young and the Second Squadron engaged in their first battle during the Punitive Expedition, known as the Battle of Agua Caliente. At about 1:30 p.m., Young’s troopers surprised about 150 Villistas. Young had his machine gun company maintain their fire on the Villistas while E, F, G, and H Troops flanked the Villistas, causing them to retreat in disorder. The Second Squadron continued to pursue the retreating men until their horses were exhausted. By the next day, the Villistas had separated into smaller groups and disappeared into the countryside. This was the first time documented that machine guns were used in a coordinated assault. Young’s commanding officer reported the engagement to General Pershing. Young was commended for his flanking strategy, which “proved a good move.”

On April 18, two wagonloads of supplies reached the Tenth Cavalry at Parral. These supplies were much needed: their original rations had run out on March 20. The officers used their own money to buy beans for the soldiers and corn and hay for the horses after the initial supplies ran out. A few days later the Tenth Cavalry started their slow withdrawal North back to Colonia Dublán. The troopers arrived there on May 19 and started to build adobe walls to block wind from entering their tents, settling into camp life. Young and his men stayed there until January 1917.

While at Colonia Dublán, letters from home caught up with the troopers; communication with family and friends helped pass the time. Young and some of the noncommissioned officers planned the 50th anniversary celebration of the Tenth Cavalry on July 24, 1916. They held a dinner as well as performances by the men. Young wrote verses of poetry for the noncommissioned officers to recite. They recreated famous moments in Tenth Cavalry history, including the events that led to Lieutenant Powhattan Clark receiving the Medal of Honor. The men also honored Medal of Honor recipient George Wanton. Wanton was currently serving in the machine gun troop. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Tayacoba during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

On August 5, Charles Young was temporarily put in command of the entire Tenth Cavalry. This was the first time an African American officer had formally commanded the regiment. The temporary assignment lasted until August 9. He received the temporary assignment because Colonel William C. Brown and Major Elwood Evans, who were more senior than Young, were ill and unavailable for duty.

On September 10, Young was officially notified of his promotion to lieutenant colonel. He wrote to his wife Ada, “I am at last wearing the lieutenant colonel’s insignia and signing as such by telegram authority.” General John Pershing and Colonel Brown both endorsed Young’s promotion. Young was again in command of the Tenth Cavalry from September 15 to 18.

On January 30, 1917, Young and the Tenth Calvary, along with the rest of the Punitive Expedition, started back to the United States. The Tenth Cavalry reached Columbus, New Mexico, on February 5. From Columbus, the Tenth left the rest of the Punitive Expedition and traveled to their homebase, Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The Tenth Cavalry arrived at their pre-expedition home on February 14.

Want to learn more about Charles Young during the Punitive Expedition? Read Black Officer in a Buffalo Soldier Regiment: The Military Career of Charles Young, by historian and author Brian G. Shellum.

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument

Last updated: February 2, 2023