Episode 45 – Robert E. Lee versus Pancho Villa

Today, we bring you two contestants from the Rebels, Rogues and Scholars bracket, the first, could have easily been a favorite in the Military bracket, but I decided to go differently and place him in this field, the Confederate general of the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee. His opponent was known as El Centauro del Norte, a Mexican rebel leader during their revolution that occurred between 1910 and 1920, Pancho Villa.

My resources for Robert E. Lee include History’s Greatest Generals by Michael Rank, The Making of Robert E. Lee by Fellman and Robert E. Lee: Lessons in Leadership by Trudeau. For his opponent, I’ve used The Life and Times of Pancho Villa by Katz, Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, Monsters by Simon Sebag Montefiore and the recently ended podcast by Mike Duncan on the Mexican Revolution called Revolutions. I highly, highly recommend it as not only was it the most extensive coverage of the revolution, it allowed me to learn how to pronounce all of the major players in Mexico at the time.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Hill_Carter_Lee

General Robert E. Lee
General Robert E. Lee

Robert Edward Lee was born on January 19, 1807, at the Stratford Hall Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to Major General Henry Lee III, Governor of Virginia, and his second wife, Anne Hill Carter. The Lee’s were an old family, descended from Richard Lee I, Esq., known as “the Immigrant,” from the county of Shropshire in England back in the mid-1600s. 

Henry Lee, Robert’s father, was commonly known as Light Horse Harry because of his service in the Revolutionary War as a member of the cavalry. Light Horse was not the great man after the war as he drove his family into the ground financially. This came after he served as governor of Virginia and marrying his second wife, Ann Hill Carter who came from a wealthy family who owned 25,000 acres of land. 

Here is what Noah Andre Trudeau said about Light Horse Harry, “Instead of chasing foxes, Harry Lee found himself dodging creditors, even spending time in jail when he ran out of running room. Public knowledge of his failings was made evident when first Ann’s father and then several of her wealthy relatives arranged their wills so that she – and not husband Harry – would have access to Carter family wealth.”

When Robert was six years old, his father left and went to the Caribbean to look for better prospects and to get away from the creditors. Five years later, his father died, not seeing his family during the years away. Charles Carter Lee, Robert’s eldest brother, would follow in his father’s footsteps when it came to handling finances.

As Robert grew up, it was apparent that he was a very bright, studious young boy. The problem was, because of the family finances being so poor, college was not an option. What his father’s legacy did give him was a way into West Point. Robert E. Lee would enter the military academy in New York on July 1, 1825. 

What most people don’t know about West Point at the time is that it was primarily an engineering school with science and math being the main areas of study. The United States was a work in progress at the time. As an American statesman once put it, the Union at the time “was a sentiment, but not much more.” To put it another way, states’ rights were thought to be more important than the country as a whole. 

Lee was a member of a 107-person class. When he graduated in 1829, Robert would be ranked number two. He was very admired and well liked. As future fellow Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston would say of Lee, “no other youth or man so united the qualities that win warm friendship and command high respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness, genial and fond of gay conversation, even fun, while his correctness of demeanor and attention to all duties, personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the eloquence of his person, gave him a superiority that everyone acknowledged in his heart.”

Since this bracket is about rebels, rogues, and scoundrels, I am going to skip Lee’s service in the US Army in the Mexican–American War, and as Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. We will now move forward to 1861 when the Southern states decided to secede from the Union. Lee was fundamentally opposed and stated that it betrayed the Founding Fathers. 

Lee wrote the following to George Washington Custis, “The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North, as you say. I feel the aggression, and am willing to take every proper step for redress. It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity, and institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for “perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled.”

Initially, Robert E. Lee was offered a command with the Union Army as a major general sometime in April of 1861. He was made colonel of the 1st Cavalry Regiment on March 28, again swearing an oath to the United States. At that time, Lee even ignored an offer of command from the Confederacy.  General Winfield Scott, Robert’s mentor, and fellow Virginian suggested to Presidential advisor Francis P. Blair that they give Robert, the control of the defense of Washington DC to which Lee responded, “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?”

It is here that I believe that Lee justifies his entry into this bracket as a rebel. On April 23, 1861, Lee was whisked over to the Virginia capital where a state convention was being held. After he was introduced by John Janney, Robert gave this short speech. “Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention. Profoundly impressed with the solemnity of the occasion, for which I must say I was unprepared, I accept the position assigned me by your partiality. I would have much preferred had your choice fallen on an abler man. Trusting in Almighty God, an approving conscience, and the aid of my fellow-citizens, I devote myself to the service of my native State, in whose behalf alone I will ever again draw my sword.”

Another part of Robert Edward Lee’s personality was realism. He was a professional soldier who knew the horrors of war. As Trudeau states, “Lee was a professional realist tossed in a sea of war enthusiasts who were convinced that the fighting would be short and conclusive, and the sooner it started, the better.” As Robert told his wife “The war may last ten years.”

Lee was offered the command of the Confederate Army, but he turned them down with the job going to his friend as mentioned earlier and fellow West Pointer, Joseph E. Johnston. When it became apparent that Johnston was incapable of being the top man in the Confederate Army, the offer was repeated to Lee. It also helped that Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines, on June 1, 1862. Robert took command of the Army of Virginia and renamed it, the Army of Northern Virginia.

According to the book History’s Greatest Generals by Michael Rank, he says this about Robert E. Lee’s time as the lead general for the Confederates, “He is perhaps most famously known for his strategic ability to win seemingly impossible victories in spite of his meager resources. He had incredible foresight in anticipating the actions of his enemies and applying pressure to their weaknesses.” Since this is not a battle of military men, I will refrain from reviewing his campaigns although we have already recounted the Battle of Antietam in episode four and will cover Gettysburg in episode 70. 

Robert E. Lee is a very polarizing figure in American history. He is considered a traitor by many in the North and a hero by many in the South. It is unarguable that he led a rebellion against the country he swore to serve, but as his supporters have pointed out, he believed in protecting his state in a time where that was considered more important than the nation as a whole. After surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. 

Before we leave Lee, I will read his Farewell Address to his men. 

Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 10th April 1865.

General Order 

No. 9 

After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. 

I need not tell the survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them. 

But feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. 

By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection. 

With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

— R. E. Lee, General, General Order No. 9

Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa was born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula on June 8, 1878. Who his real father was, is part of the myth of the man. Traditionally, his father was a sharecropper known as Agustin Arango and his mother, Micaela Arambula. Pancho claimed that his real father was a bandit known as Agustin Villa, while the historian Ruben Osorio claims that his real father remains unknown. Whatever the truth, much of Pancho Villa’s childhood is clocked in mystery. 

What we do know is that he likely lived on a hacienda in the state of Durango as the oldest of five children. His education was probably very short-lived, something common in those times in Mexico. It is said that early on he began working as a sharecropper, muleskinner butcher, bricklayer, and foreman for a U.S. railway company. These were all temporary jobs as he quickly became a bandit. When Pancho was 16, he went after a hacienda owner named Agustín López Negrete who had raped his sister, killing him. Fleeing into the hills of Durango, Villa eventually joined up with a bandit gang led by Ignacio Parra.

Time to lay some groundwork about the state of affairs in Mexico which would lead to the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa’s rise as a leading revolutionary. By 1910, Mexico’s population had reached approximately 15 million people almost all living in rural agrarian areas, mainly in the central plateau. There were only four cities with more than 50,000 people, with Mexico City being the largest, with 500,000 residents. 

After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, large scale landowners began to dominate the countryside. Their haciendas would become the focal point of the lives and livelihoods of the majority of the people. They would be forced to work the land in return for meager amounts of corn and grain. 

With the discovery of a plentiful supply of minerals in the north of Mexico, foreign investment began to pour in from the United States, England, Germany, and France. The disparity between the wealthy and the poor in Mexico led to significant discontent and social unease. In 1867, Benito Juarez reassumed the Presidency of Mexico after the ouster of the French and their appointed leader Maximillian was executed. Liberal reforms were put into place, but that began to fall apart with Juarez’s death in 1872. His replacement, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, would be ousted by Porfirio Diaz in 1876. Diaz would lead Mexico for the next thirty plus years. 

Diaz is a somewhat controversial figure in Mexican history as while he brought stability to the country, his did it with strong-armed tactics favoring his friends as well as foreign investors and helped a few wealthy estate-owning hacendados acquire vast tracts of land, leaving rural campesinos unable to make a living. Working in these large estates was brutal, resulting in the deaths of 600,000 workers in 1900 through the end of Diaz’s rule. It is under Diaz, that men like Pancho Villa and a future contestant in this bracket, Emiliano Zapata, got their start.

In 1910, at the age of 80, Diaz ran for the Presidency yet again, despite pledges not to. When he won in what can only be described as a fixed election, his opponent Francisco Madero called for armed rebellion against Diaz and his government. The call was known as The Plan of San Luis de Potosí which was issued on November 10, 1910. The Mexican Revolution was on. Porfirio Diaz was ousted and forced into exile in Paris, France on May 25, 1911.

Francisco Madero was in a tight spot after winning the next election that year. The conservatives who were Diaz supporters and held most of the country’s wealth thought Madero was way too liberal. Pancho Villa was recruited by Madero to fight against the conservatives which he was hugely successful in doing. This did have some negative consequences for Madero as the focus of the revolutionary forces was on the city of Ciudad Juárez right on the border of the United States. Fearing US intervention, Madero ordered Pancho Villa and his compatriot Pascual Orozco to stand down. Villa and Orozco attacked instead, capturing the city after two days of fighting, thus winning the first Battle of Ciudad Juárez in 1911. After the battle, it is said that Villa told Madero, “You, sir have destroyed the revolution… It’s simple: this bunch of dandies have made a fool of you, and this will eventually cost us our necks, yours included.”

Two years later, both Madero and his vice president, Pino Suarez were overthrown by the counter-revolutionary regime of General Victoriano Huerta. Both men were assassinated in February 1913.

Huerta was backed by the conservative hacendados, the American ambassador Henry Lane Wilson and other supporters of Diaz. Pancho Villa had by now been recruited by Abraham González, to join his rebels who were building their forces in the state of Chihuahua. This area would be Villa’s power base for years to come. Chihuahua is the largest state in Mexico, and at the time of Huerta’s rise to power, about 400,000 people were living there. The state borders on the US state of Texas, something that would come to play in the coming years.  

Pancho Villa was a master at recruitment of soldiers and peasants to his side throughout Chihuahua, many who were deeply opposed to the government of Huerta. Villa had been arrested by Huerta’s government in 1912, but he escaped a few months later which helped to bolster his legendary image. Pancho Villa was by 1913 both a major league bandit and a revolutionary hero. He was able to muster up an army of 50,000 men. Villa was able to lead his ragtag army to a series of defeats of the armies of Victoriano Huerta time and time again leading to Huerta’s eventual downfall in 1914.

During the battle against Huerta, Villa teamed up with Venustiano Carranza the Maderist governor of Coahuila, but the two of them had a falling out and became bitter enemies. The civil war between the two reformist factions would go on between 1914 and 15. The Constitutionalist camp under wealthy landowner Carranza came out victorious in 1915, defeating the forces of former Constitutionalist Pancho Villa and forced the other revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata back to guerrilla warfare in his home state of Morelos. Zapata was eventually assassinated in 1919 by agents of President Carranza.

Villa would sustain his side by implementing agrarian reforms in Chihuahua, taking land from the rich and distributing it to the poor. He also had a strong ally in General Felipe Angeles, a brilliant strategist but the two of them would have a rocky relationship over the years. A significant problem cropped up, and that was the onset of World War I in Europe. The war effort began to make the acquisition of arms much more expensive, putting a real strain on Villa and his men.  

Carranza was deftly consolidating his power in the center of Mexico while Villa was strengthening in the north. American President Woodrow Wilson was somewhat sympathetic to Villa and his revolutionaries, but that took a turn for the worse in 1915 when forces led by Carranza and Alvaro Obregon defeated Villa’s army at the Battle of Celaya. The image of invincibility of Pancho Villa suffered greatly with this loss. Many brigades of his followers abandoned him. What really became the death knell of Pancho Villa and his men is the diplomatic recognition of the Carranza government on October 19, 1915. 

By the end of 1915, Villa’s army was a shell of its former self. He was forced to relegate his fight against Carranza as guerrilla warfare. Then, Pancho made a colossal error when he decided that the way to battle Carranza was to cause the United States to invade Mexico. He did this by first capturing the Mexican estate of the influential publisher, William Randolph Hearst and executing 17 engineers who had arrived in the country to repair some mining operations. Then he took 500 of his men and invaded the US and fought a military garrison at the town of Columbus, New Mexico.

The US government requested permission from Carranza to send in an expeditionary force into Mexico to capture Villa, but that was denied. Without permission, on March 15, 1916, 5,000 American troops led by General Pershing crossed the border and entered Chihuahua looking for Pancho Villa. What he wanted was to goad the Americans to invade, hoping that it would anger the Mexican people and cast a shadow on the Carranza administration which it did. Unfortunately for Villa, it didn’t help him very much, and the Americans returned over the border in early 1917.

While Pancho Villa and his now greatly diminished army were still roaming the state of Chihuahua, it was beginning to look like he was being pushed aside. His old ally, Felipe Angeles abandoned him as Pancho refused to take his advice at a number of battles he eventually lost. Carranza’s government wouldn’t allow him to have any part of the changes to the constitution. Villa was back to doing what he did before the revolution, and that was being a bandit.

In 1920, Carranza was assassinated, and the new temporary President, Adolfo de la Huerta, offered Villa amnesty and gave him a hacienda in Canutillo, north of Durango. Álvaro Obregón, a General in the Mexican army who had fought against, and defeated Villa would become the newly elected President. On July 20, 1923, Pancho Villa, while driving a brightly colored Dodge was ambushed and assassinated. So ended the life of a man who was both a ruthless killer and a strong-willed revolutionary.

Now on to the scoring.

We start with the fifteen points for how long the two men were rebels. With Robert E. Lee, we start on April 23, 1861, and end with his surrender to Grant on April 9, 1865. This amounts to just under four years. Pancho Villa began in his time with the rebellion in late 1910 and ended it with his assassination in July 1923 for a little over 12 years. Lee receives five points with Villa getting the fifteen.

Next up is the twenty points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. To be honest, neither had a significant influence with Lee really focusing strictly on the war effort and the ability of the South to gain freedom from the Union. Villa holds a very slight edge as he did influence activity from the United States, France, and Germany although it was minimal. For these reasons, I give Villa the win with 20 points with Lee receiving 16.

Next up is their lasting effect on world history for twenty-five points. Robert E. Lee’s impact is enormous as his legacy still divides the USA, but his amazing generalship is studied to this day in many military academies. Pancho Villa was a cog in the successful Mexican Revolution, a major cog, but it is questionable whether it was decisive given the other rebel in Chihuahua, Felipe Angeles. I give General Lee 25 points with Villa receiving 15.

The last big point giveaway is the forty points for how they affected their country for the better. This is a tough decision. Lee divided his country with his move to the rebel side, but his actions post-war were nothing short of honorable. Robert was the consummate gentleman, and his legacy is one of a man of principle which carries on throughout the years after his death in 1870.

Pancho Villa, on the other hand, was a rebel, but he was also a bandit and a murderer. The two sides of him are tough to separate and must be viewed as being very much the same person. The one incident that hurts him here is the raid into the US, targeting the city of Columbus to draw the American’s into war with Mexico. For these reasons, I am giving General Robert E. Lee the full 40 points with Pancho Villa receiving 32.

So, in a relatively close battle, Robert Edward Lee comes out on top with a score of 86 points to Pancho Villa receiving 82. Lee moves on to the second round to face off, in an exciting battle, former slave and abolitionist, Harriet Tubman.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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