On 9 March 1916, Mexican soldiers under the command of General Pancho Villa attacked the city of Columbus, New Mexico. It was just one of many such border skirmishes which had been ongoing since the outbreak of civil war in Mexico in 1910. However, the attack on Columbus also represented an escalation of hostilities and a breaking point for US authorities. Within days, President Woodrow Wilson ordered American army to pursue Villa’s men into Mexico. It soon became apparent that Villa and his supporters would not easily be caught, and the regular army needed reinforcements to secure their supply lines and to continue to guard the border. In June, shortly after an attack on a Texas community, Wilson ordered the call up of the National Guard of every state and the District of Columbia. Among the 110,000 guardsmen who entered federal service were the Franco-Americans of the Garde Lafayette of Manchester New Hampshire.
The Garde Lafayette had been founded in 1887. It was one of many Franco American militia organizations across New England. At their height, there were dozens of Gardes across the region. They organized themselves into an informal “brigade” and held regular conventions where they competed to hold drills.
The Garde Lafayette was different to its peers in one important regard. It was organized as part of New Hampshire’s national guard. As Company A of New Hampshire’s 1st regiment, the Garde Lafayette was the only one of the many New England gardes with an official status.
When president Wilson called for the mobilization of the national guard in 1916, the NH 1st was one of the regiments called into federal service, including the Garde Lafayette.
While some members of the Garde had served in the Spanish American War, this was the first time the unit as a whole had participated in a conflict. They did not disappoint. At least according to the official history of the Garde, they outperformed their peers in many regards. The mobilization of 1916 was the first time state national guard units had been federalized under the new National Defense Act, and most states were under-prepared. As in other states, the New Hampshire National Guard did not require guardsmen to undergo a medical exam until they were called to federal service. As a result, the nominal strength of most regiments was greatly reduced once examinations were conducted, and those who failed were dismissed. In some states, as many as 1 in 4 were found unsuitable for service. The Garde Lafayette got up to strength quicker than most, thanks to the efforts of two of its members – a travelling salesman by the name of Ferdinand Francoeur, and Sergeant Jean-Baptiste Morissette.
The Garde’s success in recruiting may have been due to its strong sense of identity. Members had to be Catholics French-Canadians or Franco-Americans, and the soldiers “took pride in speaking French among themselves.” A poem from 1898 captures some of the enthusiasm Franco Americans had to serve their adopted homeland. It was published in the Manchester Union in English. (The original was written in an approximation of a Franco-American accent, but the below has been corrected for clarity):
My wife said to me today, “you’re making a mistake old man,
To join the Yankee army in the ranks of Uncle Sam;
The world is full of commotion since the explosion of the Maine,
And the devil’s to pay in Cuba and the paymaster is Spain.”
I say, “All right old woman, let the summons come today,
And you’ll find old Joseph ready to bear arms and march away;
I’m as good to carry a knapsack and to shoulder my gun,
As I was in the Riel Rebellion in old Saskatchewan!”
“The land of my adoption is as good a home for me,
As across the line in Canada, my native country.
My home, my work, ma friends are here, in fact, the whole damn set;
So what can I do but join the “Blue” in the Garde Lafayette!
“I don’t care for nobody but stand up for what’s right.
If Uncle Sam sends word and thinks he’s got to fight,
Good-bye my work on Amoskeag – I’ll leave it quick you bet –
And join the boys with utmost joy in the Garde Lafayette!
“So don’t make a fuss about this cuss and don’t take it hard,
If I, old Joe, go soon to show my color in the Guard;
You say I’ve got some babies? I must stay right by them? Not yet!
I will march beneath “Old Glory” in the Garde Lafayette!
“O! Didn’t it make a sensation on the streets of Manchester,
When the order came from Uncle Sam to march us down to war!
Nobody will know that this is Joe from dear old Nicolet,
When off I march as stiff as starch, in the Garde Lafayette!
“Then Rosie dear don’t drop that tear, but cheer up like my joy
You know that Maine went down in flames with all its soldier boys!
So if the blame is placed on Spain, and Uncle Sam says “get!”
Just wish us well and shout like h— for the Garde Lafayette!”
After the delays associated with getting the guardsmen up to strength and fully equipped, the New Hampshire men left for the border July 15. They arrived in Laredo, Texas, July 20, where they joined what would become a force of 110,000 supporting the regular army’s excursion into Mexico.
The Garde’s time in service appears to have been primarily characterized by boredom. The Americans could see Mexican sentries across the river in the “ruins” of Nuevo Laredo, but despite this, the New Hampshire contingent was never involved in any live-fire engagements, and their primary role was guarding the frontier against possible attacks. Like the other guardsmen, most of their time was occupied with drills and training. Here again (at least by their own account), the men of the Garde Lafayette excelled. On one occasion, the Garde and a number of other companies were sent on a forty mile foot march. The heat of the Texas desert no doubt made this quite an ordeal for the amateur soldiers.
The thermometer rose to 118 degrees in the shade!..They had come from a [civilized] state to a rugged landscape. Before them lay the immense alkalic Texan plain, with its seemingly endless horizons. Back home, even if there were burning hot days, these were quickly tempered by refreshing breezes from the mountains.
The planned action was to march one direction in the first day, to rest overnight, and to return the next day. But members of the Garde Lafayette, scorched by the extreme heat of the day, determined that they would turn right around and complete the march overnight, giving up their rest period for the opportunity to march in the cool night air instead. Their escapade so surprised the authorities that the company had to repeat their identification to the day officer on duty several times before he understood.
On another occasion, the Garde impressed a visiting officer with their proficiency at military drills. According to the account in the Garde’s official history, the Franco-Americans happened to be on the parade ground when General Funston, the commander in charge of the border forces, was on-site. He remarked that the guardsmen were as competent as any regular soldiers he had seen. “But,” he remarked to the regiment’s Colonel Healy, these maneuvers in closed ranks are good for a parade, but aren’t worth anything at this moment, if you have to fight Mexican guerrillas! Are you able to execute these same manoeuvres with your men in skirmish formation?”
The Garde responded by executing combat manoeuvers perfectly, winning a wager for Colonel Healy and impressing the general considerably.
In between drills and matches, few men of the Garde amuses themselves with the novelties of their new surroundings, so different from the New Hampshire forests and mountains. The members of the Garde were struck by everything – from rattlesnakes, and horned lizards to the many varieties of cactus. The New Englanders also had the chance to mingle with the locals. At Christmas, the Franco Americans, doubtless lonely for home, found a small Catholic chapel to celebrate the holiday. The parish, comprised of Latino and Indian congregants, was described as
As bare as the stable in Bethlehem…there were no songs, no music, very few decorations. This parish was so poor because its parishioners were brave people of Mexican origin, who, though good Catholics, were without earthly possessions. Our guys were a long way from the beautiful sung masses of their own parishes on Christmas Day!
The New Hampshire men found themselves on the border for nearly eight months before they were demobilized. By February 1917, General Pershing’s attempt to capture Pancho Villa had clearly failed, and the regular army units were returning to the border to relieve the national guardsmen, who were itching to return home.
The Garde Lafayette arrived back in Manchester to a heroes’ welcome. Laden with souvenirs including shawls worn by the local Latino population and even chihuahuas. The “little Mexican dogs with short fluffy hair” must have been quite a sight on the streets of Manchester in the years afterwards. Their owners even knitted them small pullovers to keep the warm weather canines comfortable in the New England winters.
At the banquet held in honor of the returning Garde, the local Franco American community showed its gratitude to the men who had represented them oh the national stage and proved the courage and aptitude of Franco Americans to the country at large. Bishop Georges-Albert Guerin, the Franco American Bishop of Manchester, presided at the banquet, and noted that the men were not just representing their community and their country, but also their faith.
Young men of the Garde Lafayette, the Church is proud of your conduct. Continue your march along this same path, and always remember that you are good Catholics and excellent soldiers.
The Mexican border war was the first time a New England Franco-American unit served in the US army, and it would be the last. Within weeks of the return of the Garde Lafayette from the frontier, the United States declared war on Germany, entering the First World War. The parent organization of the Garde Lafayette and the other New England gardes, the Brigade des Volontaires Franco-Americains, offered its services to President Wilson, but the unit was not accepted into federal service. Instead, Individuals enlisted in the regular army, and the gardes lost a lot of their cohesion. On their return form the war, organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion largely replaced the ethnocentric gardes, and many such organizations ceased to exist by the 1920s.
Most of the information presented here comes from the Histoire de la Garde Lafayette by Laurent Galarneau (L’Avenir National, Manchester, NH, 1927)