Chapter 7: The Attila of the South
government I recognize is my pistols. -- Emiliano Zapata
In early 1912, promoted to major, Holmdahl was put in charge
of 1,000 irregular horsemen under the command of General
Juvencio Robles. The troops entrained to Juarez, then to
Mexico City, and on the long railway passage there was much time
for contemplation by the now-hardened mercenary. The revolt of
the Indians of Sonora and Morales led to early disillusionment by
many of the naive, if enthusiastic, intellectuals who devoutly
believed in the revolution.
Although hardly an intellectual, Holmdahl was nothing if not ~
realist. The expedition against Zapata assembled troops and
supplies in Mexico City in preparation for the march south. With
considerable prescience, Holmdahl smuggled the first in a series of
letters out of Mexico to his mother in Oakland. She in turn for-
warded them to the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army in
They were written in his fine, flowing hand, on stationary of the
Hotel St. Francis in Mexico City and dated March 4, 1912. His first
missive was a request for a commission as an officer in a regiment
of U.S. Volunteers "in case you should see fit to organize such
troops for service in Mexico." Detailing his military record in the
U.S. Army and his campaigns in Mexico, Holmdahl wrote, "Speak
and read Spanish, know almost every trail from boundary line down,
know the way of the people and all about the troops way of fight-
ing." Requesting service in a mounted unit as a scout or guide, he
added, "If no commission open will be only well pleased to serve
my country' in any capacity you may see fit. I am 28 years of age,
single and in excellent health." 
Six months later, on August 23, the
War Office replied. Writing
to a post office box in Nogales, Arizona, they informed him his let-
ter "has been placed on file ... for consideration in the event your
services should be required."  Four years later, they were -- desper-
ately. By then Emil had learned what it was like to fight the fanati-
cal forces of Emiliano Zapata, called, not without justification, the
"Attila of the South."
Zapata's home in Morelos was in a mountainous country criss-
crossed by fertile valleys and precious small streams. The popula-
tion was ninety percent pureblood Indians, but almost all the fertile
land was in the hands of a few dozen Mestizo and Spanish hacenda-
dos. It was the old story of using legal trickery, forged documents,
and hired pistoleros to seize the Indians' land and reduce them to
peonage. The rich hacienda owners had been seizing land and water
from the Indians ever since Cortes conquered the country, but by
the beginning of the twentieth century the situation was critical.
The very existence of many small villages and land holdings was in
jeopardy of total extinction, and desperation was conquering fear of
the hacendado gunmen.
While the land was rich, the people were poor, although
Morelos was the third largest sugar-producing region in the world.
But while most of the population lived an economic life of bare
subsistance, the prosperity of the land was reflected in the homes of
the hacendados. They lived with their magnificent imported furniture,
their sumptuous, European-style interior decoration, their multi-
hectare gardens, their stables for polo and race-horses, and their
kennels for hunting dogs. 
As a youth, some said, Zapata had been forced into the federal
army. If so, it was a serious mistake by the government, because the
young Indian absorbed all the military experience he could gain, as
well as a knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the federal
forces. Sinewy, with a face the color of chocolate, Zapata was
thirty-one years old when the revolution broke out. A small, inde-
pendent, landowner, he \vas chosen to lead local forces against Diaz
and later was elected spokesman for his village of Anenecuilco.
Meeting with the victorious Madero in Mexico City! Zapata
demanded the lands in Morelos be immediately returned to their
rightful owners. Although Madero was sincere and the soul of gra-
ciousness, Zapata heard the same legal language that had so infuri-
ated the Yaquis. The stalling and equivocations of the Madero
regime had the same effect on the hot-blooded Zapata. Well mean-
ing, Madero "wanted to govern, in order to establish in the republic
undergoing convulsive spasms a new government, not a new order."
He seemed to want his movement to correspond to the impulse of
a nineteenth-century political rebellion, and not the first thrusts of
a twentieth century social revolution. 
Leaving Mexico City in frustration and rage, Zapata returned to
his homeland and proclaimed Madero "unfit to realize the promises
of the revolution ... he is a traitor to his principles." On November
28, 1911, Zapata proclaimed his Plan of Ayala which cried out for
"Liberty, Justice and Law." We fight, he said, "so that the people will
have lands, forests and water." In a bitter denunciation, Zapata
exploded, "Madero has betrayed me as well as my army, the people
of Morelos, and the whole nation ... nobody trusts him any longer
because he has violated all his promises. He's the most fickle, vacil
lating man I've ever known ... " 
Soon the cries which commanded] "Long live Madero" and
"Death to Diaz" were turned into "Down with the haciendas. Long
live the peoples' villages."6 With this, all of Morelos broke into
revolt. The self-proclaimed "Death Legion" of the Zapatistas rode
under a banner depicting "Our Lady of Guadalupe" surmounting a
coal black, grinning skull and crossed bones. It was a symbol that
sent shudders down the spines of the landlord classes from Mexico
City to the Pacific Ocean. For eight years Zapata rode at the head
of his hordes of horsemen, and God help any federal soldier, spy,
overseer or hacendado that fell into his hands, for no mercy was given
or expected. To the gentry in Mexico City, Zapata was a murdering
bandit; to the dispossessed all over Mexico, he became a God.
His hemp-smoking Indian hordes included Guerreros, Otomis,
Tlahuicas, Mixtecas, and Zapotecas who had cruel ways of dispos-
ing of their enemies. A case in point was the giant "century plant"
or maguey, native to the region, which had a knife-sharp stalk which,
at the plant's maturity, would grow a foot overnight. A screaming
victim was stripped naked and tied belly down over the stalk,
During the night the hard-tipped point of the stalk sprouted
upward, driving itself through the stomach until, by morning, it was
projecting through the victim's back.
By dawn's light the eerie spectacle of an impaled corpse, mingled
with the blossoming flower tips of the giant plant, greeted the early
riser. If there were red ants in the vicinity, only a skeleton
remained.7 As a column of Federal troops approached Zapatista-
controlled land in south-central Mexico along its poor roads and
worn trails, they were often greeted by the mangled corpses of their
recently slaughtered predecessors. Unlike other parts of Mexico
there was no cheery music in the land of Zapata.
Journalist and secret agent, H.H. Dunn, in the memoirs of
service with Zapata entitled The Crimson Jester, wrote, "Some of the
dead men were tied to sharp-needled cactus plants, some crucified
on trees, some staked out over the nests of huge red ants ... and
some sewed up in strips of wet rawhide and left to dry in the sun
As Zapata 's rampaging bands swept over Morelos and adjoining
states, huge landed estates were handed over to the peasants with no
hearings, no legalisms, no braying lawyers-the land was given to
the people. They, in turn, lived for Emiliano Zapata and would glad
ly die for him.
The Zapatista tactics were simple; surprise was the key.
Concentrating quickly, they made a "gran golpe" of a cavalry charge
with wave after wave of horsemen riding at full gallop. The attack
was so swift that the federales were usually unable to bring their
artillery and machine guns into action before they were overrun.
Some daredevil riders drove into enemy lines so fast they lassoed
machine guns and artillery limbers and rode off with them before
the befuddled gunners could fire.
They were bold and innovative, and as Zapata proudly recalled
in later years, the revolution always armed itself with guns and bul-
lets captured from the haciendas and the federal army.  Before attack-
ing one city, Zapata spotted a defensive line of federales stationed
along an aqueduct that ran through the center of town, Somewhere
he found a large supply of gasoline, dumped it into the aqueduct
stream and as the gasoline flowed by the enemy soldiers, lighted it.
A huge sheet of flame cooked the enemy troops while his men,
unscathed, swept through and captured the city.
When the Zapatistas took a city-and they hated cities-they
emptied the jails, rode to the courthouse, and ceremoniously burned
all local records of debts, imprisonments, and false land claims.
They appropriated food, horses, money, and arms, drank all the
liquor in town, shot all their enemies, and on the way out, ripped out
the telephone and telegraph lines. They did not attempt to hold
cities; they ambushed and retreated, blocking railways and burning
crops. It was classic guerrilla tactics based on the support of the
entire rural population. 
This was the cauldron into which Holmdahl and his troopers
were poured. Not one to give casual compliments, Holmdahl wrote,
I was ordered out
in the field against the toughest man in Mexico.
General Emiliano Zapata is one of the shrewdest men in the Republic and
one who does not know fear. I put in some of the hardest service that
ever experienced in my life [in Zapata country]. 
On April 21, 1912, Holmdahl wrote his second letter from
Torreon. In it he stated that rumors of American intervention in
Mexico were making "it dangerous for every American in this coun
try." "I have no kick coming," he wrote, "I went into this service
fully realizing what chances I was taking." 
Again recounting his military campaigns in Mexico and offering
his services to the United States, Holmdahl warned,
The Mexican government is enlisting a great
many Japanese military
men into the ranks of soldiers. I have seven in my troop and they are
graduates from military college ... also one who served as an officer in
Japanese-Russian War. These men are far too intelligent to work for $l.50
Mex per day as a common Mexican soldier.
He wrote he would keep "a good
eye" on the Japanese because
"should the U.S. start to come in (to Mexico) they would have to
fight them." 
Holmdah1 reported he expected to take part in a battle on April
30, after which "I will march with a machine-gun detachment and
100 men to the states of Sina1oa and Tepic to reinforce the
Federales. The more I can kill the less the U.S. will have to take care
of." In conclusion, Holmdahl wrote, "My position is very risky so
destroy this letter ... anytime I can be of service to m)' country
please call-if I do not get killed." He signed it "1st Capitan
Mexican rurales." 
In his letter Holmdahl might have used the "yellow peril" threat
to enhance his standing as an important observer with the U.S. War
Department. After the "Gentlemen's Agreement" of 1907, in
which the United States and Japan agreed to prohibit Japanese
immigration to the U.S. mainland, relations between the two coun
tries began to deteriorate. There were rumors that thousands of
Japanese were immigrating to Mexico, and that they might form a
fighting force against American troops if war broke out between
Japan and the United States.
In 1911 there were reports of 50,000 Japanese carrying on mil-
itary maneuvers on the Mexican west coast. It was, of course, non-
sense and most of it originated from the fanciful designs of the
German foreign office. Their efforts to foment trouble between the
United States and Mexico five years later became a major cause of
the United States' entry into World War I against Germany.
Holmdahl, however, had more immediate concerns than strategic
speculations about the Japanese.
On one occasion, Holmdahl was ordered to Cuernavaca, the
capitol of Morelos, in the heart of Zapatista country, to bring out a
trainload of women and children "who were being abused by the
Zapatistas."  With an escort of twenty-seven rurales, he reached
Cuernavaca, loaded the terrified women and children on a train, and
headed for Mexico City. It was not to be an uneventful journey. As
the train slowed around a curve at Parque, Holmdahl spotted a
swarm of Zapatistas attempting to block the track.
Ordering the engineer to stop the train, Holmdahl and his men
leaped to the ground and opened a deadly rifle fire on more than
300 Zapatistas who took up firing positions around the track.
Alerted by a yell from his lieutenant, Holmdahl turned to see the
train's engineer had panicked, and raced full-speed through the
Zapatistas going hell-bent for Mexico City and safety. 
It was a mixed blessing. The women and children were safe, but
Holmdahl and his score of men were abandoned to their fate. He
later wrote, "It seemed like certain death as we were outnumbered
11 to 1."  As the train raced away, the furious Zapatistas turned on
the small band of rurales. Holmdahl recounted, "They mounted
their horses, let out a yell and made as pretty a cavalry charge as you
would wish to see. We met them with rapid fire from our Mauser
carbines and checked them." He wrote his rurales were "deadly
shots" and would fight to the death ''as there was no quarter asked
or given on either side." 
While the besieging Zapatistas had piles of rocks and irregular
ground which gave them good cover, the rurales had only steel rails
to hide behind. Even these few inches of rail were virtually useless
as the high powered rifle bullets could penetrate the thin upright
part of the rails.
Soon the rurales' fire slackened as they took increasing casualties.
Under cover of volleys of rifle fire, the Zapatistas began to move
forward in short dashes until they got within hand grenade range.
The rurl1les were showered with homemade grenades constructed
from tin cans filled with explosives. This concoction was put into a
rawhide pouch filled with nails, screws, rocks, or whatever was
handy, a fuse was stuck into the explosives, and the whole devil's
brew was ignited by a Zapatista cigar.
I was lying on my stomach and
hugging the ground as close as I could, when a grenade landed on my arm, next to my face. I couldn't pull the
as it had sunk into the hide. I tried to throw it, but as I was
lying flat I
couldn't throw it very far. Then there was an explosion. It seemed like
the world came to an end. I was blinded for a moment. There
was a terrible pain in my left side. 
Later, while recovering in a hospital, he learned he had suffered
two broken ribs, both hands were badly burned, while sand and cin-
ders had been blown into his face and arms. At the time, however,
he didn't have the luxury of patching up his injuries, as the
Zapatistas launched another charge which was barely beaten off.
For several hours more the beleaguered rurales fought back repeated
attacks, but as it began to get dark, Holmdahl realized the next attack
would probably annihilate his small band.
But his luck held. Just as darkness fell, he heard the hooting of
a steam whistle, and roaring down the track came a train loaded with .
federal cavalry. They had been dispatched from Mexico City after
the panic-stricken refugee train arrived and the crews told of the
rurl1les abandonment. As the cavalry-loaded train came to a grinding
stop, boxcar doors swung open, and mounted troopers under the
command of a Colonel Pena rode out at the charge. The Zapatistas
quickly mounted their horses and rode breakneck for safety toward
the surrounding mountains, while the rurales cheered and a bleeding
Holmdahl realized he would live to fight again.
It was morning before the relief train returned the survivors of
Holmdahl's little band to Mexico City. There he was taken to a hos-
pital and finally received medical attention for his multiple wounds.
It was, he wrote, more than three weeks before he was released from
the hospital to take the field again. 
By the summer of 1912, Zapata's legionnaires controlled most
of southern Mexico and had defeated every federal force sent
against them. He boasted, "The only government I recognize is my
pistols."  In desperation, Madero selected one of the most
despised men in Mexico, General Victoriano Huerta, to initiate a
new campaign against "The Horde." A full-blooded Indian, Huerta
was as ruthless as any Zapatista.
With a shaven head, a drooping mustache, and squinty-eyes
peering from behind thick, tinted eyeglasses, the squat general
looked somewhat like the fictional ogre Fu Manchu. He was as
mean as he looked. Huerta drank more than a quart of French
cognac a day, from the first slug upon awakening until he tossed
away a drained bottle in the evening. When he was at least half
sober, he was the best fighting general in Mexico, and he was never
defeated in the field. In him Zapata had met his match.
With harsh discipline and fierce courage, Huerta's troops
smashed the armies of Zapata in open battle, forcing them back into
their previous guerrilla tactics of hit-and-run raids. Fighting under
the immediate command of General Juvencio Robles, Holmdahl
witnessed, and probably took part in, atrocities that made the
scorched earth policies in the Philippines look mild.
Huerta instructed Robles, "The best way to handle Zapatistas is
with 18 cents worth of rope to hang them with." Robles smartly
responded, "My general, I shall hang them to the trees like ear-
rings."  And he did. During the remaining months of 1912,
General Robles "sowed terror in the state and introduced a scorched
earth policy." 
If Zapata was the
"Attila of the South," Robles and his troops
behaved like an invading Mongol horde. Home villages of Zapatista
leaders were burnt to the ground, sometimes with their screaming
occupants tied inside the flaming houses. Suspects were shot or
hung without trial; crops were burned; and God help those who
might have information about Zapata's whereabouts, for they were
tortured without mercy.
While dazed, fear-crazed, and starving survivors fled to the
mountains, Zapata continued his hit-and-run tactics and often gave
as good as he got. But gradually his battered forces were worn
down, and he and his men withdrew to their mountain redoubts to
rest and regroup. But only for a while.
It was while serving in the south that Holmdahl befriended and
adopted a small brown-and-white mongrel dog. During the endless
dangerous patrols through rebel country, the little mutt provided a
measure of company and amusement to the hard-bitten rurales
under Holmdahl's command. When on the move, the dog nestled
itself comfortably' in the saddle between the big saddle horn and his
master's lean body. Holmdahl remarked that the pup could maintain
its seat even during a gallop over broken terrain. 
One morning, Holmdahl and his troop were patrolling pear a
Zapatista stronghold in the hills around Cuernavaca, when they sur-
prised a small detachment of horsemen. Their massive sombreros
and slung rifles identified them as Zapatistas and Holmdahl barked
"Adelante companeros!" ("Let's go comrades!"). His bugler blew the
charge, his men shouted their battle cries, and deploying, spurred
into a wild gallop. The Zapatistas, turned their horses and scram-
bled into a headlong retreat. During a running gun battle,
Holmdahl's men accurately firing their six-shooters began to empty
The Zapatistas were at a disadvantage, for unlike Hollywood
Westerns, twisting in the saddle of a racing horse to fire over your
shoulder at a moving target is ineffectual at best. In their favor,
however, was a knowledge of every trail and twist in the terrain and
soon the survivors began to outdistance their pursuers. In the
melee, however, one rebel bullet found its mark, striking the little
dog and blowing it off the saddle, killing it instantly. 
Holmdahl identified one of the fleeing riders as Zapata himself.
Dressed in black charro clothes, riding a big, white stallion and
ing in the saddle, Zapata was firing his revolver at Holmdahl. The
bullets whizzed near Holmdahl's ear as he, in turn, blazed away. One
of his bullets hit Zapata "in the arm, near the shoulder, causing him
to drop his pistol."  An excellent horseman, Zapata managed to
stay in his saddle and, galloping furiously, finally eluded Holmdahl's
After their bugler blew recall, the exhilarated rurales and their
exhausted horses regrouped and retraced the route of their pursuit.
Along the trail, Holmdahl spotted the fallen revolver, and leaning
from the saddle he snatched the weapon from the dusty ground.
The pistol, now in the possession of Gordon Holmdahl, Emil's
nephew, is a "Russian" Model Smith & Wesson .44 caliber, single
action, top-break action revolver, which fired a powerful 246-grain
Perhaps contemplating his mortality as he recalled those huge
bullets whizzing by his ear, Holmdahl examined the weapon closely.
Carved ivory handles replaced the standard-issue grips. On one side
was a raised sculpture of the Mexican eagle grasping a snake in its
beak and on the other side, scratched in the ivory was,
"EMILIO [sic.) ZAPATA GENERAL EN JEFE CUARVACA [sic.)
MORALES MEX MARZO 4 1911."
Along the top of the pistol grip was a line of thirty-two notches
scratched deeply into the ivory. 
Shortly afterward, the temporary federal successes in the South
freed Holmdahl, whose expertise in handling machine-guns and
artillery were even more badly needed in the North.
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