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Chapter 7:  The Attila of the South

The only 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 a 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 forwarded them to the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army in Washington D.C.

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 fighting." 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." [1]

Six months later, on August 23, the War Office replied. Writing to a post office box in Nogales, Arizona, they informed him his letter "has been placed on file ... for consideration in the event your services should be required." [2] Four years later, they were -- desperately. By then Emil had learned what it was like to fight the fanatical forces of Emiliano Zapata, called, not without justification, the "Attila of the South."

Zapata's home in Morelos was in a mountainous country crisscrossed by fertile valleys and precious small streams. The population was ninety percent pureblood Indians, but almost all the fertile land was in the hands of a few dozen Mestizo and Spanish hacendados. 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 subsistence, 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. [3]

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, independent, landowner, he was 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 graciousness, Zapata heard the same legal language that had so infuriated the Yaquis. The stalling and equivocations of the Madero regime had the same effect on the hot-blooded Zapata. Well meaning, 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. [4]

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, vacillating man I've ever known ... " [5]

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 disposing 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 his 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 shine." [8]

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 bullets captured from the haciendas and the federal army. [9] Before attacking 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. [10]

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 I have ever experienced in my life [in Zapata country]. [11]

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 country." "I have no kick coming," he wrote, "I went into this service fully realizing what chances I was taking." [12]

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 all 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." [13]

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 Sinaloa 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." [14]

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 countries 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 military 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." [15] 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. [16]

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." [17] 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." [18]

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 rurales 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.

Holmdahl wrote,

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 fuse 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. [19]

Later, while recovering in a hospital, he learned he had suffered two broken ribs, both hands were badly burned, while sand and cinders 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 rurales 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 hospital 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. [20]

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." [21] 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 earrings." [22] And he did. During the remaining months of 1912, General Robles "sowed terror in the state and introduced a scorched earth policy." [23]

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. [24]

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 scrambled into a headlong retreat. During a running gun battle, Holmdahl's men accurately firing their six-shooters began to empty saddles.

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. [25]

Holmdahl identified one of the fleeing riders as Zapata himself. Dressed in black charro clothes, riding a big, white stallion and turning 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." [26] An excellent horseman, Zapata managed to stay in his saddle and, galloping furiously, finally eluded Holmdahl's men.

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 lead slug.

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,


Along the top of the pistol grip was a line of thirty-two notches scratched deeply into the ivory. [27]

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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