Thomas F. Butler: forgotten in Syracuse, remembered in Columbus, New Mexico

Last summer, I was driving on Syracuse’s Southwest side when I observed the existence of an abandoned structure located at 411 Seymour Street. I was with a friend at the time and we exited the vehicle to take a closer look at the building. While doing so, several curious neighbors stopped to talk. Upon hearing about my work, I joined other conversations about the community and I briefly noted the mention of a large funeral taking place at the address years ago, but my attention quickly shifted elsewhere.

It wasn’t until just recently that I returned to take another look at that home on Seymour Street, and in doing so, realized that last summer, I had been doing what Columbus historian, Richard Dean, says has been happening for decades: “Everyone is forgetting about the Battle of Columbus.”

The year was 1916; Private Thomas F. Butler, a Syracuse resident had entered the military and was stationed at what is now known as Camp Furlong in Columbus, New Mexico, where he served as a member of the 13th Cavalry Regiment. According to Dean, the regiment acted as a border patrol unit. Butler spent his days on horseback riding east to west, west to east along the U.S.-Mexico border, ensuring that anyone crossing into the country stopped at a customs house and paid any necessary taxes.

Just south of Butler’s post, a bloody civil war was raging in Mexico as several regimes were fighting for power. One of those rebellion leaders was Francisco “Pancho” Villa.

Pancho Villa

While battling for control in Mexico, it’s believed, but still debated that Pancho became upset that the American government seemed to have shifted their support from him to an adversary, provoking him to respond with force.

Before dawn on March 9th, Pancho and his men, known as Villistas, moved north and attacked the people of Columbus, New Mexico, burning their settlement and looting their homes. Surprised but prepared, the soldiers and residents acted quickly, engaging in battle until the Villistas retreated in less than two hours.

In the end, eighteen Americans perished at the hands of the Villistas, 10 civilians and 8 soldiers. This is the last time the United States was attacked by a foreign power with boots on the ground.

One of those killed was Private Thomas F. Butler of Syracuse, New York. Commander of the 13th Cavalry, Colonel Slocum, listed Butlers injuries on the casualty report as: two bullet wounds to his arm, and another to his chest. He was 27 years old.

The house on Seymour street was his family home.

Upon his death, Butler’s body was returned to Syracuse by train on March 16th and a service was held the following the day. The Syracuse Herald described the service by saying, “Seldom has there been a funeral service in Syracuse as impressive as that of Private Butler.”

Beginning on Seymour Street, Butler’s body was displayed within the home as hundreds gathered inside. Outside, hundreds more filled the street to honor the fallen soldier.

Following a prayer service, Butler’s body was transported by horse carriage to St. Lucy’s church in a procession that included family, friends, veterans and public officials. Father Sheridan gave the eulogy and spoke of Butler’s dedication to our country stating, “Greater love hath no man that this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”

The ceremony ended with a second procession to a snow-covered cemetery at St. Agnes where salutes were fired as Butler’s body was placed in a vault until a spring burial at St. Mary’s.

The Syracuse Herald, 1916

Following the battle, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the U.S. Army into Mexico to capture Pancho, an order never fulfilled. Pancho retired from the battlefield in 1920 under an agreement with the president of Mexico, but was assassinated three years later as he attempted to regain political power.

Today there is no marker, no honor and no celebration for Private Thomas F. Butler in Syracuse, but that is not the case in Columbus.

Photo courtesy of John Read

Annually, the town commemorates the attack with a day known as ‘Fiesta de Amistad’ — a celebration of friendship. An event highlighted by a journey on horseback where Mexicans and Americans meet at the border and ride the three miles to Columbus, New Mexico, together, holding both American and Mexican flags in a sign of peace and goodwill.

John Read, Park Manager for the Pancho Villa State Park states that Private Thomas F. Butler’s name is read annually at the ceremony and recognized it immediately when I called to inquire about the park, adding that there is a plaque that bears his name on the grounds.

A photo of Butler hangs in the office of Richard Dean

The park, named after Pancho Villa, opened in 1961 and sits directly across the street from where the majority of the battle took place. Before I could question why the park was named for the man who directed an attack against the United States, Read acknowledges the name has been the subject of many discussions, but he supports it. “The name has created an important bond with the Mexican community, one that I don’t want to break,” he said.

Read also accepts the opinion of his respected friend and mentor, Columbus historian Richard Dean, whose has spearheaded efforts to change the name.

Dean, whose great-grandfather, James T. Dean, died alongside Butler in the Battle of Columbus, stated, “It’s like New York City naming a park after Osama Bin Laden, we shouldn’t honor a terrorist.”

Nonetheless, both men agree upon the importance of the event that also includes lectures, dances, vendors, and even a look-alike contest.

So, as long as the park exists, John Read, Richard Dean and the rest of Columbus, New Mexico won’t forget about the Battle of Columbus, and in doing so they’ll continue to remember our beloved Syracuse son, Private Thomas F. Butler.

I think it’s time we find a way to remember him, too.