Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dixie Gebhardt, Generals "Black Jack" Pershing, George S. Patton, and Pancho Villa

Today is Iowa State Flag Day. As most people from Marion County know, the Iowa State Flag was designed by Dixie Gebhardt of Knoxville. But what does the Iowa State Flag and designer Dixie Gebhardt have to do with Generals Patton, Pershing, and the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa?

On the eve of World War I, the United States engaged in skirmishes along the US border with Mexican troops as well as Pancho Villa's army. Officially known as the Mexican Expedition, it was more widely known as the Pancho Villa Expedition, or the Punitive Expedition. It began with Pancho Villa's raid on the small town of Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916. Pancho Villa was leading an uprising against the Mexican Government. Apparently a local merchant in Columbus, New Mexico, was supplying weapons and other supplies to Villa and his army when that relationship soured. At 4:17 AM that morning Villa and his troops attacked the town, located about 3 miles north of the American/Mexican Border. The U.S 13th Regiment based in Fort Bliss Texas had an outpost in Columbus at Camp Furlong. Ten American civilians and eight soldiers were killed in the raid, and the town was burned. Villa escaped back across the Mexican border with horses, mules, machine guns, ammunition, and other merchandise, but suffered severe losses--more than 60 of his troops died in battle.

On March 15, President Woodrow Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing into Mexico with 10,000 men after Villa. Interestingly, the first airplane used in war, a Curtiss JN-4 was deployed for reconnaissance. Lieutenant George S. Patton led a raid on a small community, reportedly killing several of Villa's men personally, and this is where it is also rumored that he came into the habit of carving notches on his revolvers. While Pershing's forces never found Villa, they did engage Mexican Federal troops (likely to the delight of Villa, who was fleeing both armies). The US 7th Calvary and the African-American 10th Calvary (among the legendary "Buffalo Soldiers") met the Mexican army in the Battle of Carrizal, Chihuahua. Most forces were withdrawn in 1917, and the mission has never been considered a success. The battle at Carrizal is considered a loss, 50 Americans died, and 23 were captured. Historians speculate that threats from Germany in Europe at this same time resulted in a diplomatic settlement with Mexico, and the conflict did not escalate. Pershing wrote that he had been "outwitted and out-bluffed at every turn," and wrote "when the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate."

But what does this have to do with Knoxville's Dixie Gebhardt and the Iowa State flag?

Troops from Iowa served in the Mexican Expedition under Pershing's command. History tells us that they wished to serve under a regimental banner that represented their home state. In response to this request, the Iowa Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution held a design contest for the flag, Gebhardt's design won, and presumably our Iowa troops chased Villa, and engaged the Mexican Federal Army under this banner. The Iowa Legislature adopted the design as the official State Flag on March 29, 1921. Gebhardt wrote that "Iowa's banner should embrace the history of its domain from the time of its occupation by the Indians to discovery by the French and purchase from Napoleon by Jefferson, to its admission into the Union, down to the present . . . in a design so simple that school children and adults can recognize its symbolism and know that it meant Iowa."

The design is patterned after the blue, white and red flag of France, with the blue symbolizing loyalty, the white purity, and the red courage. Our national symbol, the eagle, carries a blue streamer on which is our state motto, "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain." By legislative decree, we celebrate Iowa Flag day every March 29.

I lived in New Mexico, and worked for many years in Mexico, and I have been to Columbus, New Mexico, dozens of times, and have enjoyed wandering through the State Park where Camp Furlong once was, and presumably where Iowa soldiers were stationed. A number of years ago I found myself in Carrizal, Mexico during the celebration they have in July of their victory over our forces in the Battle of Carrizal. Carrizal is a small town, with maybe 100 residents, but that day hundreds of people from miles around gathered for speeches, fireworks, dances, and an approximately 50 gun salute by then current soldiers in the Mexican army in honor of their fallen comrades. The celebration began mid-morning under a severe desert sun, and lasted late into the night. The celebration is held every year.

Meanwhile, back at home, few remember our fallen in the Battle of Carrizal, or even the Mexican Expedition. Celebrations of defeats is not a custom we embrace. We do remember, however faintly, Dixie Gebhardt and at least part of the story behind the flag of our state under which the Iowa soldiers fought. A painting of her and our flag can be found in the Marion County Courthouse, as can a display of the original flag as it was designed. A memorial is on the courthouse lawn, as is one in the lawn of her former home just west of the Knoxville Public Library.

One warm morning a couple of weeks ago, my friend Ralph Porter and I walked over to the memorial on the courthouse lawn. Ralph is old enough to have known Dixie Gebhardt personally, and as he told me a few stories about her, I realized that Dixie Gebhardt and the Battle of Carrizal is only one handshake distant into the past. As we left the memorial, Ralph pointed out that the Iowa Flag was missing from the pole at her memorial.

While Iowa Flag Day passes without speeches, fireworks, dances, and gun salutes, this year it hasn't passed unobserved. The Knoxville Historic Preservation Commission passed out line drawings of the Flag for elementary school students to color, along with a CD and brief text that teachers used to prepare a lesson. Carolyn Formanek with the Historic Preservation Commission tells me that more than 300 colored Iowa State Flags were returned, and that our teachers were able to present a lesson on the flag and it's importance to the community that hopefully students will be able to pass on to their children when the time comes. Early this coming week these colored Iowa State flags will be on display in local businesses.

While I don't know how many Iowans served in the Mexican Campaign, I do know that enough of them did that they requested a banner representing our state under which they could serve. And Knoxville's Dixie Gebhardt gave them one. While victory belongs to the Mexicans, it is no small consolation that it is likely that General Patton learned some lessons in the Chihuahua desert with Iowa troops at his side that served him and our forces well in our victory in Europe in World War II.

Dr. Bob Leonard

My acknowledgments to Wikipedia entries on the Mexican Exhibition, Black Jack Pershing, and the Battle of Carrizal, and to the Iowa State code for information on Iowa Flag Day.

No comments:

Post a Comment