Deadly Tensions

African-American soldiers were heroes when a battle broke out in Nogales in 1918

Major disagreements surround many aspects of the August 1918 battle of Nogales. However, it's certain that more than 250 men of the 10th Cavalry—a black unit with white officers—played a major role in the fighting.

Established in 1866 by an act of Congress, the 10th Cavalry—one of the regiments given the Buffalo Soldiers nickname—was stationed near Nogales and was patrolling the border as the end of World War I approached. When shooting began across the international line on the afternoon of Aug. 27, three troops of the 10th rushed toward the firing.

After dismounting and securing their horses, two troops of the 10th Cavalry took up positions near the border as bullets flew around them. The other troop was stationed on a hill overlooking the town. Three companies from the 35 Infantry were also engaged in the altercation.

One later description of the scene stated: "It seemed as though everybody in Nogales was shooting from the windows toward the border."

In the intense spray of bullets, one of the 10th Cavalry's white officers was struck. As he recalled years later: "I was behind a telephone pole with 1st Sgt. Thomas Jordan and got hit in the right arm below the elbow. Sgt. Jordan picked me up and carried me back out of range of the fire. He then took command of the troop ... ."

Described as a "huge, bulging" black man, Sgt. Jordan would receive a commendation for his actions in Nogales.

Another member of the 10th Cavalry had a somewhat different experience that August day. "A colored trooper came galloping up," one account relayed, "dressed only in a hospital gown and riding bareback with a halter shank to guide his mount. The 'sick' soldier begged for a rifle and shells to go join his troop. Army regulations to the contrary notwithstanding, the old sergeant picked out a rifle, had the trooper sign a receipt, and gave him a couple of bandoliers of ammunition. Off he went at an extended gallop, the loose hospital gown floating like a sail, and his bare legs thumping the ribs of the horse in an urge for more speed."

Some reports claim the shots from the Mexican side came only from civilians and border agents, not military troops. But an American officer involved with the fighting sharply refuted that assertion. On the U.S. side, both Army and militia personnel were involved with the fighting.

Eventually, one of the 10th Cavalry troops reportedly crossed a few blocks into Mexico to clear some buildings of snipers. As they did, it was said the men were singing, "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here."

The firing finally subsided after a few hours.

Prior to the fighting, Nogales, Sonora, had been described by the Arizona Daily Star as a pretty town with "square adobe houses resembling cubes of native brown sugar."

After the 1918 hostilities halted, the Tucson Citizen said of the scene: "Many horses were shot down in the streets and wagons, automobiles and buildings were riddled with bullets. Mayor Penaloza of Nogales, Sonora was killed ... ."

The mayor was one of many Mexicans who lost their life on that afternoon. Estimates ranged from 13 dead all the way up to 125, with another 300 wounded.

On the U.S. side, a handful of soldiers died, including one officer of the 10th Cavalry. Approximately 30 Americans were wounded.

After a series of meetings between representatives of both nations, and some sporadic firing during the night, a nervous calm descended on the border city.

Mexican officials expressed "profound regrets" for the incident, and Nogales, Sonora, was placed under martial law. The American military officer in charge said in no uncertain terms that the firing must stop completely. "We are through with this nonsense," he declared.

"It is pretty safe to say," editorialized the Citizen a few days after the fighting, "that the trouble was incited by German agents who have been trying their best for a long time to provoke trouble between the United States and Mexico ... ."

Proof of outsider involvement included reports that two German "agents provocateurs" were listed among the dead.

A recent detailed analysis of the battle discounts this conclusion, focusing blame instead on growing tensions along the border. These were caused in part by ongoing political unrest in Mexico that led to belligerence by some American border officials toward Mexicans.

As a result of the shifting political situation south of the border, changes had been made to what had once been a wide-open boundary line. These included the imposition of restrictions on crossings.

It was those new regulations that may have led to the 1918 shootout. The spark that ignited the fighting could have been a simple misunderstanding at the border that resulted in gunshots. From there, whatever the cause, the situation quickly escalated.

One outcome of the dispute was the installation of a two-mile long permanent fence separating the two countries.

Another result was praise for the role the 10th Cavalry played in the fighting. While it would be almost 30 years until the American military was integrated, in 1918, a Nogales newspaper would state of the black troopers: "These lads of color hurried to and fro, their rifles spitting lead at the enemy."

February is Black History Month.

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