I’m pleased to have Paul Colt return to this site this month. Paul, who hopefully needs no introduction by now, has a new book out. Boots and Saddles: A Call to Glory has had a splendid review in Publisher’s Weekly: “Colt’s novel is hyped as a story about George Patton’s early career as a cavalry officer in the U.S. Army, but really is much more. The Patton angle is certainly interesting, but it’s Colt’s sweeping and historically vivid portrayal of the punitive expedition, American and Mexican relations, and German double-dealing that really makes this novel an exciting and stunning success.” Let’s hear more:
I’ve observed in these pages in the past once in a while historical research can uncover a little known circumstance or event lost in our conscious recollection. I call it “unexpected history.” It may be an oxymoron but I love that premise for a book. You know the synopsis conversation you have at a cocktail party that elicits the response: ‘I had no idea.’ One of those discoveries gave rise to the book I call Boots and Saddles: A Call to Glory.
I stumbled on it reading Jeff Shaara’s book on the Normandy invasion, Steel Wave. In his book, Shaara made a background reference to Patton having served under John J. Pershing in his pursuit of Pancho Villa. I remembered reading something about Pershing and Villa, but I was surprised to learn Patton played a part in it. We have this iconic image of Patton as famously portrayed by George C. Scott. The Shaara line suggested a young George Patton, unknown before he became that icon. You had Patton, Pershing and Villa, three compelling characters, together in a dusty corner of history. I had to take a deeper dive.
What I discovered was a fascinating story—two stories really. The first is the turning point that saved young Patton’s military career. We very nearly lost one of our most consequential World War II military leaders to the frustrations of a mid-career crisis. The second story is nothing less than the end of an era, the last United States Cavalry campaign. What a wonderful combination. It’s a story that had to be told.
In 1913, George Patton is a thirty year old cavalry officer. He is a West Point graduate and the Army’s first Saber Master. He is a nineteenth century warrior, facing the emerging realities of twentieth century warfare. He has served long past his junior officer time in grade, and remains the lowly Second Lieutenant he was commissioned out of the academy. A man of action, he is shuffled from one staff job to another with no line assignment to give chance for promotion. His vision of a glorious military career is fading with each passing year.
Patton married his adolescent sweetheart. Beatrice Ayer Patton is the love of his life, yet the life he gives her as a junior officer’s wife is a hard one. They move from one remote post to the next, subsisting on low wages and bare essential living conditions. A girl accustomed to privilege, ‘Beat’ bears all of it with little complaint, yet she sees her husband’s growing frustration and wonders where all of this leads.
The outbreak of war in Europe deepens Patton’s frustration. President Woodrow Wilson proclaims America neutral. The president stands passively by in the face of German aggression. Patton receives something of a reprieve when he is assigned to the Eighth Cavalry at Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas. The Eighth is one of five cavalry regiments, under the command of Brigadier General John J. Pershing, deployed to secure the Mexican border against the threat of revolutionary hostilities crossing into the U.S.
El Paso is another dusty disappointment for Beatrice. The dreary reality of military life is punctuated by long periods of separation that weigh on the young couple. Increasingly, reason leads to the conclusion that the glorious career George envisions is slipping away. The only prudent course would be to resign his commission in favor of some civilian pursuit.
In March 1916, Pancho Villa raids Columbus, New Mexico. President Wilson orders a Punitive Expedition to bring the revolutionary bandit to justice. Pershing is given command. He prepares to lead the Seventh, Tenth, Eleventh and Thirteenth cavalry regiments into Mexico on what will become the last United States Cavalry campaign. Patton and the Eighth will stand rear guard. Patton refuses to be left behind. He boldly argues his way onto Pershing’s staff.
Pershing mounts an aggressive campaign to apprehend Villa under difficult mountainous conditions. Patton confronts twentieth century warfare first hand. Reconnaissance and communications, traditional cavalry missions, are usurped by the Army’s fledgling air service and the marvel promise of wireless communications. Modern ballistics render the cavalry obsolete as a fighting force. Mexican federal forces repeatedly crush Villa’s signature cavalry charge. Patton’s beloved saber is useless against such firepower. He views these developments with a wary eye that sees no place for his training in this twentieth century military.
Pershing recognizes the young man’s frustration. He knows the army is ill-prepared for the coming conflict in Europe. It will need officers of young Patton’s stripe. The General extends a mentor’s hand to encourage the young officer. He assures Patton that “Time and invention” will lead him to new purpose.
On a routine supply mission, Patton sees an opportunity to search a suspected Villa hideout. He turns his supply operation into a mechanized assault that flushes out elements of Villa’s elite Dorado guard. In the firefight that follows, he has the opportunity to test himself in combat. He is pleased by the result and takes comfort in knowing he has the metal for field command.
Villa and battlefield success elude Pershing’s forces. Politics reduce the Punitive Expedition to the blunt instrument of a clumsy diplomacy. The last United States cavalry campaign fails to achieve its objective. As the storied American horse soldier passes into the pages of history, the United States prepares to enter the war in Europe. Pershing is given command of the American Expeditionary Force. He takes, now Captain, Patton with him. A new cavalry is born out of that conflict. A warrior emerges who will lead an armored cavalry to glory in the two great wars that follow.
And so we find Patton, Pershing and Villa together in a dusty corner of history. Who knew? Most don’t. Some may suggest the story isn’t a western. It most certainly is. It takes place in the west. Every other western cavalry campaign qualified, certainly the last must. Oh, and that shootout with the Dorado guards, Wyatt Earp would have approved of young Patton, blazing away with his signature single action Colt revolver. There’s a story behind that too. You can find it in Boots and Saddles: A Call to Glory, brought to you by Five Star Publishing. It’s available at fine booksellers everywhere. How’s that for shameless self-promotion?
Paul has very kindly offered to give away one hardcover copy of Boots and Saddles: A Call to Glory to one person, randomly chosen, who leaves a comment. Winner will be announced on or about the 23rd Jan. For further info on this and Paul’s other books, please go to http://www.paulcolt.com