The Battle of Zacatecas

A Grand Victory for Pancho Villa During the Mexican Revolution

Francisco Villa and Felipe Angeles at Battle of Zacatecas, July 23, 1914
Francisco Villa and Felipe Angeles at Battle of Zacatecas, July 23, 1914.

Getty Images/De Agostini/G. Dagli Orti

The Battle of Zacatecas was one of the key engagements of the Mexican Revolution. After he had removed Francisco Madero from power and ordered his execution, General Victoriano Huerta had seized the presidency. His grasp on power was weak, however, because the rest of the major players — Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Alvaro Obregón and Venustiano Carranza — were allied against him. Huerta commanded the relatively well-trained and equipped federal army, however, and if he could isolate his enemies he could crush them one by one. In June of 1914, he sent a massive force to hold the town of Zacatecas from the relentless advance of Pancho Villa and his legendary Division of the North, which was probably the most formidable army of those arrayed against him. Villa's decisive victory at Zacatecas devastated the federal army and marked the beginning of the end for Huerta.


President Huerta was fighting rebels on several fronts, the most serious of which was the north, where Pancho Villa's Division of the North was routing federal forces wherever they found them. Huerta ordered General Luís Medina Barrón, one of his better tacticians, to reinforce the federal forces at the strategically located city of Zacatecas. The old mining town was home to a railway junction which, if captured, could allow the rebels to use the railway to bring their forces to Mexico City.

Meanwhile, the rebels were quarreling amongst themselves. Venustiano Carranza, self-proclaimed First Chief of the Revolution, was resentful of Villa's success and popularity. When the route to Zacatecas was open, Carranza ordered Villa instead to Coahuila, which he quickly subdued. Meanwhile, Carranza sent General Panfilo Natera to take Zacatecas. Natera failed miserably, and Carranza was caught in a bind. The only force capable of taking Zacatecas was Villa's famed Division of the North, but Carranza was reluctant to give Villa another victory as well as control over the route into Mexico City. Carranza stalled, and eventually, Villa decided to take the city anyway: he was sick of taking orders from Carranza at any rate.


The Federal Army was dug in at Zacatecas. Estimates of the size of the federal force range from 7,000 to 15,000, but most place it at around 12,000. There are two hills overlooking Zacatecas: El Bufo and El Grillo and Medina Barrón had placed many of his best men on them. The withering fire from these two hills had doomed Natera's attack, and Medina Barrón was confident that the same strategy would work against Villa. There was also a line of defense between the two hills. The federal forces awaiting Villa were veterans of previous campaigns as well as some northerners loyal to Pascual Orozco, who had fought alongside Villa against the forces of Porfirio Díaz in the early days of the Revolution. Smaller hills, including Loreto and el Sierpe, were also fortified.

Villa moved the Division of the North, which had more than 20,000 soldiers, up to the outskirts of Zacatecas. Villa had Felipe Angeles, his best general and one of the superior tacticians in Mexican history, with him for the battle. They conferred and decided to set up Villa's artillery to shell the hills as a prelude to the attack. The Division of the North had acquired formidable artillery from dealers in the United States. For this battle, Villa decided, he would leave his famous cavalry in reserve.

The Battle Begins

After two days of skirmishing, Villa's artillerymen began bombarding the El Bufo Sierpe, Loreto and El Grillo hills at about 10 a.m. on June 23, 1914. Villa and Angeles sent elite infantry to capture La Bufa and El Grillo. On El Grillo, the artillery was battering the hill so badly that the defenders could not see the approaching shock forces, and it fell around 1 p.m. La Bufa did not fall so easily: the fact that General Medina Barrón himself led the soldiers there no doubt stiffened their resistance. Still, once El Grillo had fallen, the morale of the federal troops plummeted. They had thought their position in Zacatecas to be unassailable and their easy victory against Natera had reinforced that impression.

Rout and Massacre

Late in the afternoon, La Bufa also fell and Medina Barrón retreated his surviving troops into the city. When La Bufa was taken, the federal forces cracked. Knowing that Villa would definitely execute all officers, and probably most enlisted men as well, the federals panicked. Officers ripped off their uniforms even as they tried to fight off Villa's infantry, who had entered the city. Combat in the streets was fierce and brutal, and the blistering heat made it all the worse. A federal colonel detonated the arsenal, killing himself along with dozens of rebel soldiers and destroying a city block. This infuriated the Villista forces on the two hills, who began raining gunfire down into the town. As federal forces began fleeing Zacatecas, Villa unleashed his cavalry, which slaughtered them as they ran.

Medina Barrón ordered a full retreat to the neighboring town of Guadalupe, which was on the road to Aguascalientes. Villa and Angeles had anticipated this, however, and the federals were shocked to find their way blocked by 7,000 fresh Villista troops. There, the massacre began in earnest, as the rebel troops decimated the hapless Federales. Survivors reported hills flowing with blood and piles of corpses alongside the road.


Surviving federal forces were rounded up. Officers were summarily executed and enlisted men were given a choice: join Villa or die. The city was pillaged and only the arrival of General Angeles around nightfall put an end to the rampage. The federal body count is difficult to determine: officially it was 6,000 but is definitely much higher. Of the 12,000 troops in Zacatecas before the attack, only around 300 straggled into Aguascalientes. Among them was General Luís Medina Barrón, who continued to fight Carranza even after the fall of Huerta, joining with Félix Díaz. He went on to serve as a diplomat after the war and died in 1937, one of the few Revolutionary War Generals to live into old age.

The sheer volume of dead bodies in and around Zacatecas was too much for normal gravedigging: they were piled up and burned, but not before typhus had broken out and killed off many of the struggling wounded.

Historical Significance

The crushing defeat at Zacatecas was a death blow for Huerta. As word of the utter annihilation of one of the largest federal armies in the field spread, common soldiers deserted and officers began to switch sides, hoping to stay alive. The previously intransigent Huerta sent representatives to a meeting in Niagara Falls, New York, hoping to negotiate a treaty that would allow him to save some face. However, at the meeting, which was sponsored by Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, it soon became evident that Huerta's enemies had no intention of letting him off the hook. Huerta resigned on July 15 and went into exile in Spain shortly thereafter.

The battle of Zacatecas is also important because it marks the official break of Carranza and Villa. Their disagreements before the battle confirmed what many had always suspected: Mexico was not big enough for the two of them. Direct hostilities would have to wait until Huerta was gone, but after Zacatecas, it was evident that a Carranza-Villa showdown was inevitable.​

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Minster, Christopher. "The Battle of Zacatecas." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Minster, Christopher. (2021, February 16). The Battle of Zacatecas. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Battle of Zacatecas." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).

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