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.