Felipe Angeles

(1868 - 1919)

Many feel that General Felipe Angeles was one of the unsung heroes of the revolution, and in fact, the conscience of the revolution. He was perhaps unique among the soldiers that fought between 1910 and 1919 - not only because at a key moment he switched sides, but also because he was a brilliant military strategist who was also a humanist.

Felipe Angeles: The heart and soul of the Revolution

He came from the state of Hidalgo, just north of Mexico City, and at the young age of 14, entered the Heroico Colegio Militar in the capital. His father had been both a farmer and a soldier, but it was soldiering that attracted young Felipe. He rapidly moved up the ranks, and by the age of 27 was an artillery captain.

Artillery was what Angeles was most interested in - both the use of artillery in war, and the technology involved in how artillery worked. He became an expert, and in 1908, dictator Porfirio Diaz rewarded him with a trip to Paris to study the use of artillery in the French army. He received the Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French government in 1911, and remained there until the very beginning of 1912.

Because he was in Paris, Angeles did not fight in the early part of the revolution. Officially, he was a member of the federal army, but by the time he returned to Mexico, Francisco I. Madero was president. Madero and Angeles quickly became friends, and Madero asked him to serve as director of the Military Academy at ChapĂșltepec.

By mid-1912, Emiliano Zapata and the Zapatistas were already disenchanted with the new president. Madero had visited Morelos in the hope of re-gaining their allegiance, but he was not about to expropriate his own class of landholders, and therefore was not able to satisfy Zapata regarding agrarian reform. The Zapatistas revolted against the Madero government, as Zapata made his opposition official in the "Plan de Ayala" of 1911.

Madero sent General Juvencio Robles to control the Zapatistas. Robles initiated some of the bloodiest "scorched earth" policies against the Zapatistas, but the more Robles slaughtered them, burned their homes and lands, and swore to eliminate them, the harder the Zapatistas fought back. Finally, Madero and Angeles decided on a different approach. Angeles went to Morelos and tried diplomacy and reason with the Zapatistas. Ultimately, it did not work - Zapata joined with Pascual Orozco in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Madero - but Angeles had established himself as a man who believed in using military solutions only when necessary, and as someone who saw the value of every human being. He believed that wars sometimes needed to be fought, but also that sometimes they didn't - and that if they did, they should be fought with dignity and with carefully thought-out strategies.

The Orozco rebellion against Madero failed, primarily because of the general Madero put in charge of quelling it - Victoriano Huerta. But Huerta was not truly on Madero's side. In 1913, he plotted to overthrow Madero and his Vice President, Pino Suarez, and, with the help of U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, was successful in not only taking over the government, but having Madero and Pino Suarez assassinated.

Felipe Angeles was still part of the federal army, and theoretically, he now served the new president, Huerta, who was clearly an amoral thug. This was a moment of truth for Angeles. He decided that he was a citizen of Mexico first, and a loyal soldier second. He resigned from the federal army, effectively switching sides and joining the revolution. In fact, he decided that General Francisco Villa, who had a big part in winning the Maderista revolution at Ciudad JuArez, represented the best chance for the future of Mexico, a vision of the future that Angeles ideologically shared.

And so was formed a friendship between two very different men, the instinctual, larger-than-life, and oftentimes-brutal Villa, and Felipe Angeles, a brilliant military strategist with a conscience. Villa provided the instincts and bravado, and was a symbol of inspiration for his troops, while Angeles stayed out of the spotlight, and advised Villa in all aspects of strategy.

During the period from early 1913 to mid-1914, when the Constitutionalists, including Villa and Alvaro Obregon, fought against Huerta, Angeles was Chief of Artillery and the top strategist, guiding Villa from victory to victory. Wanting to avoid publicity as much as Villa sought it, Angeles nevertheless developed an international reputation, and the respect of many who observed the revolution from outside Mexico. A critical support for Villa during the Constitutionalist campaign, in battles such as Torreon and Ojinaga, he also was an instrumental support to Villa when the premier jefe, Venustiano Carranza, ordered Villa to attack the town of Saltillo, rather than the more strategically important city of Zacatecas. Carranza was trying to marginalize Villa just as the Constitutionalists were getting close to defeating Huerta. Villa handily captured Saltillo, and Angeles helped convince him to disobey Carranza's orders and attack Zacatecas. What happened when Villa disobeyed Madero's orders and attacked Ciudad JuArez in 1911, winning the war against Diaz, happened again. This time, by going against his commanding officer, Villa won a major battle that was instrumental in the victory of the Constitutionalists and the defeat of Huerta. Angeles understood both what Carranza was trying to do to Villa, and what Villa should do in response.

After Huerta was overthrown, Angeles attended the Convention at Aguas Calientes, along with Villa. This October, 1914 convention represented a chance for military leaders to come together to decide the future of Mexico. Angeles felt strongly that Emiliano Zapata should attend, but Zapata had refused. So Angeles made the trip down to Morelos, and spoke with the Zapatistas, finally convincing some of them to serve as Zapata's emissaries and attend the convention. Although they arrived late, they were able to dramatically establish their priorities there. As a result, it was Zapata and Villa who would ride into Mexico City as the "Conventionalists," challenging Carranza's attempt to take power.

Carranza did, however, succeed in his ambitions, and launched a campaign to eliminate Villa. Carranza's general, Alvaro Obregon, overtook Villa at Celaya in 1915. Angeles pleaded with Villa not to engage with Obregon, but hubris, and perhaps a sense of immortality, caused Villa to face Obregon in a series of battles. As a result, Villa's troops, the dorados, were massacred. Obregon lost an arm, but Villa lost thousands of men, horses, and much of his artillery and ammunition, as well as his status in the eyes of the rest of the world. Villa would never again achieve the aura of popularity and invincibility he once had. Support for Villa from the United States stopped.

Villa also lost Angeles, who decided to flee to the U.S. For a few years, Angeles gave up the military, tried farming, but remained interested in military affairs, politics -- and the destiny of Mexico. In 1918, Angeles returned to his native country and rejoined Villa. Villa at this point had been successfully marginalized by President Carranza and was reduced to fighting small skirmishes in the north. When Angeles returned to Mexico, he wanted to pursue peace. He stayed with Villa for another year, mostly attempting to convince Villa to lay down his arms and become part of a peaceful solution for Mexico. It was not to be.

Disillusioned and exhausted, Angeles left Villa once again, in mid-1919. But, as he set off on his own, one of Villa's men betrayed him to Carranza's forces. He was arrested by federal troops. Rather than assassinating him outright, Carranza felt that holding a trial (the only trial of the revolution), however rigged, might satisfy those around the world who held Angeles in high esteem - especially those in the United States.

In November, 1919, Carranza put Angeles on trial at the Teatro de los Heroes in Chihuahua. The hall was packed: 5,000 onlookers had bought tickets to the show trial. But Carranza had unwittingly given Angeles an opportunity to make a final statement to the world. Newspaper headlines from the United States and Europe pleaded for Carranza to spare Angeles's life. An editorial in the New York Times said that it would be a wise move for Carranza if Carranza wanted to convey to the world any sense that he was not a barbarian. But it was to no avail. Angeles made a long and brilliant statement condemning Carranza's policies, supporting Villa, and saying that he "cherished hatred for no one," even at the darkest moments of the revolution. Angeles was, of course, found guilty, and on November 26, 1919, he was assassinated by a firing squad, refusing a blindfold. News reports indicated that the members of the firing squad had been "unnerved" by the assignment, and by the stoic bravery of the man they were ordered to kill.

Only four months later, Carranza himself was betrayed and assassinated. His bloodlust had become his own undoing.