The Life of General John J. Pershing
John Joseph Pershing was born on 13 September 1860 near the frontier town of Laclede, Missouri. His father John Fletcher Pershing left the Pennsylvania farmland to seek a new life with the booming railroad industry. His innate leadership skills soon saw him installed as a foreman on his company’s track laying crew in Tennessee. It was here that he met Ann Elizabeth Thompson and, after a whirlwind courtship, they were married. The couple followed the employment opportunities of the railroad to Missouri, where Ann prepared for the birth of her first child. As the work camp they live in lacked adequate resources for childbirth, Mrs. Pershing was moved to the town of Laclede.
John J. Pershing spent his early years at work with his father. His family settled in Laclede where his father ran a farm, a general store, and speculated in real estate with mixed successes over the years. At the age of four, Pershing was given his first taste of warfare during the American Civil War. He was witness to skirmishes between his family and Confederate raiders, and with a garrison of Union soldiers. His childhood is filled with typical stories of growth and mischief. However, clearly present from an early age was a character of discipline, courage, and determination modeled after his childhood hero, George Washington.
It was in 1875 that John Pershing began to rise as his own man. Pershing found his family in dire financial trouble after a drought ruined his father’s over-ambitious land investments. Because of this, his father left to seek employment, and young John sought work in Laclede’s school for black children. Though Pershing was very young, he obtained the job due to his reputation for scholarly qualities, and the undesirability of the position itself. Despite the heckling of his peers, Pershing undertook the job with skill and pride, resolutely defending the honor of his position.
Pershing worked as a teacher in Laclede and later another nearby town until in 1882 a competitive examination was held for entrance into the United States Military Academy. Though Pershing had ambitions to become a lawyer, he saw West Point as a remarkable opportunity to receive a first rate education. Pershing won the competition and reported to West Point in September of 1882.
Early Military Career
Pershing, while above the average, was not a great student. He graduated 30th in a class of 77. Pershing did however, stand out as a leader with exception military bearing; Cadet Pershing was appointed to the highest possible cadet rank during each of his four years at the academy. Due to his excellent performance, Pershing was commissioned into the cavalry and sent west.
Lieutenant Pershing began his career with the 6th Cavalry on 30 September 1866 at Fort Bayard, New Mexico. This was the period of the battles against the Apache warrior Geronimo. Pershing accomplished many commendable feats during this time, most notably commanding a detachment charged with setting up a telegraph line – a kind of communication relay utilizing mirrors and the sun – across 160 miles of rough terrain filled with hostile Indians. Pershing was later hand selected by General Nelson Miles to command his Indiana Scouts during the Souix uprising in South Dakota. By the 1890s, the Army finally pacified the last of the major Indian resistance in the west.
With the west pacified, Pershing again found himself filling the role of a teacher. On 15 September 1891, he became the Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska. This proved a daunting task. The late 19th century equivalent of the ROTC existed to training college students in the art of war should the populace be called to serve as they had in the Civil War. However, in the peaceful atmosphere of the time, Pershing inherited command of a program with no real spirit.
The Battalion of Cadets numbered 90 on Pershing’s arrival. Within a very short period of time however, that number had expanded 350. The students stood in awe of the veteran 2nd Lieutenant, always magnificently dressed, stern, and missing no detail. Pershing’s honest commitment to excellence was contagious; his spirit invigorated the students. By November of 1892 the quality of the Cadet Battalion was greatly enhanced, and Pershing was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
During this time, Pershing suggested the unit’s participation in a national drill team competition in Omaha, Nebraska. This was the origin of the Pershing Rifles. They began as an elite 45 man team, drilling twice a day for two months. Their harshest inspector was Pershing himself, who rigidly ensured the unit did not succumb to overconfidence. In Omaha, the Pershing Rifles competed against the finest drill units in American, and won.
Pershing continued teaching in Nebraska until 1895 when he was reassigned to the 10th Cavalry in Montana, a black regiment command by white officers. Pershing served with distinction until he was noticed again by General Miles, who selected Pershing as an aide in Washington D.C. After six months of duty with General Miles, Pershing returned to West Point as an instructor of tactics.
Pershing’s success with the cadets of Nebraska did not follow him to New York. The cadets of West Point detested Pershing for his high standards, and subjected him to various pranks and “the silence;” a cold tradition where all cadets stand stone-like at attention for as long as an unpopular officer occupied the mess hall with them. However, the lasting legacy of the cadets was to assign Pershing a nickname scathing in its hatred of the officer who had come from the all black 10th Cavalry. They called him “Nigger Jack.” This name stuck with Pershing, being used by his detractors throughout his career until reporters in the 1st World War censored it to the surname he is now remembered by: Black Jack.
Cuba and the Philippines
In 1898, the destruction of the battleship Maine sent American blundering into war. America conquered the Philippines, and an expeditionary force prepared to invade Cuba. Pershing, through persistence, succeeded in returning to the 10th Cavalry to take part in the Cuban campaign. The 10th Cavalry, one of the few seasoned and professional units in a campaign of amateurs, covered itself with glory. The dismounted buffalo soldiers of the 10th seized the hill of El Caney, part of the San Juan heights, alongside Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Pershing received his promotion to Captain while en route to the Philippines in recognition for his bravery. Pershing’s regimental commander, a veteran of the Civil War, praised Pershing as the bravest man under fire he had ever seen.
In August of 1899, Pershing arrived in the Philippines to serve as adjutant general of the Department of Mindanao. There, he served in various campaigns against the Moros, a tribe of Islamic fundamentalists that the Spaniards had never been able to subdue. Pershing was then posted to Camp Vicars in the Mindanao region. However, after his promotion and the transfer of the Colonel commanding the post, Pershing found himself the ranking officer. Pershing filled this duty admirably, winning many of the Moro tribes by diplomacy, and a few others by the sword.
During all his Philippine campaigns, Pershing’s military leadership was unquestionably brilliant. However, his secret to success was in understanding and respecting the customs of the Moro tribesman and seeking to mesh the conflicting cultures of tribalistic Islamic fundamentalism with American governing control. In light of his successes, a movement began to promote Captain Pershing to the rank of Brigadier General. This movement involved many general officers who had observed Pershing’s ability, and extended directly to President Theodore Roosevelt who proposed the idea in an address to Congress.
Marriage and Promotion to Brigadier General
Pershing returned to Washington in late 1903. He was introduced to Helen Frances Warren, daughter of an influential Wyoming Senator. This began a passionate and brief courtship that lasted until Pershing was assigned to serve as an observer of the Russo-Japanese War. Though Pershing had been something of a lady’s man throughout his life, the couple’s feelings for each other were deep and utter. They were married on 26 January 1905 – the day before Pershing sailed for Tokyo. While in Japan and Manchuria, Pershing’s keen eye observed many lessons that would be all too useful when war came to Europe. Pershing first daughter Helen was born on 08 September 1906 in Tokyo.
In a spectacular coup, President Theodore Roosevelt, with the power to personally commission officers as either 2nd Lieutenants or Brigadier Generals, gave Pershing his first star. Captain Pershing was promoted to Brigadier General over 862 senior officers: 257 Captains, 364 Majors, 131 Lieutenant Colonels, and 110 Colonels. Many cried foul, citing Pershing’s marriage as the real reason for the promotion. Accusations of scandalous relationships during his time in the Philippines filled headlines. Roosevelt stood by General Pershing however, and in time the storm subsided.
Following his promotion, Pershing returned to the Philippines to take command of Fort McKinley, near Manila. On 24 March 1908 his second child, Anne, was born. The Pershings stayed until he was required to take a new assignment. They traveled from Asia to Europe through Russia to observe a brewing conflict in the Balkans that did not materialize. In 1909 the family returned to America.
On 24 June 1909, Pershing’s only son Warren was born in Wyoming. Shortly thereafter, Pershing was returned to the Philippines due to the instability of the Moro province. Due to Pershing’s calm leadership the Moro tribesmen were disarmed, and violence avoided. During this service, Pershing’s last daughter Mary Margaret was born on 20 May 1912.
Loss of Family and Poncho Villa
Pershing returned to the United States to take charge of the 8th Brigade in San Francisco. His mission was to patrol the Mexican – American border in response to the wave of instability and revolution sweeping Mexico. Pershing established his family in San Francisco before heading to Fort Bliss, Texas to take command of the unit.
After one year of preparations for the family at Fort Bliss, the Pershings were prepared to be reunited as a family. However, on the morning of 27 August 1915, Pershing was awakened by a telephone call from the Associated Press mistaking Pershing for his aide, reporting news of a fire. The correspondent soon realized he was not speaking to a lieutenant as Pershing demanded information. A fire during the night had killed his wife and their three daughters by smoke inhalation. Only his son Warren was rescued, unconscious, from the blaze. This was a mortal blow to Pershing, one from which he never fully recovered.
In March of 1916 Pershing, still distraught from his loss, was assigned to pursue the Mexican bandit Poncho Villa. The revolutionary had provoked the wrath of the United States by raiding border towns. Pershing threw himself into the task to overcome his grief. The campaign of the American Army through Mexico was one of miserable conditions with little hope of capturing Villa. Throughout the campaign however, Pershing remained a firm leader. He was always sharply dressed, always clean-shaven, and usually wearing a tie. On more than one occasion, his mere presence was enough to diffuse potentially hostile situation with pro-Villa Mexican locals.
The First World War
General Pershing returned from Mexico in January of 1917. Though the Army had not captured Poncho Villa, they had successes in taking away his ability to harass American towns. The campaign also gave the Army much needed experience in handling large numbers of troops in the field. This experience was a principle reason for the selection of Pershing to lead the American Expeditionary Force going to Europe following the entry of the country in the Great War on 5 February 1917. Pershing and a small staff that would form the core of the American War Machine sailed for Europe on 28 May 1917.
General Pershing, now a Major General with the temporary rank of full General, faced the largest and most difficult task of his career; assembling and training an American Army in Europe while keeping his forces independent of foreign commanders. Over three years of bitter trench warfare had nearly bled white the manpower of the British and the French armed forces. The French, whose Army by this time was in a state of mutiny, expected Americans to be used as replacement in French units. (The British, although in a better state than the French, believed the same would happen with American troops in British units.) Neither President Wilson nor General Pershing would have any of it.
Perhaps the most outstanding legacy of General John Pershing was his stubborn insistence on not wasting American lives under foreign commanders. American troops would fight in American units with American leadership. Great pressure was placed on Pershing from the French and the British, but Pershing would not budge. The doughboys would not be wasted as replacements; they would fight only as Americans when they were prepared.
Pershing’s care for his men was unquestionable. So too was his demand for professionalism. Pershing ordered that American soldiers would be clean-shaven, uniforms pressed, and leather polished. He inspected units, watched battle drills, and insisted poor performances be repeated until deficiencies were corrected. No detail was too small to escape the eyes of the Commander in Chief of the American Expeditionary Force.
The Army’s first test came at Cantigny on 28 May 1918. In the coming months, Pershing would lead America’s Army as an independent force through the St. Mihiel Salient offensive in September of 1918 and the Meise-Argonne offensive shortly thereafter. These were costly, hard won victories. However the influx of fresh Americans tipped the scales in Western Europe. This led to the German collapse from within, and the armistice of 11 November 1918. Pershing however, was unsatisfied. He believed that allowing the German armies to return home without the shame of surrender would cause many Germans to believe they had not been defeated militarily. Pershing believed the result would be another war in Europe.
Late Military Career
Pershing returned to America on 8 September 1919 to a hero’s welcome. His final duties in the military were filled with public relations tours, tempered with close involvement in his son’s upbringing. Though Pershing felt he could not refuse political office if the American people demanded it, no such demand came and Pershing made no effort to seek it. At the height of his triumph, Pershing remained a humble and professional soldier.
General Pershing’s final assignment was to serve in the relatively new Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army position. During this time, congress honored Pershing by promoting him to the permanent grade of General of the Armies of the United States, a rank higher than any other American General until the honor was posthumously bestowed on George Washington in 1976.
Pershing retired from active duty in 1924 at 64 years of age. He published a two-volume memoir on his experiences in the First World War, which was a clinical study of interest only to historians. Pershing regarded this as a poor effort, and a second attempt was deemed no better by the General, and was never published.
Pershing’s health soon drove him from public service. He remained active in advocating the United States military and continued preparedness for war, and sought to remain active in American military matters.
John Joseph Pershing, General of the Armies of the United States, died on 15 July 1948 at Walter Reed Hospital. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He was a man of ordinary background who rose to extraordinary heights by virtue of his own commitment to excellence. More than a great soldier, Pershing stands as one of the truly great Americans; a truly self-made man incorruptibly by the power he achieved. His life of dedication to excellence will forever stand as a shining example for the American soldier, and the American citizen.