The Birth of Pershing Rifles


The story of the birth of Pershing Rifles from the The Literary Digest April 5, 1919

The University of Nebraska was inclined to consider military training a joke in those days, and when young Lieutenant Pershing appeared on the scene, on September 25, 1891, it was expected that he would court popularity by bending to popular opinion. The university’s idea of a military instructor was a handsome young West-Pointer who adorned faculty teas, did not bother the students with troublesome drills, and observed military regulations only to the extent of regularly drawing his pay. Pershing was not built on this plan. As a matter of fact, he had no way of disciplining the cadets, or of enforcing his orders, except by an appeal to the faculty, and the faculty’s attitude was pithily put by the university’s chancellor, James H. Canfield, in a letter written in 1895.

Said the chancellor, referring to Pershing’s work: “He found a few men, the interest in the battalion weak, the discipline next to nothing, and the instinct of the faculty and the precedents of the university against the corps.”  Nevertheless, by some spiritual quality, by a “wordless, soundless something” that radiated from him, he gradually “turned the current and made it flow with him.”

From the time when the students first went to the office of the new commandant to report, says George MacAdam, in the course of an excellent “Life of General Pershing” that is appearing in The World’s Work, there was a quality about Pershing that made those slouching, loafing “studes” hitch themselves up into the correct military attitude. The writer describes the percolation of this Pershing quality through the whole corps, beginning with the first inspection:

The commandant went down the line, criticizing uniform or accouterments-a missing button, unblackened shoes, unpolished rifle. A cadet exprest the sentiment of the battalion when he remarked under his breath to the student next to him: “This sort of thing may be all right in the regular Army, but it won’t go here.”

As a matter of fact, Pershing had no way of disciplining the cadets, no way of enforcing his orders. But he made no effort at wheedling, at mollycoddling.  Here, as elsewhere, he was a strict disciplinarian. When the cadets were doing military duty, he treated them as tho they were regulars, duly enlisted in the United States Army. And, despite cadet prophecy, it went.

The new commandant got the War Department to supply the corps with sixty-five new Springfield rifles, with fifty cavalry sabers. A target range was fitted up in the basement of the armory, and each cadet was taught how to shoot. He instituted the keeping of a book which would show the comparative record of each cadet, merits and demerits being entered side by side. At each drill the names of delinquents were read out. By his own intense interest in the work, he got the boys interested, got them to take a pride in themselves and in their corps.

Less than three months after his coming to the university, we read in The  Hesperian, one of the student publications:

“It is with pleasure that we are able to state that the military department is in a flourishing condition. There are 192 cadets registered…. Lieutenant Pershing is bound to put, and to keep, the military department on a systematic basis. Let his efforts be fruitful!”

The following year brought concrete evidence of just how fruitful his efforts were. The national competitive drills of 1892 were to be held at Omaha. It was a competition to which crack companies came from all parts of the country, among them such splendid old organizations as the “Washington Fusileers,” the “Texas Tigers,” and others of like reputation. It was a big affair, several thousand soldiers participating. Pershing wanted to enter a company of his cadets. The proposal met with opposition. But finally Pershing had his way.

And now we see a remarkable sight in this pacifist university: at 7 A.M. a company of cadets out on the campus-drilling, drilling, drilling-two hours of it. At 4 P.M., recitations over, the same company out again. Three hours more of drill.

Pershing knew the abilities of every cadet in the battalion, and he picked the best officers and the best privates to form the company that was to uphold the honor of the university in the competition at Omaha. Company A was the nucleus around which the university’s crack company was built.

The great day came. The Governor and his staff were there, governors from several other states, dignitaries, prominent citizens, and a large crowd. The Pershing-trained cadets took part in both classes of drill, the “Grand National” and the “Maiden.” To quote The Sombrero, the student annual:

“In the former they failed, it is conceded, solely because they drew first place. In the latter their maneuvers were so rapid and exact that they executed the prescribed movements twenty-two minutes before the expiration of their allotted time. They were awarded $1,500 prize money and were presented by the citizens of Omaha with the ‘Omaha Cup’, the most cherished souvenir of the occasion.”

The university, the State, was proud of this unexpected achievement. Pacifism, so far as it affected the cadet battalion, went into eclipse. The university’s military department was seen in a new luster, a luster that was shared by its commandant.

As The Sombrero put it: “This (the capture of the Maiden prize) was the most noteworthy event in the history of the battalion, and is traceable directly to Lieutenant Pershing’s disciplinary ability.”

This prize company was continued, in a way, as a separate cadet unit. Admission to it meant special military ability. Every boy in the battalion became ambitious to be a member. At first it was known as the “Varsity Rifles.” But there was one of those gradual, popular rechristening: the “Pershing Rifles” it became, and the “Pershing Rifles” it remains to this day.

The students, instead of wanting to get out of the cadet battalion, now wanted to get in. The uniform, instead of being worn only at drills, now became the constant dress of many of the students, not only at recitations, on the campus, but at sociables and dances. The University of Nebraska was and is a coeducational institution. In The Sombrero under the caption: “Those Whom We Fear,” a brief list includes: “A pleasant thing to look upon-The Lieutenant.”’ I do not know if that line was contributed by a co-ed, but I do know that many of the cadets tried to pattern themselves after “The Lieut”-to walk as he walked, to carry their shoulders as he carried his.

The annual encampment and the annual competitive drill now became big events, says the writer, not only in the university, but also in the State at large. He quotes an extract taken from a two and half page account given by The Hesperian of one of these affairs:

“There were about a thousand people in the amphitheater of the M Street ball park impatiently awaiting the appearance of the boys in blue. The Governor and his staff and their wives were there, and all the fond mamas and proud papas and adoring best girls of the laddies in the field. . . .

At about three o’clock the band began to play, and the noble three hundred came marching across the field, greeted by shouts and cheers and waving handkerchiefs. It was a time when college patriotism was 50 per cent above par.”

Truly, the wind had been made to blow from a different quarter in that pacifist university!

Three years was the customary length of a detail as military instructor, but Lieutenant Pershing had not proved a “customary” sort of commandant, and it was felt that the customary detail ought to be lengthened. As we read:

On May 26, 1893, one year and four months before the expiration of Pershing’s assignment to the University of Nebraska, if the detail was to run its normal length, Chancellor Canfield wrote to the Secretary of War:

“I learn that you have concluded to adopt the policy of extending the service of officers detailed for instructional purposes at State colleges for a period of four years; and that such extension may be had on request, in connection with officers already detailed.

“Lieut. John J. Pershing, 10th United States Cavalry [Pershing was appointed a First Lieutenant, 10th Cavalry, on October 20, 1892. This was six years and three months after he had received his commission as a Second Lieutenant on being graduated from West Point. He was now thirty-two years of age] is commandant of the military department of this university. He is now entering upon his third year. He has been remarkably successful-more so than any person ever sent to us before. In all respects his work has been highly successful. We are very anxious indeed to have him retained for the fourth year, or two years hereafter; and file this request in order that the matter may receive as early attention as possible.

“Any further commendation or more formal request will be sent on suggestion from your department.”

This request was granted. On September 25, 1894, Chancellor Canfield again addresses the Secretary of War:

“Lieut. John J. Pershing, of the 10th United States Cavalry, is at present commandant of the cadet battalion in this institution. He has just entered upon the last term of his service here. His energy, industry, ability, and good judgment have all combined to make his work so successful that it will be a very difficult task to find an officer who can be detailed as his successor with the hope that he will give entire satisfaction. It is generally admitted, I believe, that we have the best cadet corps outside of West Point.

“I beg leave to suggest, therefore, that more than ordinary care be taken in the selection of Lieutenant Pershing’s successor, and that as far as permissible this university and its authorities be permitted to counsel with your department prior to your making such appointment definite and final.”

When Pershing’s four years of service at the university was approaching its end, the War Department sent Maj. E. G. Foecet to report on his stewardship. Here are two extracts from the report of inspection:

“To the very high state of discipline at this university I am sure that too much credit cannot be given to its present military commandant, and of this I am assured by the evidence of the chancellor –James H. Canfield-the faculty, and the most reputable citizens of this city and State.”

“The high degree of proficiency attained is due entirely to the energy, ability, and tact to organize and command of Lieutenant Pershing. Previous to his arrival, but little, I understand, had been accomplished. No especial interest had been manifested in the military department, either in the college or among the residents of Lincoln. Now it is just the reverse.”

What did the cadets think of Pershing and his proficient way of injecting discipline into them, whether they wanted it or not? It happened that one of those cadets was Private William Hayward, since become Colonel Hayward, commander of the 15th New York Infantry. This black regiment paraded up Fifth Avenue not long since, fresh from a distinguished record in France, and Colonel Hayward marched at its head. He is quoted concerning those old days when he served under Pershing in Nebraska as he has lately served under him in France:

“ Pershing was as severe a disciplinarian as a kindly man can be. He was always just. He had no pets. Punishment for derelictions of duty came no swifter than his rewards for faithful performance.

“Lieutenant Pershing had a very keen, tho grim sense of humor. How he laughed when we appeared for the first time in white duck trousers as part of our uniform. They were made under contract from measure by a concern which made tents and awnings, and the goods must have been cut out with a circular saw.

“ In addition to the four companies of infantry and the detail for the battery of artillery, which trundled two old muzzleloaders around, we bad a cadet band. This band was indirectly under Pershing’s command, the band-leader and instructor being a civilian professional musician named Easterday, familiarly dubbed ‘Professor.’

This unhappy leader had to take talent as it came to him.

..The band could play a few pieces. All hands would play loudly and enthusiastically on the plain ‘um-pahs,’ but when a difficult passage of the music occurred, most of them pretended to take out their mouthpieces to blow them out, or found some other excuse for not playing. This would result in the ‘Professor’ playing a horn alone to cover the whole band.

“One day we had a grand review on the campus at which the Governor and other dignitaries were present. The battalion passed in review at quick time. The band bad counter-marched and played for us, and all went well. The second time around, however, was to be in double time. Lieutenant Pershing had given the band definite instructions, and the band-leader had solemnly assured him that they played double time as well as quick time. Pershing allowed that that was not saying much, but told him to go ahead anyhow.

.. When the band struck up its alleged double time, no thousand-Iegged worm could possibly have kept step with a single foot. The battalion, which could drill in double time very well without music, immediately went to pieces, and no route step ever showed a greater variety of cadences.

“Pershing stood it for a few minutes; then, realizing the hopelessness of the situation, broke into double time toward the band, and yelled:

“‘Stop that band! Stop that awful band!’

“None of us was present at the subsequent interview between the commandant of cadets and the leader of the band, but I remember no subsequent exhibitions along the same line.

“At the annual encampment Pershing gave us intensive training which would have made any of the Plattsburgers (A 1917 military encampment training WWII officers in Plattsburg, New York.) take notice. He chased that battalion over the hills and the fields in the most approved maneuvers. He always had a definite object in view, which we generally discovered before the maneuver was over.

“We were extended along a country road one day, firing on a masked battery in an orchard. We were firing by volleys.

The command in the old drill regulations of those days was: ‘Load! Ready! Aim! Fire!’

“Pershing was in command of the battalion, giving the commands. He gave: ‘Load! Ready! Aim!’

“And then walking along behind the line of prone cadets, he touched my foot with his, and said, just loud enough for me to hear:

” ‘Fire your piece.’

“I banged away with my old 45-70 Springfield. Rrr-ip! Up and down, on each side, went every piece in the battalion.

Then the fun began. I was the only one not in disgrace. Pershing ran back and forth, and inquired of the different cadets, with the finest sarcasm imaginable:

”’Did you hear the command,”Fire”?

”’No, sir,’ with a big gulp in the throat.

“Then why did you fire?

” I heard someone else fire.

“Do you always do what you hear other people do? etc., etc.

“ In this way we soon acquired fine discipline. After that incident, I think the heavens could have fallen without a single piece being discharged until the distinct command ‘Fire!’

“Pershing’s personality and strength of character dominated those Cadets as I have never known in the case of any individual before or since, in or out of the Army.

We loved him devotedly, and yet I am sure the awe in which I stood of him during all of those years was shared by every other cadet.

“When Pershing was a last to leave us the cadets who had served under him desired a distinguishing badge of some sort.  A number were in favor of a gold medal, others something else.  But some boy had a real brain-throb, with the result that a select committee head by John W. Dixon, now one of Judge Morgan J. O’Brien’s law partners, called on Lieutenant Pershing at his headquarters in the Armory, and asked him for a pair of his breeches.

“What in the world do you want with a pair of my breeches?”

“He was then informed that they were to be cut up into strips, the yellow cavalry stripe in the center and a bit of the blue breeches on each side, and made into service-ribbons. He was plainly affected.

After a pause he said:

“I will give you the very best pair I own.’

“We took them and made service-ribbons of them. So far as I know,” conduces

Colonel Hayward, “those were the first service-ribbons worn.”


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