John J. Pershing

A biographical sketch via the Pershing Rifles Co. C-12 (ABN), a fraternal order of students at various Boston-Area universities

Over a century has passed since Pershing's birth and more than forty years since his death, yet his memory stands tall in the land and his name rings firm in the historical echo of his times. General Pershing is the First World War, and the proof of this lies in the fact that after over fifty years no other general's name comes readily to mind when that war is mentioned.

Pershing was born into the opening fanfare of the golden age of Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Jackson -- four names that will stand linked forever before the fact of the preserved Union. Pershing's earliest toddler memories were of Southern bushwhackers raiding his hometown and shooting up the village. He was five years old when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. He grew to manhood and as a junior officer served under Generals Nelson A. Miles, Adna R. Chaffee, John M. Schofield, and William R. Shafter -- four men indelibly associated with the march of America across the shrinking plains, to Cuba and the Orient, while the 19th century wound its way out and the century of great wars came upon us.

In the First World War, however, Pershing played his part without peer--standing alone in his time as history would have it, and with no one to share the fame.

Pershing grew very old and lived on to see the new men come to flower -- MacArthur and Eisenhower, Patton and Stilwell, all of whom he outranked by an active commission as General of the armies by Act of Congress as long as he lived -- but never once did he attempt to put finger in the New War pie. Like a wise old soldier, he spent the Second World War quietly fading away.

In 1944, when Pershing was in Walter Reed Hospital, the Old Man was eighty-four years old, and he had been living up on top of the hospital in his specially-built set of quarters for the three years that the Second World War had been going on. The Old War was pretty far back in history by this time; yet it was a mark of the stature of Pershing that his nurses scheduled receiving hours each morning for seldom less than three or four people who felt impelled, by right of past association and present desire, to call and pay their respects when passing through Washington. It was a mark of the gallantry that never dies in old cavalrymen, one supposes, that the comelier nurses would grin at times and rub themselves where they swore they'd been pinched.

Of all men of his time, he seemed to have an unerring instinct for just where he fitted in the scheme of things. When age came upon him, he met it with the cool dignity that marked his intercourse with even his close friends. He made no effort to inflict his aging mind on the nation as a senior citizen. He wrote no carping, critical books. He did not sell his retired sword to commerce. He was, in essence, a dirt soldier who came up the hard way, but who loved his profession dearly enough to continue the pursuit of excellence in it--the hard way.

So when his time came, he folded his cloak about him and quietly departed, almost a stranger to the new war that had come upon his country, but forever a part of the careful binding to meet threats that will bring victory once more when the time comes.

Pershing's father, John Fletcher Pershing, was a boss tracklayer for the North Missouri Railroad at Warrenton, Missouri, where he met Ann Elizabeth Thompson. On 22 March 1859, they were married. Soon after, they moved to a shanty on the farm of Judge Meredith Brown near Laclede. John Joseph was born there on 13 September 1860.

When the Civil War began, John Fletcher moved to Laclede and bought Lomax's General Store. He bought two farms, one 80 acres, the other 160 acres, and a lumberyard. He also became the sutler for the 18th Missouri Volunteer Infantry, then quartered at Laclede.

In 1865, a "select school for small children" was opened in Laclede. John and his brother, James attended this school. Between 1870 and 1873, John Fletcher lost the greater part of his land holdings in speculation, and in 1876 became a traveling salesman. During this time, John Joseph worked on his father's farm and attended school, and later taught the Negro school at Laclede. Throughout this sometimes difficult period, the future General Pershing demonstrated the qualities which would always be paramount in his life: self-possession, competence, level-headedness, dependability, and the ability to see things through.

In October 1879, Pershing became the teacher of the school at Prairie Mound, nine miles from Laclede. During the summers of 1880, 1881, and 1882, he went to the State Normal School at Kirksville, Missouri. In the spring of 1882, Pershing saw an announcement for a competitive examination for an appointment to West Point. He had no desire to become a soldier but he saw an opportunity for an excellent education. On the advice of his sister, he took the examination and won the appointment.

Pershing was not a brilliant scholar. He graduated 30th in a class of 77. But the officers and his classmates at West Point recognized that he had a rare quality of leadership. General Merritt, then Superintendent of West Point, said that Pershing showed early promise of becoming a superb officer. He was elected president of the class of 1886. Each year he held the highest possible rank in the Cadet Battalion. Thirteen years before the Spanish-American War began, Cadet Captain Pershing commanded the Corps of Cadets when it crossed the Hudson from West Point to Garrison to stand at present arms while the funeral train of Ulysses S. Grant rolled slowly by.

Pershing did not think much of army life in peacetime and during his furlough he expressed a desire to take up the study of law. During his last year at the Point, he and four classmates formed a scheme for an irrigation project in Oregon, but nothing ever came of it.

After his graduation from West Point, Pershing was assigned to Troop L, 6th Cavalry, Fort Bayard, New Mexico. He reported for duty on 30 September 1886. He scouted hostile Indians and commanded a detachment which set up a heliograph line 160 miles through the mountains. This latter accomplishment was no small feat. The detachment was out about a month and lived off the country, which was inhabited by hostile Indians.

A group photograph of the 6th United States Cavalry, taken on the club steps at Fort Bayard, New Mexico, show among them the very junior Second Lieutenant Pershing, blue kepi cocked on his light blond head and a kid's grin on his face. For four years in the desert Southwest, he was on active service against the last of the Apaches.

He served throughout the Santiago Campaign fighting at San Juan Hill, where he was cited for gallantry 1 July 1898, and for which he was subsequently awarded the Silver Star Medal. In the words of his commanding general, S. M. B. Young, he was "the coolest man under fire that I ever saw."

In 1887, Pershing was transferred to Fort Stanton, where he took part in maneuvers. In 1889, he stood second in pistol marksmanship in the California and Arizona divisions of the Cavalry and 22nd in rifle marksmanship in the Army. In 1891, he stood second in pistol and fifth in rifle marksmanship. On 23 November 1890, the 6th Cavalry was ordered to South Dakota. It arrived at Rapid City on 9 December 1890. That winter, a most severe one, was spent in putting down one of the final Sioux uprisings.

On 15 September 1891, Pershing took up his duties as Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska. During the four years he held this post, he showed qualities of character that were prophetic of the way that he would acquit himself should the Army call him to a bigger role on a bigger stage. This statement is based entirely upon statements and letters contemporaneous with his service at Nebraska when he was still an unknown second lieutenant.

Upon his arrival at Nebraska, Pershing found few men, the interest in the battalion weak, the discipline next to nothing, and the instincts of the faculty and the precedent of the University against the Cadet Corps. The sentiment of the community faculty, and student body (and, in fact, that of the whole nation) was pacifistic. No one thought that there would be another war. The accepted recipe for army-making which William Jennings Bryan made famous and which World War I proved utterly false, was that "A million men (would) spring to arms overnight." He could have drawn his pay and courted popularity by drifting with the tide, but he was not made that way. Here as elsewhere, Pershing was a strict disciplinarian.

In 1892, the National Competitive Drills were held in Omaha. Pershing, after much opposition, entered a company. Using Company A as a nucleus, he built up a drill company. It drilled from seven until nine in the morning and from four until seven in the afternoon. In the maiden competition, Company A won the Omaha Cup and $1,500. That same year, Chancellor Canfield requested that Pershing be permitted to remain at the University another year. This request was granted by the War Department. While at Nebraska, Pershing studied law and graduated with the class of 1893.

On 1 October 1895, Pershing was ordered to join his regiment at Fort Assiniboine, Montana. He had been appointed a First Lieutenant in the 10th Cavalry. While on duty in Montana, Pershing was active in rounding up a large group of renegade Creeks and deporting them to Canada.

In June 1897, Pershing was assigned to West Point as an assistant instructor in Tactics. He was not a popular officer there because the cadets thought his discipline was too strict.

On 2 May 1898, after Colonel Henry of the 19th Cavalry had requested it and Major General Miles recommended it, Pershing was relieved from his duties at West Point and joined his Regiment at Tampa as Regimental Quartermaster. Pershing was mentioned in the report of LTC T. A. Baldwin, commander of the 10th Cavalry, to the War Department for his untiring energy, faithfulness, and gallantry. In this report he was also recommended for a brevet commission. On 26 August, Pershing was commissioned Chief Ordnance Officer of volunteers with the rank of Major and was ordered to Washington for that duty. Unfortunately, he was suffering from malaria and was confined at home.

On 10 March 1899, Pershing was placed in charge of the Division of Customs and Insular Affairs, a new division within the War Department. It was created to meet the emergency caused by the necessity of providing the military government for our new insular possessions: Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

On 17 August 1899, he was ordered to Manila, the Philippines,to report to the Commander of the Eighth Army Corps for duty. On 1 December, he was assigned to the Department of Mindanao and Jolo. In cleaning up the Moro insurrectionists, Pershing, as Adjutant General of his Department, was in active service from 27 November 1900 until 1 March 1901. He participated in the advance up the Cagayan River to destroy the stronghold of Macajambo. The expert handling of these expeditions was noted even in Washington: Secretary of War Elihu Root, the father of the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, in 1903 said on record to D. Avery Andrews: "If your friend Pershing doesn't look out, he will find himself in the Brigadier General class very soon."

On 2 February 1901, Pershing was made a Captain and was transferred to the 1st Cavalry. In August of that year, it was ordered back to the U.S. Pershing applied for transfer to the 15th Cavalry, then taking up its station in the Philippines. The request was granted, and he served in various departmental roles until 11 October, when he took charge of the post at Iligan.

There, Pershing won the confidence of and made friends with a few Datos from the north of Lake Lanao. He learned the Moro language well enough to converse with the Moros.

After LTC Baldwin had advanced to Lake Lanao, captured Fort Padapatan, and founded Camp Vicars (named in honor of LT Thomas A. Vicars, who was killed during the attack on the Fort), Pershing was sent to the camp. He acted as Intelligence Officer and on 30 June 1901, he succeeded LTC Baldwin as Commander of Camp Vicars, the Colonel having been made Brigadier General.

On 28 September 1901, after numerous attacks had been made on the outposts of Camp Vicars, Pershing began the first of a series of four campaigns against the Moros. On the fourth one, he completely circled Lake Lanao, a feat never before accomplished by a white man.

After three and a half years of active service, Pershing was ordered home in June 1903. Before his departure, a movement was carried out among the officers of the Army to have Pershing made a Brigadier General as due recognition of his services and his demonstrated military ability. This movement was carried out by men best fit to judge Pershing's worth as a General Officer: Major Generals Davis, Summer, Murray, and Wood; Brigadier Generals Sanger, Burt, and Pandal.

While in Washington, after his return from the Philippines, Pershing met Miss Helen Frances Warren, whom he later married. Miss Warren's father was a Senator from Wyoming.

When Congress met on 7 December 1903, President Roosevelt, in his message to Congress, mentioned Pershing by name. It was in connection with that portion of his message dealing with the promotion system of the Army. He said that when men render such a service as Captain Pershing did in the Philippines, it should be possible to reward him without at once jumping him to the rank of Brigadier General. This is one of the few occasions when an Army officer has been mentioned by name in the President's message to Congress.

In 1904, Pershing was assigned to duty in Oklahoma City as Assistant Chief of Staff, Southwest Division. That fall, while on leave, he visited the Warrens at their ranch in Wyoming. On 31 October 1904, he was assigned as a student at at the Army War College and was ordered back to Washington.

When Congress met in December, the Warrens were again in Washington, and Pershing was assigned as a military attache in Tokyo. This assignment brought his long courtship with Miss Warren to a close. They were married on 26 January 1905, and sailed for Tokyo the following day. Pershing spent most of his nine-month tour of duty in Manchuria observing the Russo-Japanese War.

Shortly after Pershing's first child, Helen Elizabeth, was born, President Roosevelt promoted Captain Pershing to Brigadier General. However, Pershing's long years of service, his splendid record, and his achievements in the Philippines were all forgotten by critics. They also forgot that three years had passed since the President had urged Congress to remove the necessity of such promotions to reward merit. Also overlooked were the precedents for this promotion. Major Tasker H. Bliss, Captains Leonard Wood, Frederick D. Grant, Frederick Funston and Albert L. Mills had all been promoted to Brigadier General, the latter just before Pershing himself. All of these promotions were made in the considered interest of Army efficiency at a time when the service was bound by passively entrenched rank, living on the inertia of seniority. The many critics remembered only that Pershing was the son-in-law of Senator Francis E. Warren, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. "His promotion," they declared, "was a flagrant example of pull." In answer to such criticism, Roosevelt said, "To promote a man because he married a Senator's daughter would be an infamy; to refuse him promotion for the same reason would be an equal infamy."

Shortly after his promotion, General Pershing was asked whether he would prefer an assignment in the Philippines or to command the Department of the Gulf. He replied that he preferred active service and would leave the assignment to the War Department. Unfortunately, the War Department had some trouble seeing a clear decision through all the red tape. Pershing was ordered to report to San Francisco for further orders. He left Tokyo and went to San Francisco. He had just arrived there when he was directed to go to the Philippines. He had to get special permission to go by way of Tokyo to get his family and property.

Upon reaching the Philippines, Pershing was placed in command of Fort McKinley, near Manila. On 24 March 1908, Pershing's second child, Anne, was born at Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines.

In the fall of 1908, war seemed imminent in the Balkans. Pershing was directed to proceed to Paris and, if war broke out, to go as a military observer. He and his family were in Paris for two months. When the hostilities in the Balkans died down in 1909, they returned to the United States.

Meanwhile the Moro situation in Mindanao and the Sulu Islands had again become troublesome. Governor Smith of the Philippines recommended that General Pershing return, but due to complications arising from malaria that Pershing had contracted in Cuba and the Philippines, he was prevented from returning there.He requested that no one be permanently assigned to the post.

On 24 June 1909, Pershing's only son, Francis Warren, was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Pershing's only child born in the United States.

In October of that year, Pershing, now recovered from his illness, sailed for the Philippines to take charge of the Moro Province as Military Governor. Under his leadership, the hostile Moros were disarmed, by peaceful methods when possible and by force when necessary. Peace was gradually restored.

On 20 May 1912, Pershing's fourth and last child, Mary Margaret, was born. Soon afterwards, the entire Pershing family was baptized into the Episcopal faith by Bishop Brent, a close friend of Pershing.

In 1913, General Huerta had seized the reins of the Mexican government. The United States refused to recognize the new government and diplomatic relations were severed. General Pershing, about to sail for home after four years of service in the Philippines, applied to the War Department for assignment to active service in the event of hostilities with Mexico. When Pershing arrived in Honolulu on 20 December 1913, he received orders to report to the 8th Brigade at San Francisco, the first Brigade on the roster in case of "hostilities."

On 20 January 1914, Pershing, with the 8th Brigade, began patrolling the Mexican Border, leaving his wife and his four young children in quarters at the Presidio of San Francisco. After a year's stay at Fort Bliss, Pershing decided to bring his family there. The arrangements were almost complete when a tremendous tragedy occurred at the Presidio on 27 August 1915: the quarters were destroyed by fire and Mrs. Pershing and the three little girls died in the holocaust. Only his son Warren survived. What this does to a man, no other can say. At best, a part of him must seal up forever, wherein the dead never grow up or grow older; only the broken heart that holds them in anguish does.

This tragedy was a part of the great and natural dignity of Pershing, of which Heywood Brown once wrote: "They will never call him Papa Pershing." It was dignity that impelled only the long-service soldiers to call him "Black Jack" as a subtle accolade, not in derogation.

After the funerals at Cheyenne, Pershing returned to Fort Blisswith his son Warren and his sister Mae and took up his duties as commanding officer again. He sought and found solace in hard work. He finally regained mastery of himself, though it was feared for a while that he might lose his mind.

On 15 March 1915, Pershing led an expedition into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa. This expedition was ill-equipped and hampered by a lack of supplies due to the breakdown of the Quartermaster Corps. Although there had been talk of war on the border for years, no steps had been taken to provide for the handling of supplies for an expedition. Despite this and other hindrances, such as the lack of aid from the former Mexican government, and their refusal to allow American troops to transport troops and supplies over their railroads, Pershing organized and commanded the Mexican Punitive Expedition, a combined armed force of 10,000 men that penetrated 350 miles into Mexico and routed Pancho Villa's revolutionaries, severely wounding the bandit himself. There is a prophetic photograph surviving from those days: a picture taken at Nogales of Generals Obregon, Villa and Pershing. Behind Pershing and to his left stands First Lieutenant George S. Patton, Jr.

On 3 April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. On 7 May, Pershing was ordered to Washington, and later that month he sailed to Europe with the nucleus of a General Staff.

The story of Pershing's appointment to the command of the American Expeditionary Force is not generally known, for it is loosely assumed that he fell into it naturally after the death of General Frederick Funston. But this is not so. Newton D. Baker, Wilson's Secretary of War, had had no previous acquaintance with Army matters before his Cabinet appointment. The Chief of Staff in 1917 was Major General Hugh L. Scott, a distinguished and capable officer, but in his 64th year, faced statutory retirement in a matter of months. When it became imperative to select a field commander, Secretary Baker took home the complete records of all general officers and spent almost 48 continuous hours examining them minutely against each other. It is a testament to Pershing's greatness that when Secretary Baker announced his choice, he was completely certain in his selection of General Pershing; there was no second on the record.

There was no American Expeditionary Force per se for Pershing to command at the time of his selection. The Regular Army had perhaps 25,000 men in 1917, and there was no divisional organization except for the hastily scratched-up 1st Division,elements of which were still landing in St. Nazaire in early July, three months after the declaration of war. There was no reserve as we know it today except the Officer's Training Camps of Plattsburg Movement. To attend one of these camps, prior to the declaration of war, a man had to buy his own uniforms, pay for his own food and incidentals, and transport himself to and from his home. He received no pay, but he could get an Officer's Reserve Corps commission and wear ORC in bronze on his collar. The National Guard outfits in most states were separate companies that quite possibly had never trained in regiment. A long enough time had elapsed since the Spanish-American War that politics had crept back into the selection of senior officers, taking precedence over qualifications.

Pershing was now entering upon the most difficult task of his career. He had the unenviable job of producing a completely organized army. It would take months, possibly a year, to get that Army into the field. Pershing soon found out that the English and French did not even want an American army; they wanted men.

Nobody but the Regular Army ever trained progressively for war in the United States before World War I, and the regulars never trained on the massive scale that European armies had since the days of Frederick the Great. The prevailing American belief was that if war came, one just blithely sprang to arms overnight. Again, in the words of William Jennings Bryan, "never mind what arms you sprang to, or who fed you breakfast the next morning."

Pershing's task was doubly difficult. Not only did he have to deny the men that the French and English needed, but he had to depend on those allies for supplies. The first divisions that arrived in France had been trained by the French, who expected this to be a permanent arrangement, and wanted the American troops to be brigaded with the French, under command of French Divisional Officers. This Pershing absolutely would not allow.

Pershing was not an "overnight springer." Having previously commanded four brigade-sized expeditions in hostile territory, he respected the supply and administration "which come before all glory and without which there is no military diversion of fighting awar." Furthermore, Pershing had spent many years training men. The two-sided maneuver, which later became Army doctrine, was modestly born in his unit at Fort Bayard, New Mexico, in 1886, when General Nelson Miles instituted "raiding games" wherein one cavalry troop took the part of the raiding Apaches and the others countered their efforts. Pershing carried on the method of the Philippines -- building training into pyramidal structure from the individual through units to combined arms--and employed physically opposed maneuvers of two counterbodies of troops.

Pershing was one of the leaders in the movement for the establishment of a Supreme Commander, as opposed to a Supreme War Council. He also demanded that the American Army (then still in the process of building) should be included in the agreement.

Though they began randomly in the National Army of 1917-1918 (some men were overseas two weeks after induction), the methods and training programs that Pershing inaugurated early in 1917 were the beginnings of the masterfully refined mobilization training plan of 1941-1945 that produced the finest, most far-flung army the world had ever seen. In spite of great pressure, official, diplomatic and otherwise, Pershing had been able to produce an integrated fighting force of two million men in 18 months, and to fight with it himself as field commander in the last few months of the war.

America's prominent position in world affairs today is largely the result of Pershing's activities in Europe. If he had less firmly insisted on an independent American Army, and American soldiers were divided among English and French forces, the power of the American government at the peace conference would have been negligible and the American nation would not likely be the world power it is today.

In the spring of 1918, the Germans began their last desperate drive on Allied positions. Realizing that a united front was necessary to stem this attack, Pershing placed the American troops under the command of General Foch of France, who had assumed the Supreme Command of Allied armies in Europe. Under the weight of the superior and brilliantly led fighting force, the German were crushed. Celebrations and decorations heralded the return of General Pershing and his Army to his country.

General Pershing cannot be too highly commended for his attitude and actions since the war. He did not make the mistake of trying to tell the nation how it should be run, and above all, he did what few victorious generals have ever done: he stayed out of politics.

In 1921, Pershing was appointed Chief of Staff of the United States Army. In 1924, at the age of sixty-four, he retired from active duty with the title of "General of the Armies" bestowed on him by Congress.

Ill health forced the famous soldier to retire from all public service soon after his retirement. Held in the highest esteem by contemporary members of his profession, his advice was sought on military matters despite his retirement. He advocated a program of military preparedness for his country and throughout the remaining years of his life he kept in close contact with military developments.

On 15 July 1948, John Joseph Pershing passed away at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Tributes of the greatest men of our time were given him on the days following his death. But men of the Army will always pay tribute to General John J. Pershing. A life such as his is a challenge to his followers in the military profession, and they have accepted that challenge. John Joseph Pershing, soldier and citizen, will live forever in the memory of the men of our victorious country.

Revolutionary War

War of 1812

Mexican War

Civil War

Spanish/American War

World War I

World War II


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