Feature Articles - The Life of General John J. Pershing

US Gen Pershing reviewing HQ troops at Chaumont with aide, Capt George S. Patton John J. Pershing, founder of the National Society of Pershing Rifles, was born near Laclede, Missouri, on September 13, 1860.  His father, John Fletcher Pershing, emigrated to St. Louis as a young man and became a "boss track layer" for the North Missouri Railroad.

His mother, Ann Elizabeth Thompson, moved from Blount County, Kentucky to Warrenton, Missouri, a town on the North Missouri Railroad.  Here she met John Fletcher Pershing.  They were married on March 22, 1859.  Soon after their marriage they moved into a shanty on the farm of Judge Merideth Brown, near Laclede.  It was here John J Pershing was born.

Until 1873, John Pershing went to school and worked on his father's farm.  During this time he showed those characteristics which have always been paramount in his life; self possession, competence, level headedness, dependability, and the ability to see a task to completion.

In the spring of 1882, he saw an announcement of a competitive examination for an appointment to West Point.  He had no desire to become a soldier, however it was an excellent chance at a splendid education.  Acting upon the advice of his sister, he went to Trenton, took the exam and secured the appointment.

General Pershing was not a brilliant scholar.  He graduated 30th in a class of 77.  The officers and his classmates recognized that he already had the rare quality of leadership.  His classmates elected him president of the class of 1886.  Each year he held the highest rank possible in the Cadet Battalion.  He was known among his classmates as a strict, but humane disciplinarian.  General Merritt, then superintendent of West Point, said that Pershing gave early promise of becoming a superb officer.

Pershing with Joseph JoffreAfter his graduation from West Point, Pershing was assigned to Troop L, 6th Cavalry, Fort Bayard, New Mexico.  He reported for duty September 30, 1886.  Here 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 for a month and lived off the country, which was inhabited by hostile Indians.

In 1877, he was transferred to Fort Stanton, where he took part in manoeuvres.  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 2nd in pistol and 5th in rifle marksmanship.  In 1890, during an uprising of the Sioux, he served in South Dakota, in charge of the Indian scouts.

On September 15, 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 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.

When Pershing went to Nebraska, the sentiment of the community, faculty, and student body (in fact that of the whole nation) was pacifistic.  No one thought there would ever be another war.  The accepted recipe for making an army, which turned out to be utterly incorrect, was the one made famous by William Jennings Bryan, "A million men will spring to arms overnight."

Upon his arrival at Nebraska, General Pershing found a few men, the interest in the battalion was weak, the discipline next to nothing, and the instincts of the faculty and president of the university were against the Cadet Corps.  He could have drawn his pay and courted popularity by drifting with the tide, but he was not that way.  Here, as everywhere, he 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 his drill company.  This company drilled from seven to nine and then again from four to seven.  In 1892, 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.

In June, 1897, he was assigned to West Point as an assistant instructor in tactics.  At West Point he was not a popular officer because the cadets felt his discipline was too strict.  It was here he acquired the nickname "Black Jack." After his service at West Point, he served in Cuba through the Santiago Campaign (1898), where he earned from his commander the tribute, "Pershing is the coolest man under fire I ever saw."

Pershing's arrival in FranceOn August 17, 1899, he was ordered to Manila to report to the commander of the Eighth Army Corps for duty.  On December 1, he was assigned to the Department of Mindanao and Jolo.  In cleaning up the Moro insurrections, Pershing, as Adjutant General of his department, was in active service from November 27, 1900 to March 1, 1901.  He participated in the advance up the Cagayan River to destroy the stronghold of Macahambo.

On February 2, 1901, Pershing was made Captain and was transferred to the 1st Cavalry.  In August of that year it was ordered stateside.  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 October 11, when he took charge of the post at Iligan.

After three and a half years of active service, Pershing was ordered home in June 1903.  Before his departure, a movement was on among the officers in the Army to have Pershing made a Brigadier General as a due recognition of his services and his demonstrated military ability.  The movement was started and given impetus by the men with whom and under whom he had served.  Men such as Major Generals George W. Dacis, Samuel S.  Summer, Arthur Murray, and Leonard Wood; Brigadier Generals J. P. Sanger, A. S. Burt, and George M. Pandal.  In short, these men were best qualified to pass judgment on his fitness and abilities to hold such rank of General Officer.

While in Washington, after his return from the Philippines, Pershing met Miss Helen Frances Warren, who he later married.  Miss Warren's Father was a senator from Wyoming.  When Congress met on December 7, 1903, President Roosevelt mentioned Pershing by name in his address to Congress  about the Army promotion system.  He said that when men render such a service as Captain Pershing did (in the Philippines) it ought to be possible to reward him at once by jumping him to the rank of Brigadier General.  This is one of the very few occasions that an Army officer has been mentioned by name in the President's address to Congress.

When Congress met in December, the Warrens were again in Washington.  Pershing was assigned as a Military Attaché in Tokyo.  This assignment brought the long courtship of Miss Warren to a close.  They were married on January 26, 1905 and sailed for Tokyo the following day.  After their arrival in Tokyo, Pershing went to Manchuria and remained there as an observer of that campaign until September.

Private Nick Connors, US 42nd Division, receiving DSC from PershingShortly after Pershing's first child, Helen Elizabeth, was born, President Roosevelt made him a Brigadier General.  Immediately a storm of indignation and denunciation were aroused, as he was promoted over 862 senior officers.

He had promoted Pershing to Brigadier General from Captain.  His long years of service, his splendid record, and his achievements in the Philippines were all forgotten.  The critics also forgot that three years had passed since President Roosevelt had urged Congress to reward merit.  They also overlooked the precedents on which the promotion was based.  The many critics only remembered that Pershing was the son-in-law of Francis E. Warren, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs.  His promotion, they declared, was a flagrant example of pull.

To answer 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 left the assignment to the discretion of the War Department.  He was sent to the Philippines.

Upon reaching the Philippines, Pershing was placed in command of Fort McKinley, near Manila.  On March 24, 1908, Pershing's second child, Anne, was born at Baguio.  In the fall of 1908 when war seemed imminent in the Balkans, Pershing was directed to proceed to Paris and, if war came, to go as a military advisor.  He and his family proceeded to Paris by way of Vladivostock and Siberia.  Pershing remained in Paris for two months; as hostilities in the Balkans did not materialize, he returned to the United States with his family in January 1909.

Meanwhile, the Moro situation in Mindanao and the Sulu Islands had again become troublesome.  Governor Smith of the Philippines had recommended that General Pershing be sent there.  Pershing was ordered to go but was unable to do so because of complications of malaria he had contracted in Cuba and the Philippines.  He went to the hospital and requested that no one be assigned to the post permanently.

On June 24, 1909 a son, Francis Warren, was born at Cheyenne, Wyoming.  He was the only one of the Pershing Children to be born in the United States.

In October of the same year, Pershing, now recovered from his illness, sailed to the Philippines to take charge of the Moro Province as Military Governor.  Under his leadership, the hostile Moros were disarmed.  Peace had gradually restored.  On May 20, 1912, Pershing's last child, Mary Margaret, was born.

On December 15, 1913, General Pershing, his work in the islands now done, sailed for the United States.  A civilian governor, Frank W. Carpenter, was appointed in his stead. 

Pershing's arrival in LondonIn 1913, General Huerta 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 home after four years of active service, applied to the War Department for assignment to an active service in the event of hostilities with Mexico.  When he arrived in Honolulu, December 20, 1913, he received orders to report to the 8th Brigade at San Francisco, it being the first Brigade that will be called into action  in case of hostilities.

On January 29, 1914, the 8th Brigade began their patrolling of the Mexican border.  After a year stay at Fort Bliss, Pershing decided to bring his family there.  The arrangements were almost complete, when on the morning of August 27, 1915, he received a telegram telling him of a fire in the Presidio in San Francisco, which had robbed him of his wife and three daughters.

After the funerals at Cheyenne, he returned to Fort Bliss with his son, warren, and his sister Mae, and resumed his duties of commanding officer. 

On September 25, 1916, Pershing was made Major General.  February 5, 1917 the United States declared war on Germany.  May 7 Pershing was ordered to Washington.  Later that month he sailed for Europe.

Fifty two days after America entered the war, Pershing and the Nucleus of a General Staff sailed for Europe.  Pershing was now entering upon the most difficult task of his entire career.  It would take months, possibly even a year to get an American Army in the field.  It was Pershing's task to ask the allies to wait for that Army.  He soon found out that the English and French did not want an American Army; they wanted men.

This fact made Pershing's task doubly difficult.  He had to deny the allies the men they wanted and yet depend upon them for supplies.  The first divisions that arrived in France were trained by the French, who expected this to be a permanent arrangement.  They thought the American troops would be brigaded with their troops and would be commanded by French divisional officers.  Pershing did not permit this.

He was one of the leaders in the movement for a Supreme Commander in preference to a Supreme War Council.  He also demanded and secured that the American Army (then still being built) should be included in the agreement.

In spite of great pressure, diplomatic, official, and otherwise, Pershing assembled an American Army of 500,000 men.  In September of 1918 Pershing led his men in the reduction of the St. Mihiel Salient.  This was the first victory of the first United States Army in the first entirely U.S. operation.  This was followed by the Meuse-Argonne battle under Pershing's direction.  If the attainment of its aims was slower and more costly than had been expected, Pershing had accepted the actual battleground in deference to his allies and against his own preference for a blow toward Metz.  Even so, it is probable that he underrated the difficulties of breaking through a strongly organized trench system, as well as the causes that had sapped the offensive spirit of the French.

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

It was a just recognition of his achievement in creating almost from nothing, the vast structure of the national Army that, in September 1919, Congress created the rank of General of the Armies.  As such he was the highest ranking military officer in the U. S. history, outranking even Generals of the Army.

In 1921, he was appointed Chief of Staff.  During his tenure of office he designed the new permanent framework of the U. S. Army.

Pershing laying a wreath on the grave of LafayetteIn 1924, at the age of sixty-four, he retired from active duty.  In 1931 he published My Experiences in the World War.

Ill health forced Pershing to retire from all public service soon after his retirement.  Held in 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 this country and throughout the remaining years of his life he kept in close contact with military developments.

On July 15, 1948 John J. Pershing passed away at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington D. C. And was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  Tributes of the greatest men of our time were his 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 J. Pershing, soldier and citizen, will live forever in the memory of the soldiers of America.

Article contributed by Pershing Rifles National Headquarters

Profile: John J. Pershing

'White Star' was a German mixture of chlorine and phosgene gas, so-named on account of the identification marking painted on the delivery shell casing.

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