World War I: General John J. Pershing

General John J. Pershing
General John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing, on his uniform from left to right 1. Indian Campaign Medal, 2. Spanish Campaign Medal, 3. Philippine Campaign Medal. (Bain News Service/Wikimedia Commons)

John J. Pershing (born September 13, 1860, in Laclede, MO) steadily progressed up through the ranks of the military to become the decorated leader of US forces in Europe during World War I. He was the first to rank as General of the Armies of United States. Pershing died at Walter Reed Army Hospital on July 15, 1948.

Early Life

John J. Pershing was the son of John F. and Ann E. Pershing. In 1865, John J. was enrolled in a local "select school" for intelligent youth and later continued on to secondary school. Upon graduation in 1878, Pershing began teaching at a school for African American youth in Prairie Mound. Between 1880-1882, he continued his education at the State Normal School during summers. Though only marginally interested in the military, in 1882, at the age of 21, he applied to West Point after hearing that it provided an elite college level education.

Ranks & Awards

During Pershing's long military career he steadily progressed up through the ranks. His dates of rank were: Second Lieutenant (8/1886), First Lieutenant (10/1895), Captain (6/1901), Brigadier General (9/1906), Major General (5/1916), General (10/1917), and General of the Armies (9/1919). From the US Army, Pershing received the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal as well as campaign medals for World War I, Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, Cuban Occupation, Philippines Service, and Mexican Service. In addition, he received twenty-two awards and decorations from foreign nations.

Early Military Career

Graduating from West Point in 1886, Pershing was assigned to the 6th Cavalry at Fort Bayard, NM. During his time with the 6th Cavalry, he was cited for bravery and participated in several campaigns against the Apache and Sioux. In 1891, he was ordered to the University of Nebraska to serve as an instructor of military tactics. While at NU, he attended law school, graduating in 1893. After four years, he was promoted to first lieutenant and transferred to the 10th Cavalry. While with the 10th Cavalry, one of the first "Buffalo Soldier" regiments, Pershing became an advocate of African American troops.

In 1897, Pershing returned to West Point to teach tactics. It was here that cadets, who were angered by his strict discipline, began calling him "Nigger Jack" in reference to his time with the 10th Cavalry. This was later relaxed to "Black Jack," which became Pershing's nickname. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Pershing was brevetted to major and returned to the 10th Cavalry as the regimental quartermaster. Arriving in Cuba, Pershing fought with distinction at Kettle and San Juan Hills and was cited for gallantry. The following March, Pershing was struck down with malaria and returned to the US.

His time at home was brief as, after he recovered, he was dispatched to the Philippines to aid in putting down the Filipino insurrection. Arriving in August 1899, Pershing was assigned to the Department of Mindanao. Over the next three years, he was recognized as a brave combat leader and an able administrator. In 1901, his brevet commission was revoked and he returned to the rank of captain. While in the Philippines he served as the adjutant general of the department as well as with the 1st and 15th Cavalries.

Personal Life

After returning from the Philippines in 1903, Pershing met Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of powerful Wyoming Senator Francis Warren. The two were married on January 26, 1905, and had four children, three daughters and a son. In August 1915, while serving at Fort Bliss in Texas, Pershing was alerted to a fire at his family's home at the Presidio of San Francisco. In the blaze, his wife and three daughters died of smoke inhalation. The only one to escape the fire was his six-year-old son, Warren. Pershing never remarried.

A Shocking Promotion & a Chase in the Desert

Returning home in 1903 as a 43-year old captain, Pershing was assigned to the Southwest Army Division. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt mentioned Pershing during remarks to Congress about the army's promotion system. He argued that it should be possible to reward an able officer's service through promotion. These remarks were ignored by the establishment, and Roosevelt, who could only nominate officers for general rank, was unable to promote Pershing. In the meantime, Pershing attended the Army War College and served as an observer during the Russo-Japanese War.

In September 1906, Roosevelt shocked the army by promoting five junior officers, Pershing included, directly to brigadier general. Jumping over 800 senior officers, Pershing was accused of having his father-in-law pull political strings in his favor. Following his promotion, Pershing returned to the Philippines for two years before being assigned to Fort Bliss, TX. While commanding the 8th Brigade, Pershing was dispatched south to Mexico to deal with Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa. Operating in 1916 and 1917, the Punitive Expedition failed to catch Villa but did pioneer the use of trucks and aircraft.

World War I

With the US entry into World War I in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson selected Pershing to lead the American Expeditionary Force to Europe. Promoted to general, Pershing arrived in England on June 7, 1917. Upon landing, Pershing immediately began advocating for the formation of a US Army in Europe, rather than allowing American troops to be dispersed under British and French command. As American forces began arriving in France, Pershing oversaw their training and integration into the Allied lines. US forces first saw heavy combat in the spring/summer of 1918, in response to the German Spring Offensives.

Fighting valiantly at Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood, US forces aided in stopping the German advance. By late summer, the US First Army was formed and successfully executed its first major operation, the reduction of the Saint-Mihiel salient, on September 12-19, 1918. With the activation of the US Second Army, Pershing turned over direct command of the First Army to Lt. Gen. Hunter Liggett. In late September, Pershing led the AEF during the final Meuse-Argonne Offensive which broke the German lines and led to the end of the war on November 11. By war's end, Pershing's command had grown to 1.8 million men. The success of American troops during World War I was largely credited to Pershing's leadership and he returned to the US as a hero.

Late Career

To honor Pershing's achievements, Congress authorized the creation of the new rank of General of the Armies of United States and promoted him to it in 1919. The only living general to hold this rank, Pershing wore four gold stars as his insignia. In 1944, following the creation of the five-star rank of General of the Army, the War Department stated that Pershing was still to be considered the US Army's senior officer.

In 1920, a movement emerged to nominate Pershing for President of the United States. Flattered, Pershing refused to campaign but stated that if nominated he would serve. A Republican, his "campaign" petered out as many in the party saw him as too closely identified with Wilson's Democratic policies. The next year, he became chief of staff of the US Army. Serving for three years, he designed a forerunner of the Interstate Highway System before retiring from active service in 1924.

For the remainder of his life, Pershing was a private person. After completing his Pulitzer Prize-winning (1932) memoirs, My Experiences in the World War, Pershing became a staunch supporter of aiding Britain during the early days of World War II.

General Pershing gives a speech in 1936. National Archives

After seeing the Allies triumph over Germany a second time, Pershing died at Walter Reed Army Hospital on July 15, 1948.

Selected Sources

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: General John J. Pershing." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, September 9). World War I: General John J. Pershing. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: General John J. Pershing." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).