After President Woodrow Wilson chose him to command the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War I, John J. Pershing organized and led the 2,000,000-man army to victories on the battlefield.
John J. Pershing was born on September 13, 1860, in the small town of Laclede, Missouri. The Pershing line had been founded in America by Frederick Pfoershing, who had come to America in 1749 from the French- and German-speaking region of Alsace in Europe. Shortening the family name to Pershing, Frederick had settled as a craftsman in Pennsylvania. His great-grandson, John Frederick Pershing, left Pennsylvania for the West in 1858. During his travels, he met and married a young Tennessee woman named Anne Elizabeth Thompson. The two settled in Missouri, naming their first child John Joseph.
Civil War childhood
The Civil War dominated the boy's early years, lasting until he was five. His father bought a small store during the war, building it up and in time becoming one of the town's leading citizens. The Pershings continued to prosper until John Frederick owned a lumber yard, a new home, and several other real estate properties, including a farm near town. Aside from John Joseph, the family grew to include two younger brothers and several sisters.
The children played together, the boys often going on nighttime raccoon hunts during the hot summers. John was interested in the family's hunting rifles and took charge of cleaning them. When the boys found a pair of rusty old army pistols, he scraped, oiled, and polished them until they gleamed. Then he loaded one to see if the cartridges fit properly, waved it like a soldier—and crack, the hammer slipped and the gun went off. Luckily the only damage was to their mother's favorite mahogany bedstead. The close call made a deep impression on John, and he never again played with a gun.
Hard work and pranks
When John was thirteen, the Pershings' finances suffered badly due to a national depression, the "Panic of 1873." Sadly his parents said that they could no longer afford to send him to college, as they had planned to do in a few years. Instead of college, John would have to work on the family farm and be satisfied with local public schools. For the next four years, he worked hard, doing farm chores early in the morning, going to school during the day, then performing another round of chores in the evening. Life was not all serious, though. John, who was fond of mischief and practical jokes, also became a bit of a prankster. He and his friends crowned their high school careers by locking all the teachers out on the last day of school and conducting classes themselves.
Despite the family's best efforts, the Pershings were unable to keep paying the mortgage on their farm. They lost it to the bank, and John was forced to find a job elsewhere. He had performed fairly well in school and had also done a lot of reading outside school. He loved to read, devouring classics like the Shakespeare plays along with biographies of heroes such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. The seventeen-year-old decided to become a teacher, passing the examination for his teacher's certificate in August 1878. He got a job teaching in Laclede's school for blacks.
Blacks in town protested against a white teacher, keeping their children away from the school. Then, when the children finally began coming, Pershing faced prejudice from his old high-school friends, who gathered outside the school with shouts of "Nigger! Nigger!" (Vandiver, p. 14). One burst into the classroom, and Pershing calmly told him that President Abraham Lincoln had given rights to blacks and Pershing's job was to see that his students were educated. The intruder left without further trouble. To both rebellious students and hostile neighbors, Pershing showed a tough but patient firmness that prompted troublemakers to obey him.
A few months later, Pershing landed a higher-paying job at a school ten miles outside Laclede. There again he faced discipline problems. Rowdy older students—some older than their new teacher—had scared off the previous teacher. Told by Pershing to stay after school, one older boy deliberately started to leave with the other students at the end of the day. Standing squarely in front of him, Pershing told him "that if he didn't take his seat I would give him a thrashing then and there" (Pershing in Vandiver, p. 15). The boy sat.
While continuing to teach in the summers, Pershing also enrolled the next year in the Missouri State Normal School, known as "the Normal," about sixty miles away. (Normal schools were early two-year colleges for teacher training.) For several years, he divided his time between studying and teaching. The Normal lacked the advantages of a college, however, and Pershing still thought of getting a college education and perhaps even going on to law school. One day he saw in the newspaper an advertisement for an exam to be held nearby for selecting one cadet, or student officer, for the military academy at West Point. Pershing decided to give it a try. He hadn't considered military life, but West Point, where army officers were educated and trained, seemed to offer his best hope for college.
Pershing won the competition. He spent four years at West Point, gaining almost instant success when he was elected class president halfway through the first year. Though above average academically, his lack of ability in two subjects would also play a part in his future. Try as he might, he never learned to speak French, nor was he ever comfortable addressing an audience. Yet when the "makes" were announced at the end of the year, Pershing was made the class's senior cadet corporal, the highest ranking officer in his class. He kept that position for the rest of his West Point career, graduating in 1886 as senior cadet captain.
Both classmates and teachers saw a mature leader in the lean, blond young man with the square jaw and slightly downturned mouth. It was downturned, that is, until he smiled. Then his whole face lit up. Young women, in addition to his friends and superiors, responded to his charms, and Pershing began to develop a reputation as a ladies' man. He never lacked for female company at the many balls and parties West Point had to offer. By the time he graduated, he was enjoying military life, though he was still not sure he wanted to stay in the army for long.
Success at West Point allowed Pershing, now a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, to choose his assignment. He asked to be posted to the Sixth Cavalry Regiment, then nearing the end of operations against the Apaches in the Southwest. With the capture of their leaders Geronimo and Mangus, the last bands of independent Apaches were brought to the reservations by late 1886. For the next few years, Pershing trained and performed other jobs with the cavalry. He did well leading his men in war games across the desert. He also scored a notable success by leading an expedition that constructed a "heliograph" over 175 miles of rocky, mountainous terrain. The chain of signaling stations used reflected sunlight to send messages from one fort to another.
In late 1890, Pershing and the Sixth Cavalry were called to the Dakotas to help in operations against the Sioux. Arriving after the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee on December 29, the Sixth remained in the Dakotas until mid-1891.
From late 1891 to 1898, Pershing served mostly as a military instructor, first at the University of Nebraska (where he shaped the relaxed cadets into an award-winning outfit) and then at West Point. In 1895 and 1896, however, he took a break from teaching to command a black cavalry unit, the Tenth Regiment, in Montana. Winning a position as instructor at West Point in 1896, he ran into trouble soon after for his tendency to be extremely harsh on his students. He grew highly unpopular among the cadets, who nicknamed him "Black Jack" because of the Montana command. The nickname stuck. Nebraska had taught him the value of tough discipline, but his unhappy time as a West Point instructor showed him that toughness could go too far.
In 1898 the United States went to war with Spain over the Caribbean island of Cuba. Unprepared, the army was a mess. Volunteers brought chaos to unready training camps. Pershing, still in command of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment, struggled against a mountain of red tape—army paperwork—to organize his men, their supplies, and their departure. They finally sailed from Florida with the rest of the American expedition in June.
The inexperienced Americans faced heavy opposition from the Spanish in Cuba. The Tenth fought bravely, taking many casualties. Nearly one in five of the American men was killed or wounded, of the officers nearly one in two. Pershing and his men helped Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in the famous battle for San Juan Hill. One of Pershing's commanding officers called him "cool as a bowl of cracked ice" in battle (Smythe, p. 2). His courage under fire brought a promotion to major.
With promotion came a new assignment, one of three that would take Pershing to the Philippines. These Pacific islands had been part of the Spanish empire and were taken over by the United States after Spain's defeat. Islanders had fought hard against the Spanish and were now unwilling to accept American authority. Pershing's first assignment, in 1899, took him to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao to deal with the warring Moros there. In 1902 he was promoted to captain and given command of Camp Vicars, a small outpost in Moro country. Though Pershing battled the Moros in war, he aided those struck by disease. His fairness led them to vote him honorary datto, or chief. He also won wide praise from his superiors, who now regarded him as the leading expert on the Moros.
In 1903 Pershing returned to the United States for assignment to Washington, D.C. There the new governor of the Philippines, future president William Howard Taft, asked for his advice on the Moros. Theodore Roosevelt—now U.S. president—also heard of Pershing's success with the Moros, and remembered him from the war in Cuba. Roosevelt wanted to promote Pershing to general, but army traditions dictated that more senior men get promotions first. Meanwhile, at a Washington dinner party one evening, Pershing met a young woman named Frances Warren, the daughter of a powerful senator from Wyoming. Back in his apartment later that night, Pershing shook his roommate awake. "Charlie," he exclaimed, "I've met the girl I'm going to marry" (Pershing in Vandiver, p. 333). He courted Frances for two years. True to his prediction, they married in 1905.
The two spent their honeymoon in Tokyo, where Pershing was assigned to the American embassy. For the next two years, he acted as an official observer of Japan's war against Russia, which resulted in Russia's defeat. Then, in 1906, Roosevelt promoted him to general, "jumping" him ahead of more than 900 officers who were in line for promotion ahead of him. Though popular, Pershing briefly caused jealousy due to his spectacular promotion and the special attention from the president.
The new general was given command of Fort William McKinley at the Philippine capital of Manila, then the largest American outpost beyond U.S. borders. He held the command until 1908, when he was appointed military governor of the Moro Province, which included the southern island of Mindanao. Pershing preferred talking to fighting. Yet as governor for the next four years, he fought several tough military campaigns against dissatisfied Moro groups, whose traditional love of independence inspired them to resist American rule. Gradually Pershing won control of the island while managing to avoid heavy bloodshed.
Tragedy in San Francisco
Assigned in 1914 to command the Eighth Brigade, stationed in San Francisco, California, Pershing was soon ordered to take the Eighth to Texas. Civil war had broken out in Mexico, and Pershing and the Eighth stayed for two years in El Paso, Texas, on the Mexican border. Frances remained in San Francisco with their children, three little girls and a boy. On August 27, 1915, Pershing received news that a fire had broken out in the Pershing home there. Frances and the girls were all dead, suffocated by the smoke. Only their son, Warren, survived. Shattered, Pershing took what comfort he could in his son's survival. Promoted again in 1916, to major general, Pershing told a friend, "All the promotion in the world would make no difference now" (Pershing in Smythe, p. 2).
In early March 1916, the Mexican rebel leader Francisco "Pancho" Villa, angered by U.S. support for his enemies, killed eighteen Americans during a raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Immediately President Woodrow Wilson ordered Pershing to lead the Punitive Expedition (as punishment) into Mexico. The orders were to capture Villa if possible, and to break up his band of men. For almost a year, still grieving over the loss of wife and daughters, Pershing chased Villa deep into the Mexican desert. Unable to capture the Mexican leader, Pershing did succeed in breaking up his guerrilla army. With Villa no longer a threat to American border towns, the expedition withdrew in February 1917. President Wilson declared himself perfectly satisfied with Pershing's results.
United States declares war
In response to German submarine attacks, the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, shortly after Pershing's return from Mexico. Wilson and his able secretary of war, Newton Baker, began the delicate task of finding the right man to command America's armed forces against Germany. Pershing's commands in Mindanao and Mexico meant that he was now one of the country's most experienced generals. Meanwhile, at fifty-seven, he was young and fit enough to take the stress of such a command and to tackle it with the necessary energy and boldness. Wilson and Baker settled on Pershing, his performance in Mexico still fresh in their minds. With a staff of thirty-one, Pershing sailed for England on May 28th.
"Lafayette, we are here"
The small group arrived on June 8th to a heroes' welcome, met British military and political leaders (including King George V), and crossed to France on June 13th. An even more celebratory welcome awaited them there. At the dock, they were met again by politicians and soldiers, then they boarded a train for Paris, where huge cheering crowds thronged the station to catch a glimpse of the Americans. Covered in thrown flowers, amazed by what looked like thousands of little American flags waving from every possible perch, ears ringing with the "Star-Spangled Banner," the small group slowly made its way from the station through the packed streets. In the next few weeks, a dizzying round of visits followed as the Americans and their stern, dignified general toured various sites, meeting French leaders along the way.
On July 4th, they attended a ceremony at the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French noble who had done so much to help the cause of American independence during the Revolutionary War. Now the Americans felt they might finally repay an old debt. Several speeches were given. "Lafayette," one of Pershing's aides said, ending the last speech, "we are here" (Vandiver, p. 724).
A war of manpower
When the Americans arrived, World War I had already been going on for almost three years. The first German attack in 1914 had been stopped along France's eastern border by the Allies: the French, commanded by General Philippe Pétain, and the British, who had sent an expeditionary force under General Douglas Haig. New technology, such as the machine gun, made it easier to defend than to attack, and defensive trenches, or networks of deep, connected ditches, were dug by both sides along the front. From these heavily fortified positions, defenders could rake attackers with deadly machine-gun fire. It was a new kind of war. Technology for the first time made it possible for hundreds of thousands of men to die in a few days. It seemed to come down to which side would run out of men and supplies first.
Germany had also attacked to the east, towards Russia. Russia had resisted, and Germany had thus fought on two fronts. But in 1917, after years of social unrest at home and massive losses in the war, Russia's new communist government sued for peace. Suddenly, with the Russian front gone, Germany had extra manpower to throw against the Allies. It would launch the expected offensive in 1918. The question now was whether the Americans could enter the war soon enough to make up for the extra Germans. Had Pershing arrived too late?
Pressure from the Allies
The excitement of a heroes' welcome soon gave way to grim reality. Three years' slaughter in the trenches had exhausted both sides. Almost as soon as he came, Pershing was asked by Haig, Pétain, and others to put his American soldiers under their command. That was the only way the raw, untrained Americans could be ready in time, Allied leaders argued. Almost until the end of the war, they would keep demanding "amalgamation," or a joining of the Americans with their armies. Up to the end, over and over, Pershing would refuse. When the Allied leaders complained to Washington, Secretary of War Baker defended Pershing's stance. Pershing had been given complete authority to run the American war, and it was his decision alone. The Allies fumed, especially French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, whose flashing eyes gave him the nickname Le Tigre (the Tiger). Yet Pershing held firm. Once, his own eyes flashing, he even pounded the table, exclaiming he would not be forced.
Building an army
To justify his flat refusal, Pershing had to make good on his promise that the Americans could quickly provide an effective fighting force on their own. No such force existed when he went to France. The U.S. Army stood at about 200,000 men, insignificant compared to the Allied and German forces. Even these few must be used carefully, for they would be needed to train the soldiers brought in by the newly established draft. As they left for Europe, the Americans had not really understood the size of the clashing armies and the need for men. Pershing, however, soon decided he wanted 1,000,000 men in France by the middle of 1918, with more to follow. Through the summer, fall, and winter of 1917, Pershing and his hard-working staff began the massive job of creating, training, equipping, supplying, and transporting an army.
The German offensive began in the spring of 1918, with hammer blows against the British lines in the north then against the French lines in the south. The Allies fell back, dazed. The Germans had taken huge bites out of Allied territory and still came on. At their moment of need, Pershing rushed reinforcements to the French and British armies. In fighting at Cantigny, Belleau Wood, and Chateau-Thierry in France, the Americans tested themselves for the first time against the battle-hardened Germans. At Belleau Wood, the U.S. Marines lost over 5,000 men in a few weeks but drove the Germans from defensive positions deep in the woods. At Chateau-Thierry, the U.S. Third Division stopped a German advance across the Marne River, despite heavy casualties and a French retreat on their flank. There the Thirty-eighth Infantry became known as "the Rock of the Marne."
A place in the trenches
By the summer of 1918, Pershing had persuaded the Allies to give the Americans a section of the front. The newly created American First Army held a position at the nose of a German wedge that cut deeply into Allied territory, to Saint-Mihiel on the Meuse River. By late August, Pershing wanted to attack on both sides of the wedge, catching the Germans in middle. Ferdinand Foch, the French general who was Supreme Allied Commander, demanded he call off his attack so that the Americans could take part in a general Allied offensive planned for September. Refusing, Pershing promised that the Americans could crush the Germans and still be ready for the offensive. Foch reluctantly agreed.
Pershing's plan worked
The First Army crushed the German wedge in only two days, taking 16,000 prisoners and almost 500 German artillery guns. Within two weeks, Pershing managed to move 600,000 of his men 60 miles away to their new position at the Argonne Forest for the Allied offensive.
Foch had assigned the Americans an especially tough area to attack, densely wooded with rugged hills and valleys. In a month and a half of nonstop combat, the Americans withstood everything the Germans could throw against them, drawing valuable German divisions away from the exhausted French and British. With their entire front depending on this central region, the Germans held on grimly. By early November, Pershing's men had advanced as far as Sedan, close to the Belgian border. Elsewhere, the Allies also uprooted the now dispirited German armies. Germany sued for peace, and the Armistice (cease-fire) was signed on November 11, 1918.
General of the Armies
In the celebration that followed German surrender, old rivalries were forgotten. Pershing and the Allied generals praised each other's achievements. Now a teenager, Warren Pershing made a trip to Europe to spend time with his father. Back home in September 1919, Pershing marched at the head of a victory parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. A new rank was created for him: General of the Armies. He served as army chief of staff until 1924, when he reached the official retirement age of sixty-four.
Pershing remained active despite retirement, serving on a special diplomatic mission to South America in 1925 and holding a lifetime appointment as head of the American Battle Monuments Commission. He returned to Europe many times, often taking part in commemorations of the war with men such as Pétain and Foch. His health strong, Pershing survived to see Germany defeated once again in another world war. Pershing died in Washington, D.C., on July 15, 1948. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
- Smythe, Donald, Pershing: General of the Armies, Indiana University Press, 1986.
- Vandiver, Frank E. Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing, 2 vols., Texas A & M University Press, 1977.