John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing (1860-1948) had one of the most spectacular military careers in American history. Best known for being commander of the American forces in World War I, Pershing also led campaigns in the Philippines and in Mexico. Pershing, unlike many famous generals, seemed to know exactly what his role was: a man in charge of soldiers, nothing more. He had no part in the politics after the war, nor did he try to influence the leadership during the years of World War II, by which time he had already retired. Pershing was born on September 13, 1860 on a farm near Leclede, Missouri.

Pershing started out as a teacher. His first teaching job was in 1879, at a school near his birthplace. In his summers off, he formally attended normal (teaching) school. It was there that by an incredible stroke of luck, Pershing became aware of an examination for entrance into West Point. Pershing had very little interest in a military career at this point, but liked the idea of getting a West Point education.

Pershing's mind slowly changed as he matured at West Point. He had intended to pursue a career in law after West Point, but gradually became more interested with the military. He was an excellent leader as well as a fine marksman, but he was not as good of a scholar as one would expect from a world class general. Throughout his career, Pershing would rely more on good sense than anything else. After graduating from West Point, he entered official military duty.

For the next four years, Pershing was assigned in the Southwest, fighting the last members of the Apache Indian tribe. He quickly gained the approval of the commanding general there, and received the Silver Star Medal for his work.

After his assignment against the Apaches, Pershing taught at the University of Nebraska and then at West Point. Then, in 1899, he was assigned to the Philippines. His duty was to assist in battle against the Moro rebels fighting for independence. He led successful campaigns against the rebels for three years. He then returned to Washington for a while, and met his future wife, Helen Warren. After they were married, Pershing was briefly sent off to China to monitor the Russo-Japanese War. When Pershing returned, he was promoted to Brigadier General. Pershing's critics said that this was a conflict of interest, and that Pershing jumped from the rank of captain to that of Brigadier General because Helen was the daughter of a Senator.

In 1914, Pershing requested the assignment of Mexican border patrol after the establishment of the new Mexican government. It was during this mission that "Black Jack" earned his nickname: not for any military achievement, but for what tragedy befell him. His family stayed at the Presidio in San Francisco. One night, there was a huge fire at the Presidio. His wife and three daughters were killed and only his son, Warren, survived. This incident nearly drove Pershing mad, but within a few months he restored himself as a military leader. He led an expeditionary force to capture the infamous Pancho Villa, but due to a lack of equipment and supplies, he did not fully succeed. Pershing's troops did slaughter many of Villa's, and they wounded Villa himself, but they never actually apprehended him.

As the Great War for Civilization became more and more intense, the probability that the United States would enter it grew greater and greater. Pershing was instructed to begin mobilizing an American Expeditionary Force. It was the opinion of the British and French generals that it would be sufficient for the United States to send soldiers over and have them be assimilated into the Allied armies. Pershing and his advisors strongly opposed this. He wanted his forces to have some sort of national identity, not to be mixed in with the troops of other Allied nations.

The development of the American Expeditionary Force took a while. When they were unleashed on the western front, these fresh troops provided the last push necessary to crush the remaining German forces. Pershing retired after World War I, with a special rank created for him by Congress: General of the Armies. He remained in retirement and had no hand in the military strategy of World War II. Pershing passed away on July 15, 1948.

"Black Jack" Pershing earned his nickname from his service with the 10th Cavalry during the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War, where he was cited for bravery during the Battle of San Juan Hill*.
His service with the "buffalo soldiers" of the 10th was held against him by the cadets of West Point when he returned there as a tactics instructor, and in fact they called him "Nigger Jack" - but not, of course, to his face.

Pershing would go on to command troops with distinction in the Philippine Insurrection before being promoted to brigadier general by President Roosevelt after his return from Japan, where he had served as military attache and observer of the Russo-Japanese War. This promotion was quite controversial since it jumped Pershing three grades over the heads of hundreds of senior officers at a time when the Army promoted almost exclusively by seniority. Pershing went on to observe the Balkan Wars before returning to command the 8th Cavalry at Fort Bliss; he would lead the 8th in futile pursuit of Pancho Villa during the Punitive Expedition.

When America entered World War I against Germany, President Wilson's first choice for commander of the American Expeditionary Force was Frederick Funston, hero of the Philippine Insurrection. Unfortunately, Funston died of a heart attack in February 1917, and after a short interview, Wilson promoted Pershing from major general to full general, the first time anyone had held the four-star rank since Phil Sheridan. Secretary of War Newton Baker gave Pershing carte blanche to run the AEF as he saw fit, and Pershing responded by being very careful to avoid political or other distractions. This explains his refusal to use the black National Guardsmen of the 93rd Division.** Despite his earlier successful service with colored troops, he was aware of Wilson's racist attitudes and the political debts Wilson owed to Southern Democrats, and wished to avoid controversy.

Pershing is best known for insisting that (white) American units fight united under American commanders and not be parceled out as reinforcements for British and French units that had been bled white by three years of trench warfare. He also founded the Military Police Corps and invented a new kind of combat boot more suitable for the trenches of the Western Front. At the end of the war, all of the AEF's successes were credited to Pershing, and he was promoted to General of the Armies, entitling him to wear four gold stars (in place of the conventional four silver stars of a full general) and outrank all other officers, even the five-star generals created during World War II. Like those generals, Pershing remained on active duty until his death in 1948, although he took no active part in Army affairs after retiring from active service in 1924.

Perhaps his most durable legacy to the Army were the junior officers he trained in the early 20th century who rose to take staff and command billets in the AEF, such as George S. Patton, George C. Marshall, and Douglas MacArthur. These officers would later lead the American Army to victory in World War II.


*This citation was upgraded to a Silver Star in 1932.
**The 93rd never served as a complete division; its regiments were issued French arms and equipment and used separately in French divisions, where they earned numerous decorations.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.