General John J. Pershing, WWI Supreme Commander

General John J. Pershing (1860-1948)

by Ron Edgerton

Jack Pershing seemed doomed to be late for everything.  Born in Missouri in 1860, he came along too late to fight in the Civil War.  Posted to New Mexico territory after graduating from West Point, he arrived a month after Geronimo's surrender.  Ordered to the Dakotas in 1890, he just missed the terrible Wounded Knee massacre.  When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, he had hardly fired a shot in combat.  But he had demonstrated uncommon leadership skills by organizing and drilling the award-winning Pershing Rifles at the University of Nebraska.  He had also commanded a troop of Sioux Scouts and a unit of 10th Cavalry African-American soldiers, earning him the nickname "Black Jack."

Black Jack Pershing led the same 10th Cavalry troops in Cuba.  They fought gallantly in the Battle of Kettle Hill and San Juan Heights, only to watch Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders claim all the glory.  Not until four years later did he win fame as the great Moro fighter who pacified Philippine Moslems in the Philippine-American War.  The next year this dashing bachelor met Helen Frances Warren (Frankie), daughter of Wyoming Senator Francis Warren, Chair of the Senate Military Affairs Committee.  Thanks to President Roosevelt's strong recommendation and Senator Warren's endorsement, he gained promotion from Captain to Brigadier General in 1906, jumping over 862 higher ranked officers in the process.

There followed two more tours in the Philippines, the last as military Governor of Moro Province.  Not long after his return to the U.S., terrible tragedy befell his family when in 1915 Frankie and their three young daughters died in a house fire in San Francisco.  Only son Warren survived, and the tragedy haunted Pershing for the rest of his life.

After burying Frankie and his daughters in Cheyenne, Jack accepted command of America's punitive expedition against the elusive Pancho Villa in northern Mexico.  Although, the expedition met with mixed results, Pershing proved himself to be a tough, decisive and relentless military leader.  When the United States entered World War I in 1917, President Wilson appointed him Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in France.  Elements of that great army of over 2,000,000 men fought at Cantigny, Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, at St. Mihiel, and finally in the greatest battle of American military history, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  Pershing returned home at war's end a national hero.

Like Generals Washington, Jackson, Taylor and Grant before him, General Pershing seemed primed to become President of the United States.  But politics and Pershing did not mix.  He couldn't even beat Warren Harding for the Republican Party's nomination in 1920.  Instead, he served as Chief of Staff from 1921 to 1924.  More than any other man, he modeled what it meant to be a modern American military officer.  Upon retirement, he wrote extensively and was still editing his memoirs when he died on July 15, 1948.

 

Recommended Reading

Pershing, John J.  My Experiences in the World War.  2 vols.  Frederick A. Stokes, 1931.

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.

Walker, William.  Betrayal at Little Gibraltar. Scribner, 2016.

Woodward, David R.  The American Army and the First World War. Cambridge University

Press, 2014.

Yockelson, Mitchell.  Forty-Seven Days, How Pershing's Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the

German Army in World War I. New American Library, 2016.

 

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