John Joseph Pershing

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John Joseph Pershing

September 13, 1860
Laclede, Missouri
July 15, 1948
Washington, D.C.

Military leader

General John Joseph Pershing is most famous for something he never said. The story goes that when he arrived in France in 1917, at the head of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), he dramatically declared, "Lafayette, we are here!" This was a reference to the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), the French general who crossed the Atlantic during the American Revolution (1775–83) to fight alongside George Washington. More than a hundred years later, Pershing and the American forces were returning the favor—but it wasn't Pershing who made the stirring statement of this fact; it was one of his colonels, Charles Stanton. Indeed, such a statement would have been quite out of character for Pershing, who was noted for being a soldier and an administrator, but not one for having a way with words.

The Accidental Soldier

John Joseph Pershing was born on September 13, 1860, in Laclede, Missouri, on the eve of the Civil War. One of his earliest memories was of a band of Confederate soldiers raiding Laclede and creating terror. He had more positive memories of Union soldiers and even dressed up in a miniature Union army uniform, but he did not dream of a military career; instead, he began to think of becoming a lawyer. However, an economic depression in 1873 had caused problems for his formerly prosperous storekeeper father, and young Pershing had to find work. He taught school for a while, beginning in 1878. He studied for a teaching degree during vacation breaks and obtained the degree in 1880.

In 1881, Pershing applied to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point—not because he had suddenly decided on a soldier's life, but because it was a way to get a free college-level education that could lead to law school. Once he was at West Point, however, Pershing seemed to take to the military life: He became class president and senior captain in charge of cadets, the highest student position at the academy. He developed a reputation as a leader—and also as a strict disciplinarian.

First Assignments

Pershing left West Point in 1886 and went to New Mexico as a second lieutenant in the Sixth Cavalry Regiment in the U.S. Army. Just before he arrived, the Sixth had captured the Apache chief Geronimo (1829–1909), who had been notorious for eluding capture, but Pershing's four years in New Mexico were mostly spent in routine patrols.

In December 1890, Pershing and the Sixth Cavalry went to South Dakota to help suppress the Ghost Dance Rebellion, which involved Native American leader Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890) and the Sioux tribe. However, Pershing arrived too late for the historic shooting of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee. He took part in only one skirmish, at Little Grass Creek on January 1.

In the fall of 1891, Pershing became a military instructor at the University of Nebraska and also taught remedial mathematics. He even found time to obtain the law degree he had long dreamed of; he considered abandoning the military for a career in law but decided against it.

Pershing stood out at the university as commandant of cadets. He took an undisciplined group of uninterested students and, in the words of the university chancellor, quoted by Frank Vandiver in Black Jack, transformed the group into "the best cadet corps outside of West Point." In less than a year, Pershing's cadets, later known as the Pershing Rifles, were able to win a national drill competition at Omaha, Nebraska.

From 1895 to 1896, Pershing commanded a unit of black soldiers in the Tenth Cavalry in Montana. He distinguished himself there by marching several hundred Cree Native Americans hundreds of miles into Canada. A year later, Pershing returned to West Point as an instructor but spent a very unsatisfactory year there. The cadets did not respond well to his strictness about how they marched, saluted, stood to attention, and dressed. In later years, too, Pershing would be criticized for what some saw as excessive attention to such matters. The cadets gave Pershing the silent treatment and also gave him a nickname that they intended as an insult: "Black Jack," referring to the fact that he had previously commanded black soldiers.

Cuba, the Philippines, and Pancho Villa

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Pershing managed to get himself sent to Cuba as the quartermaster (officer in charge of supplies) of the Tenth Cavalry. (War was declared by the United States on Spain because of a conflict over Cuba.) In Cuba, he won praise for his actions during the attack on San Juan Hill. According to Frank Vandiver in Black Jack, the colonel of Pershing's regiment told Pershing: "You were the coolest and bravest man I ever saw under fire in my life."

After Cuba, Pershing transferred to the Philippines, where he became known for suppressing uprisings on the island of Mindanao. He was made a captain and especially won fame for his march around Lake Lanao and his capture of the Moro (Muslim Filipino) stronghold at Bacolod in 1903. Three years later, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) promoted Pershing over the heads of 862 more senior officers to make him the youngest brigadier general in the army.

After serving as an observer in the Russo-Japanese War, Pershing returned to the Philippines and in 1909 to become military commander and civil governor of the Moro province. During the next four years, he introduced a minimum wage and price controls, started new schools and newspapers,

encouraged agricultural innovations, and provided new medical facilities. He also fought two more notable battles against hostile Moros, one at Bud Dajo and the other at Mount Bagsak.

In 1914, Pershing returned to the United States and was sent to El Paso, Texas, to guard against border raids by Mexicans. In March 1916, one such raid by Pancho Villa (1878–1923) killed seventeen Americans, and President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) ordered Pershing to lead a "Punitive Expedition" into Mexico to capture Villa and break up his bands. Pershing spent the next eleven months in Mexico with more than ten thousand troops, but never caught Villa, though he did disperse one of Villa's bands.

World War I

Soon after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Wilson chose Pershing to command the American forces in Europe. At first the British and French were ecstatic over America's entry into the war, but they soon became impatient with Pershing's decision to delay committing American troops to battle. They pressed him to send U.S. soldiers to join British and French forces as soon as the Americans arrived. But Pershing wanted to train his troops first and then assemble them into an American army fighting under American command, not under the command of British or French generals.

Except for sending some American battalions to quiet parts of the front to get some experience in the trenches, Pershing did not allow American troops into combat all through 1917 and the first months of 1918. He was not inactive during this time, however. He set up training schools for officers and constructed a general staff divided into five sections, dealing with such matters as censorship and intelligence (spying), supplies and transport of troops, strategic studies, and training. He also established a general purchasing board to obtain supplies in Europe rather than relying entirely on what could be shipped from America.

After the Germans began a major offensive in March 1918, Pershing finally agreed to allow some American troops to fight on a temporary basis under British and French command. Then, in August 1918, Pershing was able to create the U.S. First Army. This army drove the Germans out of Saint-Mihiel in mid-September, and at the end of the month they launched the major American offensive of the war, in the Meuse-Argonne region. The offensive was not successful at first, but with a very high number of casualties, the Americans finally made a breakthrough on November 1. Ten days later the armistice (peace treaty) was signed, ending the war.

Pershing argued against the armistice. He wanted the fighting to continue until the Germans surrendered unconditionally (allowing no compromises for Germany). He feared that otherwise Germany would someday threaten Europe again. During World War II (1939–45) Pershing thought he had been proved right. According to the editors of the Army Times in The Yanks Are Coming, Pershing made this comment in 1944: "If we had gone to Berlin then [in 1918], we would not be going there now."

Fading Away

Like victorious commanders after other wars, Pershing harbored presidential ambitions. But he did poorly in two primaries in 1920 and was never seriously considered as a candidate. Instead, he had to be content with the title "General of the Armies," which Congress conferred on him as a reward for the victory. He also became the army's chief of staff, a position he held until retiring in 1924.

In retirement, Pershing worked on his memoirs, finally publishing them in 1931. They are generally regarded as useful but lacking in excitement: He never did acquire a way with words. But the book did win a Pulitzer Prize in history. Pershing was in ill health the last several years of his life and stayed at the Walter Reed Hospital from 1941 until his death on July 15, 1948.

For More Information


Cooke, James J. Pershing and His Generals: Command and Staff in the AEF. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.

Editors of the Army Times. The Yanks Are Coming: The Story of General John J. Pershing. New York: Putnam, 1960.

Goldhurst, Richard. Pipe Clay and Drill: John J. Pershing: The Classic American Soldier. New York: Reader's Digest, 1977.

Smith, Gene. Until the Last Trumpet Sounds: The Life of General of the Armies John J. Pershing. New York: Wiley, 1998.

Smythe, Donald. Pershing: General of the Armies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Vandiver, Frank E. Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing. 2 vols. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1977.


Why America Will Win. Directed by Richard Stanton. Fox Film Corp., 1918. Silent film.

Web sites

Leach, Joseph. "Lafayette, We Are Here!" The US Army in World War One. [Online] (accessed May 2001).

"The Life of General John J. Pershing." Pershing Rifles National Headquarters. [Online] (accessed May 2001).

Controversies Surrounding the AEF

There are three major controversies surrounding the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Two of them are closely connected: First, should Pershing have waited as long as he did to send Americans into combat? Second, was he right to insist on creating an independent American army instead of funneling American troops into British and French regiments?

The British and French told Pershing that troops were needed immediately, or the war might be lost. They also said it would be better to integrate American troops into experienced Allied armies rather than have them led by inexperienced American commanders. Pershing argued that the Americans needed to be trained before being thrown into battle. He said they would fight better if they could retain their identity as an American army and have national pride to motivate them. He also expressed concern over language difficulties if the Americans fought under French command. And he did not have faith in the Allied commanders, who had led an unsuccessful war effort for three years and who, to him, seemed too attached to trench warfare. Who was right? Pershing mostly got his way, and the war was not lost—but some wonder if it might have been won sooner if the Americans had joined the fight more quickly.

The third controversy is over how well the Americans fought and how good a job Pershing did. According to Richard Goldhurst in Pipe Clay and Drill, "Pershing… brought to the American army unsuspected managerial and organizational skills, which enabled it to fight at the crest of its potential proficiency." But according to James Rainey, quoted by James Cooke in Pershing and His Generals, "The AEF succeeded not because of imaginative operations and tactics nor because of qualitative superiority, but by smothering German machine guns with American flesh."

In a way, these two views coincide, suggesting that if Pershing is to get credit for the victory, it is not because he excelled in the traditional military realms of tactics and strategy, but because he was a good enough manager to put more American troops on the battlefield than the Germans could handle.

John Joseph Pershing

views updated May 11 2018

John Joseph Pershing

John Joseph Pershing (1860-1948) was commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I.

John J. Pershing was born at Laclede, Mo., on Dec. 13, 1860. He graduated from West Point in 1886 with an outstanding record. Assigned to the cavalry, he campaigned against the Apache Indians in the Southwest. From 1891 to 1895 he was a military instructor at the University of Nebraska, where he earned a law degree in 1893. During the Spanish-American War he served with great distinction in the campaign around Santiago, Cuba. In 1899 Pershing went to the Philippines. He served in Mindanao for 4 years during the Philippine insurrection, and his help in suppressing the Moro revolt earned the praise of President Theodore Roosevelt. The President then recommended his promotion to brigadier general despite his low seniority; the appointment, delayed for 3 years, was finally confirmed in 1906.

Meanwhile, Pershing gained valuable experience as military attaché in Tokyo and as an observer of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). In 1906 he returned to the Philippines, holding important commands there until 1914, when he assumed command at the Presidio in California. In 1915, while he was away on special assignment, his wife and three daughters perished in a tragic fire; only his son survived.

Pershing's next assignment, intensely difficult and frustrating, made the general an important public figure: he commanded the "punitive expedition" sent into Mexico during 1916 to chastise the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. Despite his failure to capture Villa, Pershing gained considerable public commendation for his careful adherence to instructions and his dedication to duty. The expedition was withdrawn early in 1917, just prior to the American entry into World War I. Pershing was now a thoroughly experienced troop commander, although he had never held an important staff position in the War Department. A reserved and hard-bitten soldier, known as "Black Jack" to his troops, he gained their respect if not their affection.

Service during World War I

In May 1917 President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker chose Pershing to command the American Expeditionary Force going to Europe in support of the Allies. Arriving in France during June, Pershing immediately began planning the organization and employment of a large American army. Pershing decided to create an independent American force commanded by its own officers with its own support echelons in a distinct sector in France. In choosing this course, he challenged various European leaders who favored "amalgamating" American troops by small units into European armies as replacements.

For over a year, despite ever-growing military crises in France, Pershing single-mindedly pursued his idea of an independent American army and in this process gained the support of the War Department and President Wilson, overcoming efforts by Allied leaders to force various forms of amalgamation. Pershing argued that national pride dictated the formation of an independent force. He also claimed that the United States could make its most effective contribution to victory by following his course.

Western Strategy

Pershing also committed himself to the "Western strategy"—the view that the Western coalition should concentrate most of its military power in France against the principal enemy, Germany, rather than expend energy in secondary theaters such as Mesopotamia or Macedonia against lesser foes such as Turkey or Bulgaria. Pershing looked with jaundiced eye upon diversionary projects in Russia and elsewhere because such endeavors seemed certain to vitiate the effort in France, where he believed the war would be won or lost.

Pershing's plan required a huge program of mobilization and training for American troops in the United States. Several million men would have to be transported to France where, after additional training, they would be maneuvered as a separate force under his command. One drawback was the limited supply of shipping, a consequence of the need to supply the Allies in the face of Germany's great undersea campaign against noncombatant vessels. In late 1917 the British and French sought to trade shipping for amalgamation, but Pershing successfully resisted, even after Germany's great "end-the-war" offensive in March 1918. The Allies helped provide shipping sufficient to transport over 2, 500, 000 American troops to France. Still, Pershing's force had to depend heavily on European arms and equipment.

Although some American units participated in battles under French or British command during the summer of 1918, it proved impossible to employ the American army as an independent unit until September, when it attacked and reduced the great German salient at Saint-Mihiel. Pershing wished to attack ahead from that position, but French marshal Ferdinand Foch, who had become generalissimo, persuaded him to shift his forces northward into the Meuse-Argonne sector in order to participate in the final assault against the crumbling German army.

For some 47 days, beginning on Sept. 26, 1918, Pershing sustained the offensive in exceedingly difficult terrain. Eventually the battle was won, but heavy casualties, problems of command, and logistical difficulties lent some substance to earlier European doubts about the Americans' ability to develop optimal combat efficiency in a relatively short time. The bravery and determination of the American "doughboys" ultimately compensated for lack of experience and proper organization. When Germany sought peace in October, Pershing advocated unconditional surrender, but President Wilson overruled him and supported an early armistice. The sudden end of hostilities on November 11 deprived Pershing of the opportunity to prove the full mettle of the American army and to vindicate his policies in battle.

Last Years

In 1919 Pershing returned to a hero's welcome and to the rank of general of the armies, the highest title ever accorded except to George Washington. In 1921 he became chief of staff and presided over important reforms in the War Department. He left active service in 1924 but continued to perform important duties, first as chairman of the commission to South America to administer the Tacna-Arica plebiscite (1925) and then as chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission that cared for military cemeteries in France. In 1931 he published a two-volume work entitled My Experiences in the World War, which earned a Pulitzer Prize (1932). He died in Washington, D.C., on July 15, 1948, one of the most honored soldiers in American history.

Further Reading

Biographies of Pershing include Richard O'Connor, Black Jack Pershing (1961), Harold McCracken, Pershing (1931), and Frederick Palmer, John J. Pershing (1948). See also Army Times, ed., The Yanks Are Coming (1960). □

Pershing, John J.

views updated May 18 2018

Pershing, John J. (1860–1948), commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War I, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1886.Cavalryman Pershing served in various Indian campaigns in the West and then became professor of military science at the University of Nebraska in the 1890s, where he took a law degree and thought of another profession. But he stayed in the army and in the black Tenth Cavalry.

Staff assignment to army headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 1896 was followed by appointment to the tactical staff at West Point in 1897. There, Pershing's discipline and his African American regiment earned him the nickname “Black Jack” among the cadets.

In the Spanish‐American War, Pershing distinguished himself in Cuba. Sent to the Philippines in 1899, he led important expeditions against hostile Moros. In 1905, Captain Pershing became military attaché in Tokyo and observed the Russo‐Japanese War.

These services induced President Theodore Roosevelt to promote Pershing to brigadier general in 1906. Becoming governor of the Philippine Moro province in 1909, he subdued the warlike people by 1913. While at Fort Bliss, Texas, Pershing lost his wife and three daughters in a fire at San Francisco's Presidio, 27 August 1915—only his son, Warren, survived.

Throwing himself into work, Pershing led the Punitive Expedition into Mexico in pursuit of Francisco (Pancho) Villa's irregulars in March 1916. Pershing did not capture Villa but did drive away his bands and restore peace to the border. In February 1917, Major General Pershing and his troops were withdrawn from Mexico.

With America's entry into World War I, April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson bypassed several more senior officers and selected Pershing to command the American Expeditionary Forces. Given wide authority by Wilson and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, Pershing was to build a separate American army as soon as possible.

Pershing's duties in France were heavily managerial. He had to organize, train, and supply an army that finally numbered more than 2 million men. He waged two wars—one against the Germans, the other against Allies who tried always to siphon his men into their woefully depleted ranks. Pershing stressed “open warfare” tactics in training, as opposed to the trench warfare favored by the Allies. Historians argue whether he was right, but when the western front broke open in late 1918, events seemed to validate his program. There is no doubt that his discipline, organization, and iron will made the AEF a vital factor in the final victory. Pershing thought the Allies should push on to Berlin, convince Germany of defeat, and perhaps forestall another war, but he accepted Wilson's decision for an armistice in November 1918.

Congress created the rank of “General of the Armies” for Pershing in 1919. Pershing accepted a five‐star insignia but declined the option of wearing it. He served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 1921 until his retirement from the service in 1924.
[See also Academies, Service: U.S. Military Academy; Army, U.S.: 1900–41; World War I: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


John J. Pershing , My Experience in the World War, 2 vols., 1931; repr. 1995.
Donald Smythe , Guerrilla Warrior: The Early Life of John J. Pershing, 1973.
Frank E. Vandiver , Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing, 2 vols., 1977.
Donald Smythe , Pershing: General of the Armies, 1986.

Frank E. Vandiver

Pershing, John J.

views updated May 11 2018

John J. Pershing

John J. Pershing was a general in the U.S. Army who led two million men to victory in World War I (1914–18).

Early years

Pershing was born in the small southern town of Laclede, Missouri , in 1860. Although the family was prosperous, it suffered financial difficulties in 1873, a year of economic depression. Pershing's plan to attend college was replaced with the need to work on the family farm. The Pershings were unable to pay the mortgage and lost the farm to the bank. Needing to find work, Pershing took the state's teaching examination and passed. He got a job teaching in Laclede's school for African Americans.

Within months, Pershing landed a higher-paying job at a school near Laclede. Pershing divided his time between teaching and studying at a two-year college for teachers. He still clung to his dream of going to college, and eventually he entered West Point, a military academy.

At West Point, Pershing earned a reputation as a leader. After graduation, at which point he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Pershing spent the next few years in the southwest, fighting Apache leader Geronimo (1829–1909) and his tribe. In late 1890, Pershing and the Sixth Cavalry were sent to the Dakotas to fight the Sioux nation. They remained there until mid-1891.

War and marriage

From late 1891 to 1898, Pershing spent most of his time as a military instructor. He first taught at the University of Nebraska and then at West Point, where he got into trouble for being too hard on his students. He was not popular among the cadets he instructed.

Pershing served in the Spanish-American War in 1898, where his courage on the battlefield earned him a promotion to major and an assignment to the Philippines. The Philippines had been under Spanish rule but the United States assumed control after the war. Tired of being ruled by outsiders, the islanders began a revolt. Pershing's job was to impose order. He did so, and in 1902 he was promoted to captain and given command of a small outpost there.

Pershing married in 1905 and moved his family around the country as his assignments changed. In 1915, while he was in Texas , his family home in San Francisco, California , burned down while his family was inside. His wife and three daughters died; son Warren was the sole survivor.

World War I

Great Britain, France, Russia, and other countries (known as the Allies (had been fighting the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey) in World War I for nearly three years before America joined the fight in 1917. When Pershing and his men arrived in France, he was immediately asked to turn over command of his troops to Allied commanders so that the American soldiers could be trained quickly. Pershing refused and promised that his men would be an effective fighting force all on their own.

Pershing decided he wanted one million troops in France by mid1918, with more to follow. He got his men and trained them by the summer of 1918. In the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, Pershing's First Army captured sixteen thousand prisoners and almost five hundred German artillery guns. Pershing then moved some of his troops 60 miles (97 kilometers) to launch another offensive. It was more than the Central Powers could handle, and a cease-fire was signed on November 11, 1918.

Home again

Pershing led a victory parade in Washington, D.C. , in September 1919. The same year, he was promoted to general of the armies, a rank created just for him. He served as army chief of staff from 1921 until his retirement in 1924. Pershing died on July 15, 1948.

Pershing, John Joseph

views updated May 14 2018

Pershing, John Joseph (1860–1948) US general. Pershing led a punitive expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico (1916) before being appointed to command the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in World War I (1917–19). Returning a hero, he later served as army chief of staff (1921–24). A US surface-to-surface nuclear missile is named after him.

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