Pershing, John J.
John Joseph Pershing was born Sept. 13, 1860 in Laclede, MO. He was a good student and after he graduated high school, he taught at an African-American school while pursuing his bachelor of science in teaching science, which he obtained in 1880. He then applied for entrance at the United States Military Academy; he said that serving in the military was secondary to the outstanding education available there. In his four years there, he was First Corporal, First Sergeant, First Lieutenant, and First Captain. He graduated in the middle of his class in 1886 and was commissioned a second lieutenant.
Pershing participated in several campaigns in the western United States and was cited for bravery against the Apache. He then served as a professor of military science and tactics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and while teaching, received his law degree in 1893. In 1895, Pershing took command of one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments and gained his nickname “Black Jack.” In 1897, he became a professor of tactics at the Military Academy.
Pershing fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine Insurrection. He served as a military attaché in Tokyo in 1905, the same year he married Helen Warren. When he returned to the United States that fall, Capt. Pershing was one of several junior officers promoted to brigadier general by President Theodore Roosevelt, skipping three ranks and more than 800 officers more senior to him.
He again served in the Philippines (where his fourth and last child was born), during which time he joined the Episcopal church. His next station was The Presidio near San Francisco, then in 1914 as commanding officer at Fort Bliss, TX. He had nearly completed arrangements to move his family to Texas when he received word that his wife and three daughters had died in a fire. Only his young son survived. Two years later, Pershing was engaged to George Patton’s sister, Nita, but the separation during his time in France during World War I ended the engagement.
In 1916, Pershing led the expedition to capture Pancho Villa. His supporters were routed, but Villa was not captured. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Pershing was selected as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force. He was promoted from major general to four-star general, the first since 1888.
Pershing insisted that American troops serve under American command, not divided up to supplement other allied forces. He did separate the African-American troops from the AEF; they were attached to French troops.
After a rocky beginning in which then Maj. George Marshall accosted him during an inspection, Pershing made Marshall Chief of Operation, and Marshall served as his aide for five years after the war. The AEF specifically saw combat at Cantigny, Saint-Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne, where Pershing unfortunately relied on infantry without field artillery support, which led to high casualties. During his time in France, he founded the Military Police Corps and helped redesign the Army boot to prevent trench foot. At the end of the war, Pershing pushed for an unconditional surrender rather than an armistice.
After the war, Pershing was promoted to General of the Armies of the United States, a rank created especially for him. He served a three-year term as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army beginning in 1921. Recognizing the need for better roads, he created the Pershing map of suggested highways (the 1956 Interstate map resembled this map closely). In 1924 he left active military service.
Pershing published his memoirs, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1932. He strongly supported aid to Great Britain prior to the United States entering World War II. Pershing died July 15, 1948 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
To find other items that the Marshall Foundation has on John Pershing, search “John Pershing” in the library catalog: https://www.marshallfoundation.org/library/results/
Digitized items in the George C. Marshall archives: