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General John J. Pershing

John Joseph Pershing served as the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Europe and led American troops to victory on the Western Front.

Early Life and Education: John Pershing was born on September 13, 1860, in Laclede, Missouri. He grew up in a rural farming community and experienced the hardships of life on the American frontier. Pershing's parents instilled in him the values of hard work, perseverance, and the importance of education.

In 1882, Pershing graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He distinguished himself as an exceptional cadet, earning the nickname "Black Jack" due to his strict and disciplined demeanor. He was selected early for leadership positions and became successively First Corporal, First Sergeant, First Lieutenant, and First Captain, the highest possible cadet rank.  Pershing graduated in the summer of 1886 ranked 30th in his class of 77.  His military education provided him with a solid foundation in leadership, tactics, and military strategy. 

Early Military Career

Following his graduation from West Point, Pershing served in various assignments in the United States Army. He participated in campaigns against Native American tribes in the American West, including the Apache and Sioux.

Reporting for active duty on 30 September 1887, Lieutenant Pershing was assigned to Troop L of the 6th U.S. Cavalry stationed at Fort Bayard, in the New Mexico Territory. While serving in the 6th, Pershing participated in several Indian campaigns and was cited for bravery for actions against the Apache. Pershing also had postings in Arizona and South Dakota.  During his time with the 6th he became an expert marksman and won several prizes for rifle and pistol at army shooting competitions.  9 December 1890 found Pershing and the 6th Cavalry at Fort Meade, South Dakota where the unit aided in suppressing the last uprisings of the Lakota (Sioux) Indians.  Pershing did not participate in the Massacre at Wounded Knee but his troops fought three days later riding six miles to the aid of the 6th Cavalry's supply wagons that were attacked by Chief War Eagle's braves.

From September 1891 until 1895, Pershing was the professor of military science and tactics at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He was promoted to First Lieutenant on 20 October 1892. Simultaneously he received his own Degree of Laws from the university's College of Law in 1893.  Additionally, he formed a drill company from the university cadets with the moniker "Company A".   They would excel at national competitions.   On October 2, 1894, former members of Company A established a fraternal military drill organization named the Varsity Rifles and renamed it Pershing Rifles in 1895 to honor their mentor.

Pershing took command of a troop of the 10th Cavalry Regiment in 1895, one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments composed of African-American soldiers under the command of white officers.  From Fort Assinniboine in north central Montana, he commanded an expedition to the south and southwest that rounded up and deported a large number of Cree Indians to Canada.

 In 1897, Pershing was appointed to the West Point tactical staff as an instructor, where he was assigned to Cadet Company A.  Pershing was unpopular with the cadets because of his strictness and rigidity and he received a number of unflattering nicknames even ones linked to the 10th Cavalry.  The surviving nickname was "Black Jack" and stuck with him the rest of his life.

Spanish–American War (Cuban Campaign)

At the beginning of the Spanish–American War in Cuba, 1st Lieutenant Pershing was the regimental quartermaster for the 10th Cavalry.  He fought on both Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill  and was cited for gallantry.  In 1919, he was awarded the Silver Citation Star for these actions, and in 1932 the award was upgraded to the Silver Star Medal. He was also with the 10th Cavalry during the siege and surrender of Santiago de Cuba.

 Pershing was commissioned as a major of United States Volunteers on August 26, 1898, and assigned as an ordnance officer.  The U.S. volunteers were special regiments raised for the Spanish-American War.  The most famous unit of this campaign was the First Volunteer Cavalry, the official name of the Rough Riders who were led by Teddy Roosevelt.  In March 1899, Pershing was put in charge of the Office of Customs and Insular Affairs which oversaw occupation forces in territories gained in the Spanish-American War. He was honorably discharged from the volunteers and reverted to his permanent rank of first lieutenant on 12 May 1899. He was again commissioned as a major of Volunteers on 6 June 1899, as an assistant adjutant general.

Spanish-American War (Philippine Campaign)

When the Philippine Campaign began, Pershing reported to Manila on 17 August 1899 and was assigned to the Department of Mindanao and Jolo, and commanded efforts to suppress the Filipino Insurrection.

On 27 November 1900, Pershing was appointed adjutant general of his department and served in this posting until 1 March 1901. He was cited for bravery for actions on the Cagayan River while attempting to destroy a Philippine stronghold at Macajambo.  Honorably discharged from the Volunteers 30 June 1901 he reverted to the rank of captain in the Regular Army to which he had been promoted on 2 February 1901. Pershing then served with the 1st Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines.  Later was assigned to the 15th Cavalry Regiment, serving as an intelligence officer and participating in actions against the Moros. He was cited for bravery at Lake Lanao. In June 1901, he served as Commander of Camp Vicars in Lanao, Philippines.

Promotions & Moves

In June 1903, Pershing was ordered to return to the United States. In 1904, he was assigned as the Assistant Chief of Staff of the Southwest Army Division stationed at Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In October 1904, he began attendance at the Army War College, and then was ordered to Washington, D.C.  Following his 1905 War College Graduation, President Theodore Roosevelt authorized a diplomatic posting and Pershing was stationed as military attaché in Tokyo.

After serving as an observer in the Russo-Japanese War attached to General Kuroki Tamemoto's Japanese First Army in Manchuria from March to September 1905, Pershing returned to the United States. President Roosevelt utilized his presidential prerogative and nominated Pershing as a brigadier general, to which Congress approved. Skipping three ranks and more than 800 officers senior to him was a bit out of the ordinary but not unprecedented.  Several other exemplary junior officers were similarly advanced to brigadier general ahead of their peers and seniors, including Albert L. Mills (captain), Tasker H. Bliss (major), and Leonard Wood (captain).

In 1908, Pershing briefly served as a U.S. military observer in the Balkans, an assignment based in Paris. Upon returning to the United States at the end of 1909, he was assigned once again to the Philippines until 1913. While in the Philippines, he served as Commander of Fort McKinley, near Manila, and also was the governor of the Moro Province.

Pancho Villa and Mexican Revolution

On 20 December 1913, Pershing received orders to take command of the 8th Brigade at the Presidio in San Francisco. With tensions running high on the border between the United States and Mexico because of the Mexican Revolution, the brigade was ordered to Fort Bliss, Texas, on 24 April 1914, arriving there on the 27th.

On 15 March 1916, Pershing led an expedition into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa. This expedition was ill-equipped and hampered by a lack of supplies due to the breakdown of the Quartermaster Corps.  Despite many obstacles of supply logistics and lack of assistance from the former Mexican Government's and prohibiting Americans to transport troops and supplies over their railroads, Pershing organized and commanded the Mexican Punitive Expedition, a combined armed force of 10,000 men that penetrated 350 miles into chaotic Mexico. While they crushed Villa's revolutionaries, they failed to capture him.

World War I

At the start of the United States' involvement in World War I President Woodrow Wilson considered mobilizing an army to join the fight. Frederick Funston, Pershing's superior in Mexico, was being considered for the top billet as the Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) when Funston died suddenly from a heart attack on 19 February 1917. Pershing was the most likely candidate other than Funston, and following America's entrance into the war in May, Wilson briefly interviewed Pershing, and then selected him for the command. He was officially installed in the position on 10 May 1917, and held the post until 1918.  On 6 October 1917, then Major General Pershing, was promoted to full general in the National Army bypassing the three star rank of lieutenant general.

Pershing arrived in France in June 1917 and faced the daunting task of building and organizing a modern army capable of fighting on the Western Front.  His command grew exponentially and rapidly to the size of two field armies with over two million soldiers .

Under Pershing's leadership, the AEF underwent rigorous training and preparation for combat. He emphasized the importance of discipline, professionalism, and effective command structure.

George C. Marshall served as one of Pershing's top assistants during and after the war. Pershing's initial chief of staff was James Harbord, who later took a combat command but worked as Pershing's closest assistant for many years.

Because of the effects of trench warfare on soldiers' feet, in January 1918, Pershing oversaw the creation of an improved combat boot, the "1918 Trench Boot," which became known as the "Pershing Boot" upon its introduction.

African-American Units

Under civilian control of the military, Pershing adhered to the racial policies of President Woodrow Wilson, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, and southern Democrats who promoted the "separate but equal" doctrine. African-American "Buffalo Soldiers" units were not allowed to participate with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during the war, but experienced non-commissioned officers were provided to other segregated black units for combat service. One such example was the 317th Engineer Battalion.    The Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions were the first American soldiers to fight in France in 1918, but they did so under French command as Pershing had detached them from the AEF. Most regiments of the 92nd and all of the 93rd would continue to fight under French command for the duration of the war.

The German Spring Offensive was in full motion in March of 1918 and Pershing made the American Infantry Divisions available for the French under General Petain. Entire divisions began to serve on the front lines alongside French troops. Although Pershing desired that the AEF fight as units under American command rather than being split up by battalions to augment British and French regiments and brigades, the 27th and 30th Divisions, grouped under II Corps command, were loaned, and fought with the British Fourth Army under General Rawlinson until the end of the war, taking part in the breach of the Hindenburg Line in October.

American forces saw their first serious action during the summer of 1918, contributing eight large divisions, alongside 24 French ones, at the Second Battle of the Marne. Along with the British Fourth Army's victory at Amiens on 8 August, the Allied victory at the Second Battle of the Marne marked the turning point of World War I on the Western Front.

In August 1918 the U.S. First Army had been formed, first under Pershing's direct command.  AEF was required to redeploy and, aided by French tanks, launched a major offensive northwards in very difficult terrain at Meuse-Argonne. Initially enjoying numerical odds of eight to one, this offensive eventually engaged 35 or 40 of the 190 or so German divisions on the Western Front.

In October 1918, Pershing saw the need for a dedicated Military Police Corps and the first U.S. Army MP School was established at Autun, France. For this, he is considered the founding father of the United States MPs.

At the time of the Armistice with Germany, another Franco-American offensive was due to start on November 14, thrusting towards Metz and into Lorraine, to take place simultaneously with further British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) advances through Belgium.

In September 1919, in recognition of his distinguished service during World War I, the U.S. Congress authorized the President to promote Pershing to General of the Armies of the United States, the highest rank possible for any member of the United States armed forces, which was created especially for him.  In 1976, Congress authorized President Gerald Ford to posthumously promote George Washington to this rank as part of the United States Bicentennial; Washington previously held the rank of General in the Continental Army, and wore a three-star insignia; his posthumous appointment to General of the Armies rank and the specific wording of the authorizing statute, Public Law 94-479, of October 1976, ensured that Washington would always be considered the U.S. Army's highest-ranking officer. 

Post World War I

After the war, Pershing served as the Army Chief of Staff from 1921 to 1924. He oversaw the reorganization and modernization of the U.S. Army, including the establishment of the Army War College.  Pershing created the Military Order of the World War as an officer's fraternity for veterans of the First World War, modeled after the Military Order of Foreign Wars.

He created the Pershing Map, a proposed national network of military and civilian highways. The Interstate Highway System instituted in 1956 is very similar to the Pershing map. On his 64th birthday, 13 September 1924, General Pershing retired from active military service.

Pershing's contributions to the military were recognized with numerous honors and awards, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Légion d'honneur. He also received the title General of the Armies of the United States, a distinction granted to only a few military leaders in American history.

Assignment History & Highlights

1882: Cadet, United States Military Academy

1886: Troop L, Sixth Cavalry

1891: Professor of Tactics, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

1892: Promoted to 1st Lieutenant

1893:  Bachelor of Laws Degree From the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

1895: 1st Lieutenant, 10th Cavalry Regiment

1897: Instructor, United States Military Academy, West Point

1898: Major of Volunteer Forces, Cuban Campaign, Spanish–American War

1899: Officer-in-Charge, Office of Customs and Insular Affairs

1900: Adjutant General, Department of Mindanao and Jolo, Philippines

1901: Battalion Officer, 1st Cavalry and Intelligence Officer, 15th Cavalry (Philippines)

1902: Officer-in-Charge, Camp Vicars, Philippines

1904: Assistant Chief of Staff, Southwest Army Division, Oklahoma

1905: Military attaché, U.S. Embassy, Tokyo, Japan

1908: Military Advisor to American Embassy, France

1909: Commander of Fort McKinley, Manila, and governor of Moro Province

1914: Brigade Commander, 8th Army Brigade

1916: Commanding General, Mexican Punitive Expedition

1917: Commanding General for the formation of the National Army

1917: Commanding General, American Expeditionary Forces, Europe

1921: Chief of Staff of the United States Army

1924: Retired from active military service

1925: Chief Commissioner assigned by the United States in the arbitration case for the province of Tacna between Peru and Chile.

Promotions & Rank

1 July 1882 - Cadet, USMA

1 July 1886 - Second Lieutenant, Regular Army

20 October 1892 - First Lieutenant

18 August 1898 - Major (Volunteers)

1 July 1901 - Captain, Regular Army

20 September 1906 - Brigadier General

25 September 1916 - Major General

6 October 1917 - General

3 September 1919 - General of the Armies

Distinguished Service Cross Citation

In 1940 General Pershing was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in action leading an assault against hostile Moros at Mount Bagsak, on the island of Jolo in the Philippines on June 15, 1913.

Citation

"For extraordinary heroism against hostile fanatical Moros at Mount Bagsak, Jolo, Philippine Islands on June 15, 1913. He personally assumed command of the assaulting line at the most critical period when only about 15 yards from the last Moro position. His encouragement and splendid example of personal heroism resulted in a general advance and the prompt capture of the hostile stronghold. "

 

Artifact(s): Signed Letter.





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