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John Pershing: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
John J. Pershing was the best known American military commander between the Spanish-American War and the end of the First World War. He served with distinction in the Spanish-American War, the Philippines, and the First World War where he served as head of the Allied Expeditionary Forces.

Frontier Wars, Cuba, and the Philippines

John J. Pershing was born in 1860 in Linn County, Missouri. He graduated from West Point, a military academy, in 1886 after earning the top score on the entrance exam. Following graduation, he was immediately assigned to the 6th cavalry at Fort Bayard in the New Mexico Territory where he fought in the Apache and Sioux Wars. In 1891 he became an instructor in military tactics at the University of Nebraska where he also earned a law degree. He was then transferred to the 10th cavalry where he commanded one of the original 'Buffalo Soldier' outfits, which were all black regiments who served in the frontier army.

From 1897-1898 he taught at West Point where he had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian and earned the nickname 'Black Jack' in reference to his command of black troops. He served with distinction in Cuba during the Spanish-American War though he returned early due to contracting malaria. It was in Cuba that he first met and won the admiration of future president-elect Theodore Roosevelt. This relationship proved useful, as President Roosevelt later promoted Pershing to Brigadier General ahead of over 800 senior officers.

A year later, he was assigned to the Philippines and served over three years in suppressing the Moros rebellion against American occupation. While there, he earned the respect of Arthur MacArthur, the military-governor and the father of Douglas MacArthur, as both a skilled soldier and measured administrator. He then spent a year in Japan as a military attaché to the Russo-Japanese War. He eventually returned home and married the daughter of Wyoming Senator Francis Warren, with whom he had four children. Tragically, his wife and three daughters would later be killed in a fire in San Francisco.

He served a second tour in the Philippines before being stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas. In 1916, Pershing was assigned by President Wilson to pursue Mexican bandit Pancho Villa who had recently raided and shot up Columbus, New Mexico. Though Pershing had previously met Villa when acting in the role of military advisor, he was now armed with 10,000 troops and pursued him for six months, though it proved a futile search and became the stuff of comedy and romantic adventure.

L-R: General Alvaro Obregon, Poncho Villa, and John Pershing in Mexico in August 1914. Eight months later Pershing was ordered by President Wilson to pursue Villa for crimes against Americans.
Pershing and Villa

Pershing in the First World War

Pershing's path suddenly changed direction when the U.S. entered the First World War and President Wilson appointed him head of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, which was the American branch of the new coalition forces. Pershing had his work cut out for him because the American army was numerically small with only around 25,000 troops, untested in large-scale European-style combat, and would be facing battle-hardened veterans on the Western Front.

Pershing faced stiff pressure from British and French commanders to 'amalgamate,' or place American troops under European commanders. There was logic to this, because American troops were untested and lacked heavy artillery and presumably could learn under more experienced leadership. Yet, both Wilson and Pershing saw only European failure and initially refused and insisted on the independence of the American army solely under American leadership even stating that, 'We came American. We shall remain American and go into battle with Old Glory over our heads. I will not parcel out American boys.' This caused a rift in the allied ranks, though it was eventually mended.

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