General John J. Pershing

John J. Pershing, a military commander whose brilliant career earned him the title General of the Armies of the United States, died on July 15, 1948. The first general awarded the title since George Washington, Pershing was given a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

John J. Pershing, General, U.S.A. Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Pershing was born in Laclede, Missouri, on September 13, 1860, the first of six children. His mother taught him at home, helping to inspire in him a love of learning. He realized his dream of attaining a formal college education when he won a scholarship to the U.S. Military Academy.

After graduating from West Point in 1886, Pershing was given command of the 6th Cavalry Regiment in the West, where he participated in the Apache and Sioux campaigns. He was promoted to first lieutenant of the 10th Cavalry Regiment in Montana, one of several segregated regiments formed after passage of an 1866 law authorizing the U.S. Army to form cavalry and infantry regiments of black soldiers. Reflecting the racial prejudices of the era, the law also stipulated that the units be commanded by white officers. Pershing expressed his admiration for the black soldiers under his command forcefully and often, earning for himself the honorary nickname of “Black Jack.”

After a period teaching military science at the University of Nebraska and at West Point, Pershing was commissioned to Chickamauga, Georgia, to command a regiment bound for Cuba. He distinguished himself for his composure under fire during the Spanish-American War in both Cuba and the Philippines, and was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry in the Battles of Santiago and San Juan Hill. The African-American troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry divisions played a prominent role in these battles, fighting bravely beside the volunteer Rough Riders.

Pershing’s later service in the Philippines and as military attaché in Japan, where he was an official observer of the Russo-Japanese War, won him praise and promotion from President Theodore Roosevelt. His tact in handling the restrictions imposed on the movements of the American forces in Mexico during his command of the expedition in pursuit of Pancho Villa earned him the notice of President Woodrow Wilson.

Copy Photo: Pancho Villa, Alvaro Obregon and John J. Pershing, August 27, 1914External. Robert Runyon, photographer. Runyon (Robert) Photograph CollectionExternal. Briscoe Center for American History. University of Texas/Austin

After the United States entered the First World War on April 6, 1917, Wilson appointed Pershing commander of the American Expeditionary Forces to Europe. Coming to the aid of the trench-fatigued French troops, Pershing galvanized the novice American forces, molding them into a fighting army to be reckoned with. Because of advances in sound technology, General Pershing was recorded in the field during WWI. His patriotic message of April 4, 1918 was recorded at American field headquarters during the battle of Picardy and Flanders. You may listen to this recording. In it, he said:

Three thousand miles from home, an American army is fighting for you. Everything you hold worthwhile is at stake. Only the hardest blows can win against the enemy we are fighting. Invoking the spirit of our forefathers, the army asks your unshrinking support, to the end that the high ideals for which America stands may endure upon the earth.

“From the Battlefields of France.” General John J. Pershing, speaker. New York: Made by the Columbia Gramophone Co., c1918. American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I. Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division.

Pershing introduced the first tank battalion used in battle by the American armed forces and made effective use of detailed operational orders that enabled his combat commanders to interpret his intentions on the field. Although the American armed forces continued to be segregated, General Pershing attempted to give African-American soldiers the opportunity to advance in command by placing them under the leadership of the French who were able to honor them as they deserved. Under Pershing’s leadership, the First U.S. Army helped bring an end to the stalemate with Germany, hastening the Armistice.

After WWI ended, Pershing was welcomed home with celebrations, including parades, which were big news in the press. American newspapers, including the New York Times and New York Tribune featured multi-page stories about such a parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City in September 1919. As Paul Thompson wrote in the New York Tribune on September 14:

General Pershing’s composite regiment of six-footers, who have been his escort in the great peace pageants of Paris and London, swing down the Avenue in close formation behind their commander in chief to the cheers of New York’s hundreds of thousands. “Pershing’s Own,” which held the post of honor in the great parade, are hand-picked regulars and received a tremendous ovation all along the line.

New York Tribune, September 14, 1919, graphic section, page 1. Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914 to 1919. Serial & Government Publications Division
New York Tribune, September 14, 1919, graphic section, page 2-3. Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914 to 1919. Serial & Government Publications Division

Pershing was impressed by the military bands he had seen in Europe, and after the war set out to create one for the U.S. Army. He believed that bands played a vital role in troop morale and efficiency. His 1922 order said: “You will organize and equip The Army Band.” Since its inception that year, the United States Army BandExternal has been known as Pershing’s Own. Read about and listen to the U.S. Army Band, Pershing’s Own, perform The Army Goes Rolling Along.

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