From the Old West to the Western Front, from a troop of Buffalo Soldiers to a million doughboys, Pershing’s globe-circling career is a virtual history of the U.S. Army.
He has all but faded from our collective memory: A terse, uncharismatic figure in a drab, old-fashioned uniform. During the war in which he commanded, he accepted no unconditional surrenders, invented no famous strategies. He never defied a president or harbored obvious presidential ambitions. And yet, no other American general ever held significant command positions in so many diverse theaters of war. No American general besides George Washington ever held such high rank. None ever commanded so many different types of troops, from one of the nation’s last all-black combat regiments to the first U.S. ground force to fight in Europe. And probably no American officer ever went on so stoically doing his duty after enduring such appalling personal tragedy.
He was General of the Armies John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War I. Over the course of his 38-year career, he fought Apaches in New Mexico, Sioux in the Dakota Territory, the Spanish in Cuba, the Moros in Mindanao, Pancho Villa in Mexico and the Germans in France. Along the way, he would pick up a law degree, a teaching position at West Point, a mistress in Paris and a Pulitzer Prize for his memoirs of the Great War. He had a knack for being in the right place at momentous times—Wounded Knee, San Juan Hill, the Argonne—and for influencing important people. He would command most of the generals who would shape the American century. Among his aides, and friends, he would count both George C. Marshall and George Patton, and he would find occasion to personally dress down Douglas MacArthur—however unfairly. And in his final command, he made decisions that would have enormous ramifications for American foreign policy to this day.
Pershing was a small-town boy, born in Laclede, Mo., on September 13, 1860, to a staunchly Unionist store- keeper and his wife. His earliest memory was of a deadly raid on his hometown by Confederate bushwhackers. His father survived but was ruined by the Panic of 1873. John was left to scratch out an education as best he could, working a farm with his younger brother when he was just 13, then teaching first black and then white schoolchildren while still a teenager himself. His ambition was to become a lawyer, but when he won an academic competition for the right to apply to West Point, he grabbed at the chance and left his home state for the first time.
Pershing graduated from the Point in 1886, near the middle of his class academically, but with the highest leadership honors as captain of the Corps of Cadets. He was a natural officer, both in spirit and appearance. In every photograph, at every stage of his life, he looked like a caricature of his profession. As biographer Gene Smith put it, “As an immaculate and snappy and severe and disciplined soldier of perfect military bearing, he was unsurpassable.”
Pershing demanded this severity—a constant emphasis on proper drill, dress, demeanor, readiness, attitude—both of himself and those he commanded. It would become a hallmark of his career, carried, at two critical junctures, to extremes that threatened to alienate all those around him. During his year as a tactical officer at West Point, he handed out so many demerits that the cadets subjected him to “silencing”—falling mute whenever Pershing set foot in the academy mess hall. They also saddled him with his nickname, not the newspaper-sanitized version, but the infinitely more derisive “Nigger Jack.” He was undeterred. In World War I, commanding a force that would number more than 2 million men, most of them newly drafted, Pershing issued the impossible order that the Point’s standards would apply to everyone: “The rigid attention, the upright bearing, attention to detail, uncomplaining obedience to instruction required of the cadet will be required of every officer and soldier of our armies in France.” Even a jilted fiancée—George Patton’s sister—would describe him at this time as “a little tin god on wheels.”
And yet, Pershing was a surpassingly adaptable soldier, one who continually saw beyond the parameters of his profession. It was as if his reliance on discipline and drill were a grip he kept on his own deeply passionate and inquiring nature— one he tightened whenever he feared it might fly out of control. This served him best when he had to struggle vigorously to keep his very command—the greatest command in U.S. history to that point.
He could not have anticipated any such challenges at the outset. Lieutenant Pershing graduated into a U.S. Army that consisted of fewer than 25,000 men, most of them assigned to desolate forts throughout the rapidly vanishing Western frontier. Its officer corps, just 2,000 strong, was hopelessly stagnant. Pershing himself took 15 years just to rise to captain. He spent much of his career fruitlessly chasing various hostiles across the empty Western landscape—Chief Mangus’ Apaches through the hills and mesas of New Mexico; Chief Big Foot’s Sioux across the Dakota Territory during the Ghost Dance uprising; Pancho Villa through the dust of Chihuahua; a band of Cree attempting to return to Montana from Canada.
In between, he duly provided the other eclectic services expected of an American officer at the time, spending four years teaching and drilling cadets at the University of Nebraska. He seldom complained about any of it. Not the loneliness and isolation of the distant forts; not the daunting weather extremes or trivial nature of many of his duties. He remained, instead, doggedly self-reliant, flexible and observant—all qualities that would serve him well. He didn’t just adapt to the West; he seemed to love it, including its native peoples. The treatment of the Indians, he would write, constituted “the most cruel, unjust, blackest page of American history”—even as he pursued some of them relentlessly. Later, he would fight a remarkably successful campaign against Islamic insurgents in a complex civil war halfway around the globe. He was a romantic without illusions, always eager to study, understand and even sympathize with the dizzying array of peoples he was supposed to fight.
Everything seemed to fascinate him. In a time when an officer’s career promised neither riches nor glory, Pershing made the most of it. Sent the long way around to fight the Moros in the Philippines, he visited with Parisian art students in the Latin Quarter and perused the Louvre and Versailles, where he would one day have to battle for the independence of America’s greatest army. Returning from his post as military attaché in Tokyo, Pershing took his young family on the newly completed Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow, toured St. Petersburg, Berlin and the Waterloo battlefield, and lived for several months in Tours while trying to improve his French. A ladies’ man, he enjoyed (successively) a loving marriage and a loving, decades-long affair with a French-Romanian painter—and perhaps some briefer interludes that threatened to ruin his career and reputation.
They didn’t, in part because Pershing was also adept at making the right connections. Like Dwight Eisenhower, he was a consummately political general who advanced by not indulging in the spiteful politics of a peacetime army. It was no coincidence that he won the two biggest promotions of his career from two presidents—Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—who could not have been more different in temperament or loathed each other more. But then Pershing was always able to make the best of a situation. Stuck in Lincoln, Neb., for four years teaching military science to farm boys, he used the opportunity to get his law degree, pass the Nebraska bar, lead his charges to a national drill championship…and make friends with a congressman named George Meiklejohn, whose ambition of becoming assistant secretary of war Pershing helped to fulfill.
Thirty-five years old by the time his stint in Nebraska ended, still a bachelor, still a lieutenant nine years after leaving the Point, Pershing considered taking up the law. Instead, he accepted what a lesser man might have seen as yet another demeaning assignment, command of a troop of the 10th Cavalry—the all-black regiment cadets would later deride—at Fort Assinniboine, Mont. His troops seemed to like him, respect him, and gave him their own nickname, “Old Red,” during his two years there. When war broke out with Spain in 1898, Pershing, then stuck in a miserable tenure at West Point, begged for the chance to see action.
Assistant Secretary of War Meiklejohn found an opening in his previous posting, commanding a troop of the 10th Cavalry. The 10th was one of four African-American regiments at the time, commanded by white officers and stationed at Western outposts, as far as possible from white population centers. Getting them into position to invade Cuba was almost a war in itself: The black troops found that the cheering that greeted their troop train at every station stopped abruptly once they crossed into the South. Bivouacked outside Lakeland, Fla., they had to endure the animosity of local whites, who alternated between gawking openly at the sight of armed black men in uniform and vehemently denying them access to restaurants, bars, stores and brothels. Brawls, shootings and even a full-scale riot broke out between black regulars and white citizens and volunteers. Once deployed in Cuba, they had to endure the same poisonous rations, archaic weapons and erratic leadership as the rest of the invasion force in this most precipitous and chaotic of all the nation’s wars.
Pershing picked up a case of malaria in Cuba and was nearly killed in a stream by a Spanish artillery shell that landed close enough to leave him soaking wet. He led his men through the jungle and then in the desperate, improvised rush up San Juan Heights on the left of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
“If it had not been for the Negro cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated,” one of Teddy’s men claimed later. “We officers of the 10th Cavalry could have taken our black heroes in our arms. They had again fought their way into our affections, as they had fought their way into the hearts of the American people,” Pershing exulted.
In this, he could not have been more wrong, but he won a Silver Star, a captaincy—at last—and a command in the ensuing savage war in the Philippines. There, Pershing fought a strikingly modern counterinsurgency campaign against the fiercely independent Islamic Moro peoples. He alternated patient negotiation with the ruthless reduction of Moro strongholds, yet openly admired the intelligence, customs and even the cuisine of those he fought.
Pershing’s work in Mindanao won him the public praise of now- President Roosevelt, the man he had followed up Kettle Hill, who was intent on instituting military promotions based on merit rather than time served. In 1906 he raised Pershing from captain to general over 862 senior officers, making him military governor of Mindanao. Soon after, a story broke in the press that Pershing had kept a querida, or “sweetheart,” while on that first posting in Mindanao, fathered two children by her and subsequently offered her hush money not to expose him. It would not be the last time accusations concerning an affair threatened Pershing’s career (the next concerned an heiress who would become Douglas MacArthur’s first wife). He never quite denied the charges, but the War Department dismissed them out of hand. True or not, they were transparently the work of officers jealous of Pershing’s promotion.
In 1905 Pershing married Helen Frances “Frankie” Warren, the daughter of a wealthy, powerful U.S. senator from Wyoming. It was another propitious connection, but also seems to have been a love match. Frankie, nearly 20 years Pershing’s junior, was devoted to him, bearing him three daughters and a son in the first seven years of their marriage, while following him around the world without complaint. Spirited, loyal and intrepid, she was living with the children in the dilapidated officers barracks of San Francisco’s Presidio on August 27, 1915, just a week from joining Pershing at his latest post, at Fort Bliss in El Paso. In the early morning hours, a fire swept through their rooms, suffocating Frankie and the couple’s three girls, ages 3 to 9. Only their son, 6-year-old Warren, survived.
It was a devastating blow, one made worse by the fact that Pershing blamed himself for the suspected cause of the fire, a dining room floor he’d recently had varnished that had caught fire when some coals fell out of a grate. This supremely self-controlled officer was reduced to screaming and weeping openly before friends and junior officers, exclaiming, “I can understand the loss of one member of the family, but not nearly all!” Those around him feared he might go mad.
Yet within weeks Pershing was back on duty at Fort Bliss. He was needed there—and unbeknownst to him, he now stood on the verge of a dizzying chain of events that would shoot him to the top of his profession. His rise began with the Punitive Expedition, the campaign against the famous Mexican bandit chieftain Pancho Villa that must have seemed to Pershing yet another hopeless pursuit. For months prior, Pershing had conducted his patient brand of diplomacy to keep the revolution that had been raging in Mexico from crossing the border. He had boasted particular success cultivating Villa, who posed grinning for pictures with Pershing, and kept hands off American interests.
That changed when President Wilson, without consulting Pershing, allowed troops of a rival Mexican faction to cross American soil by rail, outflank Villa and largely annihilate his army. Vengeful and desperate, Villa responded by trying to widen the war, pulling 19 American engineers off a train in Chihuahua and murdering them by the railbed, then launching a bloody night raid against the garrison town of Columbus, N.M. Pershing was ordered to bring Villa to justice. Thus he would become the first, but far from last, American officer over the course of the century ordered to pursue a hazy objective, under an even cloudier set of restrictions. He was authorized by the deputy chief of staff to attack Mexican towns if Villa and his men were there, but he was not to use the Mexican railroads to resupply his force. His troops were to “do as soldiers in the circumstance must do,” and if Villa’s troops broke up into smaller bands, “our people must more or less scatter in order to follow him.”
Somehow, Pershing was able to “more or less” decode these equivocal directions and conduct a campaign that adroitly avoided setting off a full-scale war, but satisfied the administration’s need to save face. The Punitive Expedition punished its way 350 miles into Mexico, diligently pursuing Villa for 11 months and dodging several ambushes. Pershing’s command eventually reached a total of 11,000 men, almost a tenth of the U.S. standing army. He saw firsthand just how short even its best units were of the latest arms, vehicles, planes; how unprepared it was to fight a modern war.
This was information he would need. Within two months of Pershing’s return to El Paso in 1917, the U.S. had declared war on the Central Powers. Pershing was clearly the only senior officer young enough, fit enough and experienced enough to lead the planned AEF, and he had impressed superiors with his handling of the delicate assignment in Mexico. Yet the appointment was probably an even better choice than Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker realized, for it would be as much a diplomatic mission as a military one.
Pershing shipped out almost immediately, arriving in England on June 8, 1917. There and in France, he was greeted by giddy, cheering mobs and in response made all the right gestures: kissing Napoléon’s sword and laying a wreath on Lafayette’s tomb (where, as Pershing always insisted, it was his paymaster, Major Charles E. Stanton, who actually uttered the words, “Lafayette, we are here!”)
The only trouble was he had no one with him, beyond a hastily assembled staff of some 187 officers and civilians. Nor would an army materialize anytime soon. Despite all the lobbying for preparedness over the past three years by Teddy Roosevelt and others, the country had largely chosen to ignore the possibility it could be dragged into the most terrible war in human history. Months, maybe a year, would be needed before any sizable American force could be assembled, trained, equipped and shipped to Europe—and it wasn’t clear the Allies had that much time.
Even as Pershing arrived in France, the feckless Nivelle Offensive was grinding to a halt. The traumatized French army had suffered another 200,000 casualties over the course of two months, and mutinies would sweep through 54 combat divisions. Only the strictest military secrecy kept the enemy from realizing this and breaking through to Paris. That fall Russia capitulated to the Bolsheviks and then to the Germans, and the Italians collapsed at Caporetto. Some 265 German and Austrian divisions, Pershing feared, might now be massed on the Western Front for one last overwhelming offensive as soon as the weather improved.
By the winter of 1918, a quarter-million doughboys had arrived in France, but for the most part they lacked artillery, planes and transport. They were, in short, not an army. The British and French argued that they didn’t need to be. The Americans could be fed into the Allied armies as they arrived by the battalion, platoon or company, some 50 to 150 men at a time. The Europeans would supply all munitions and any officers above the rank of captain.
Pershing adamantly opposed that idea from the start. “The United States will put its troops on the battlefront when it shall have formed an army worthy of the American people,” he had announced soon after coming to France, and he stuck to his guns. One by one, they came to remonstrate with him— first the generals, Haig and Foch and Pétain, then the premiers, Lloyd George and Clemenceau. Even King George V traveled to Paris to tell Pershing he had to give his men over.
“I should have liked to argue with the king and set him right,” Pershing joked later, but the arguments grew more urgent and ferocious as the German offensive neared. Pershing was visiting Pétain at his headquarters at Compiègne in late March when he heard it coming, a low, ominous rumble of artillery that shook the furniture and rattled the maps in the French general’s office. Some 64 German divisions went over the top, driving a wedge 45 miles wide and 55 miles deep into the Allied lines, wrecking an entire British army and taking 90,000 prisoners. Another 65,000 poilus surrendered along the Aisne at the end of May, their retreating comrades crying out, “La guerre est finie!” as they streamed back from the front. German aircraft and artillery were now bombarding Paris.
The Allies raged at Pershing, appealed over his head to Washington, confiding in each other, in their diaries and in their memoirs that the American was an egomaniac, an incompetent. Pershing was “unable properly to train or command his troops,” Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir William Robertson reported to the British War Cabinet. Marshal Foch, the newly anointed supreme Allied commander, warned Pershing that the British would be pushed into the sea and the French to the Loire, while the Americans would be left trying “in vain to organize on lost battlefields over the graves of Allied soldiers.” Prime Minister Lloyd George found Pershing’s stand “maddening” and seethed over his “invincible obstinacy” and “professional egotism.” Matters came to a head at a heated conference at Versailles, on June 1 and 2, 1918, when George told Pershing to his face, “We will refer this to your president.”
“Refer it to the president and be damned,” Pershing answered. He later argued more judiciously to Foch, “The time may come when the American army will have to stand the brunt of this war,” and insisted that meanwhile he would not “fritter away our resources.”
Pershing could be confident of his own standing, thanks to the un- wavering support of Wilson and Baker. But he alone still bore full responsibility for what was, in the words of biographer Richard O’Connor, “one of the most prolonged and coldly calculated gambles in military history.” It was based on several assumptions, one of them naïve, the rest highly perceptive. The American commander was understandably wary of British and French trench-warfare tactics, which through 1917 had cost the Allies over 2.5 million more casualties than they had inflicted along the Western Front. He also believed that no matter how many troops the Germans amassed along the Western Front, they would be unable to break through. Where Pershing was naïve was in maintaining that long-range rifle training and “fire and movement” tactics could replace trench warfare. The Great War was the war of the machine gun and the hand grenade—something his European allies had learned years before. Finally, Pershing constantly reiterated that the freshness and morale of U.S. troops—fighting together, under their own flags and commanders, uninfected by French and British pessimism—would also be instrumental in winning the war. In this, the fighting would bear him out, as inexperienced but enthusiastic American troops were able to break through against exhausted and demoralized German veterans.
Politically, Pershing’s position was unassailable. The U.S. approach to World War I must seem incomprehensible to many Americans today. That first American expedition on European soil was also the last time U.S. forces would fight as a junior partner, at least formally under the direction of a supreme commander who was a foreign officer. To do more than this would have been to seriously endanger the integrity of the AEF’s mission. The French and British generals had been reckless to the point of obscenity with their men’s lives. Who could know what they might do with a limitless supply of other people’s sons— and the consequences could have been enormous: The slaughter of vast numbers of doughboys at the behest of foreign officers might well have destroyed American support for the war. Even if it had not, the bitter memory of such losses could well have tipped the scales against intervention in World War II.
Yet as successive German offensives thundered on through the spring and summer of 1918, Pershing realized he would have to make some sort of compromise. If the Americans did not yet have an army in place, Pershing at last conceded, they could at least fight in division strength in coordination with the Allies. Starting on May 28, ever-increasing numbers of American troops— commanded by their own officers— swung into action. Throughout the rest of the spring and summer of 1918, they fought with considerable skill and élan, blunting the German thrust at Château-Thierry and counterattacking at Belleau Wood and Soissons.
Names of these battles and others soon became household words in the States, but the claims of American newspapers that they had “saved” France were exaggerated; at Château-Thierry the AEF had provided only two of the 45 Allied divisions used to stop the German advance. Ironically, the results bore out Pershing’s contention that the French and British could hold out until an American army was ready, but the pressure to hand over his men piecemeal continued.
As many as 250,000 doughboys were arriving every month now, and the logistical problems alone were overwhelming. Pershing responded as he always had, by working all the harder at his Chaumont headquarters, constantly touring the U.S. positions and encampments and paying more attention than ever to detail and discipline. He was equally unsparing of anyone under his command, lambasting or replacing some of his oldest friends from the regular army when he felt they were not up to their tasks. This could become excessive. Encountering the disheveled, weary Rainbow Division just after it served a punishing 82 straight days in the front lines, followed by a 37-mile march through the mud, he bellowed at Colonel Douglas MacArthur that his troops were “a disgrace!” and “just about the worst I have seen.”
To the men, Pershing was “that sonuvabitch [who] roared past our column in his staff car, spattering every one of us with mud and water from head to foot.” He seemed forever cold and unbending, even uncaring. Pershing contributed to this image, working hard to maintain his imposing aura as commander, posing ramrod straight for all photographs and even keeping his pockets empty to emphasize the trim of his uniform. At the same time, he was willing to listen to junior officers or men who had a legitimate complaint or suggestion; retained both his temper and a sense of humor; and worried constantly over the state of his soldiers. It was as if he were trying to physically impart to them his own immeasurable pride, self-control and self-confidence.
“When you stumbled upon a lost American doughboy in a godforsaken Lorraine hamlet,” the journalist Frank H. Simonds wrote, “his bearing, the set of his tunic, his salute, all authentically recalled the general who sat in Chaumont.”
By September he finally had an army, the First American Army—at 550,000 men, the largest in U.S. history, even if its supporting artillery and planes were still supplied by the French. It quickly crushed the Germans’ Saint-Mihiel salient, then turned within two weeks to assault the Meuse-Argonne sector, an area the enemy had made, in the words of Pershing’s chief of staff, James Harbord, “the most comprehensive system of leisurely prepared field defense known to history.” Here, Pershing’s remaining illusions about the murderous nature of trench warfare were shattered. The Argonne was a bloody 47-day slog, one in which Pershing committed close to 1.2 million troops and absorbed 117,000 casualties fighting a much smaller force.
In the end, though, the Germans broke—and it was the end. By the close of the battle, they were left without a single reserve division in the sector, and Hindenburg himself later wrote that the Meuse-Argonne was “our most sensitive point” and that “the American infantry in the Argonne won the war.” It may have been more a coup de grâce than the decisive blow, but the war was over within days, much to Pershing’s chagrin. Alone among the Allied war councils, he had insisted throughout on winning an unconditional surrender from Germany, not merely an armistice.
“We shouldn’t have done it,” he commented at the time. “If they had given us another 10 days, we would have rounded up the entire German army, captured it, humiliated it….The German troops today are marching back into Germany announcing that they have never been defeated….What I dread is that Germany doesn’t know that she was licked.”
It was a prescient insight. In 1944, while living out the final years of his long, pleasant retirement at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Pershing received a birthday message from another President Roosevelt that read in part, “None of us will forget that in 1918 you wanted to go through to Berlin. How right you were!” Such was the vindication of a leader who had taken care to understand both his allies and his enemies.
For further reading, Kevin Baker recommends: Black Jack Pershing, by Richard O’Connor, Pershing, General of the Armies, by Donald Smythe, and Until the Last Trumpet Sounds, by Gene Smith.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.