Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Missouri Farmer to General of the Armies: The Transformation of John J. Pershing




During nearly forty years of service, General John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing  rose from a frontier cavalry officer to the leader of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. His military skill transformed the nearly nonexistent American Army into a professional fighting force that changed the course of the Great War.  In 1919, Pershing was promoted to General of the Armies of the United States - the highest possible officer rank in the US Army. The only other man to ever hold this rank was George Washington. 

This week, Over There project staff visited Gen. John J. Pershing Boyhood Home State Historic Site to gain insight into how a humble upbringing in Laclede, Missouri, influenced one of the greatest military leaders in American history.
Young John J. Pershing, SHS 029289
John Joseph Pershing was born on September 13, 1860 in Linn County, Missouri. Pershing was brought into a life filled with war, sudden poverty, and family tragedy. He was one of nine children born to John Fletcher Pershing and Ann Thompson Pershing. Only he and two of his sisters lived to adulthood.  From an early age he learned to face these hardships with a trait that would become one of his most memorable qualities: resolve.

In June of 1864 - the fourth year of the Civil War - three year old John J. Pershing had his first militant encounter. A group of Confederate bushwhackers had invaded Laclede and began corralling the townspeople at gunpoint into the village square. John Fletcher Pershing was an established Unionist, making he and his store a primary target for the raiding bushwhackers. After being warned about the commotion by store clerk Henry Lomax, John Fletcher Pershing and his young son escaped into a back alley and carefully made their way home, passing by the bodies of townspeople who had been killed. Once inside their home, John Fletcher Pershing ordered young Pershing to lay flat on their living room floor, then armed himself with a shotgun and took aim from his front room window at the bushwhackers who were, by then, looting his store. At the insistence of his wife, John Fletcher Pershing never fired. The family made it through the raid unscathed, but the event introduced young Pershing to the fear and realities of war-torn Missouri.

Pershing's parents worked hard to instill a sense of piety in the young boy. John Fletcher Pershing's efforts were a driving force behind getting a new Methodist Church built in Laclede. Most of the high standing townspeople he associated with were members of the church, and ministers often stopped by their home.  Ann Thompson Pershing led the family prayers every night and encouraged the family to walk to church together each Sunday. Young Pershing attended Sunday school at an early age and went to Methodist summer camp every year.
 
Pershing attended the one-roomed Laclede public schoolhouse, where he excelled in his studies. White haired, blue-eyed John was well liked by his fellow classmates.  "As a student he worked diligently at whatever there was to do. I don't know if he was any brighter than the rest of the boys, but the had a settled conviction that if he could make something of himself by hard work he was going to do it. He was of a quiet, methodical temperament," recalled his classmate, Charlie Spurgeon.

During Pershing's childhood, his father was one of the most prominent citizens in Laclede. He owned a lumber yard and two 160 acre farms, ran a general store, and served as village postmaster. However, the Panic of 1873 caused the Pershing family to loose much of their wealth and property.  John Fletcher Pershing took a job as a traveling salesman, and the hard work of maintaining the family farm fell to fourteen year old Pershing. By taking on the role of the family patriarch, Pershing developed the determination and work-hardened body that were necessary for ensuring the success of his family's farm.  Later in life, Pershing reflected that "it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It taught me more, gave me greater confidence and a keener sense of responsibility than anything else could have done" (Pershing, 1932).

John J. Pershing Teacher's Contract,  SHS C2038
To pursue his dreams of a higher education, Pershing continued to educate himself while running the family farm, and earned his teacher certification in August of 1878. He began teaching at Prairie Mound School in Chariton County, Missouri and saved his earnings for college.  In 1879, Pershing enrolled in Kirksville Normal School (now Truman State University), where he studied education and law. 

In Kirksville, an advertisement announcing an entrance exam for the US Military Academy at West Point caught Pershing's eye. If he passed, he would have the opportunity to earn a free education.  Only one person from each congressional district could win the appointment. With the encouragement and support of his sister Elizabeth, Pershing studied through the night for weeks. He earned the top exam score in his district and boarded a train for West Point in 1882. He assured his mother that he was not committing himself to army life, only taking advantage of a free education. Pershing struggled academically during his first year at West Point, but was elected as class president four years in a row.

Pershing's military career escalated quickly after graduation. His first assignment was in New Mexico with the Sixth Cavalry, where he fought Apaches led by Geronimo. In 1890, Pershing and the Sixth Cavalry played a role in suppressing the last uprisings of the Lakota Sioux Indians. During the Spanish-American War he was promoted to first lieutenant, then served as commander of a troop of the Tenth Cavalry, an African-American "buffalo soldier" regiment.  Pershing's acceptance of this post, as well as his insistence that buffalo soldiers be treated fairly, attested to his belief in equality and fair treatment despite the racial prejudices of the time. This is perhaps due to Pershing's relationships with African-Americans he knew in Laclede; when Pershing was young, his family employed an African-American stock worker, nursemaid, and cook, and he grew up playing with their children.

Pershing in uniform, SHS 017275


Pershing continued his teaching career  in 1897.  He spent several years teaching military strategy at both West Point and at the University of Nebraska, where students initially disliked him for his rigidity. It was they who dubbed him "Black Jack," because of his affiliation with African-American buffalo soldiers. Despite it's derogatory intent, the nickname stuck with him, and eventually became an endearment. As early as 1917 the American public was fondly referring to him as "Black Jack."

After Spain was defeated in the Spanish-American War, Pershing and the Tenth Cavalry were sent to the newly acquired Philippines. He was cited for bravery and succeeded in pacifying the native Moro tribes partly due to his excellent diplomacy skills. His successes earned him a diplomatic post in Tokyo during the Russo-Japanese War and later as a military observer of the Balkans. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt promoted Pershing to a brigadier general.

In 1905, Pershing married Helen Frances Warren, the suffragette daughter of senator Francis E. Warren. Together they moved to the Philippines in 1909, where Pershing served as the commander of Fort McKinley and governor of the Moro Province until 1913.  They had four children, Helen, Ann, Warren, and Margaret. In 1913, Pershing was transferred to San Francisco  where he began patrolling the Mexican border with the 8th Brigade.

In 1915, tragedy struck.  While Pershing was on assignment in Texas, he received word that his wife and three daughters had died in a fire in San Francisco.   Pershing was devastated, and those who knew him said he never recovered from their deaths.  His six year old son, Warren, survived the fire, and Pershing took Warren with him when he returned to duty in Texas. Pershing's sister, May, accompanied them, and was eventually responsible for Warren's care.

In March of 1916, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, killing eighteen Americans soldiers and civilians and wounding ten others. In response, President Woodrow Wilson ordered  Pershing to organize and command the Mexican Punitive Expedition.  Leading a force of thousands of men, Pershing hunted Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries through Mexico for nearly a year. The expedition was unsuccessful, in large part due to the Mexican government's interference. Pershing was eventually ordered to stop the pursuit.

From the St. Louis Globe Democrat, 9/13/1919 SHS C3223
Pershing past experiences made him an idea candidate to lead the American Expeditionary Forces into Europe. Two months after the US declared war, Woodrow Wilson appointed Pershing responsible for the organization, training, and supplying of the American Expeditionary Forces. Upon his arrival in Europe, Pershing was pressured by  European allies to lend out American soldiers to fill in the depleted European forces, who would then be lead by French officers. Pershing refused to give in, arguing that a unified American army would hurt German morale. An exception was made for African-American soldiers; Pershing understood the prevalent racial attitudes of the time, and followed Woodrow Wilson's segregation policies, which prevented African American soldiers from fighting alongside the rest of the American Expeditionary Forces. Most African-American regiments fought under French command for the duration of the war.

Pershing led American forces to victories at Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne.  Despite his victories, his military tactics were criticized; his frustration at the slowness of trench warfare resulted in decisions that caused unnecessary heavy casualties. However, it is widely agreed that the efforts of the American Expeditionary Forces, under the leadership of Pershing, were instrumental in Allied victory.

Pershing emerged as the most celebrated American hero of the first World War. He disliked the recognition, and insisted that he just wanted to go home to Missouri, and someday be buried beneath the same white headstone as all of the boys he had fought alongside. In 1919, Congress named Pershing General of the Armies. To this day, he outranks every military officer that has ever served, with the exception of George Washington.

In 1920, there was a public movement encouraging Pershing to be president. He had done his best to stay out of politics as much as possible during his service, and following in that trend, he refused to actively campaign for presidency. Instead, Pershing served as Chief of Staff from 1921-1924, and designed the new framework of the US Army. He also devoted much of his time to the American Battlefield Monument Commission.  He officially retired in 1924, but served as a consultant for the Army during World War II. In 1932, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his published his memoir, My Experiences in the World War.

John J. Pershing Boyhood Home and Historic Site
In 1921, Pershing joined Lieutenant General Baron Jacques of Belgium, Admiral David Beatty of Great Britain, Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France and General Armando Diaz of Italy at the groundbreaking ceremony at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.

In 1948, John J. Pershing passed away at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington DC. His funeral was attended by an estimated 300,000 people. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Today at the John J. Pershing Boyhood Home and Historic Site, visitors can explore the Victorian home that Pershing grew up in, as well as tour the Prairie Mound School, which features an exhibit that displays the stages of Pershing's life. The facility has exciting plans to expand in the coming years with additional exhibit space and an archives.


 Bibliography and Recommendations for Further Reading

Goldhurst, Richard. Pipe Clay and Drill: John J. Pershing, the Classic American Soldier. Crowell, 1977.

Harper, Kimberly, Stephanie Kukulian. John Joseph Pershing. Historic Missourians. The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Lomax, Victor W., "Oh Yes, Some Called Him 'Black Jack,"  Manuscript Collection C3078. The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Pershing, John J. "We Are at War." The American Magazine, (June 1932.)

Pershing, John J. My Experiences in the World War. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1931.

Smythe, Donald. “The Early Years of John J. Pershing: 1860–1882.” The Missouri Historical Review. v. 58, no. 1 (October 1963), pp. 1-20.