John J. Pershing is not a notable name in the American consciousness, unless you are a military historian or perhaps history enthusiast like myself. Although this wasn’t always the case, names from the Second World War and Civil War for some reason have been retained more in the national memory than any from the First World War. I personally find General Pershing to be a fascinating person, given the period of American history that encompassed his life. While most importantly he is credited with getting the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) ready for war in 1917 and developing the U.S. Army into a modern fighting force, his experiences before the war are equally interesting, especially in context of what he would face our young country entered a global war for the first time.
Although he was by no means perfect, either as a human or a commander, here are a few reasons why I admire him, or at the very least, are interesting facts about his life.
1. Born into a country at war with itself
Pershing was born in Missouri in 1860. At this time, Missouri and Kansas were very violent places to live. A month after his birth, the election of 1860 took place, which resulted in the election of Abraham Lincoln, which led to secession, then the firing on Ft. Sumter… etc. etc. (if you don’t know the rest, find yourself some Ken Burns or check out the Civil War Breakfast Club).
Although very young, the Civil War would have a lasting impact on Pershing. he would grow up admiring and studying the Union Generals. As Cadet Captain at West Point, Pershing marched the corps of cadets several miles to present themselves to General Grant’s funeral train when it passed. An aspect of his life I would love to learn more about is the impact the Civil War had on his perspective of the nation and his approach to his military service.
If we fast forward to his death, Pershing would die at age 87 in 1948. Although at the polar beginning and end of his lifetime, he lived through arguably the three greatest conflicts in our nation’s history.
2. He dealt with a horrible personal tragedy
In late 1913, Pershing received orders to take command of a brigade at the Presidio in San Francisco. Not long after, his brigade was deployed to Fort Bliss, Texas, due to tensions on the Mexican border. His family, consisting of his wife Helen (who went by Frankie) and four children stayed behind in San Francisco. During this separation the family’s home had an accidental fire that resulted in the deaths of his wife and three of the four children. Only his son Francis Warren, age 6 at the time, survived.
It was a grief that he would carry with him the rest of his life. The grief was compounded by the loss of so many of his men in France. Despite his gruff exterior, by all accounts he was quite an emotional man, to the point that he suffered a breakdown towards the end of the First World War.
3. He hunted down Pancho Villa.
Andrew Carroll opens his book “My Fellow Soldiers” with this photo:
Left to right, we have Mexican general Alvaro Obregon and General Francisco “Pancho” Villa with General John Pershing in 1914.
If you don’t know anything about the Pancho Villa (or Punitive) expedition, look it up. It’s nuts. The long and short of it is that in 1916 Pershing was given 12,000 some soldiers to go into Mexico and hunt down one man. While he was never captured, Pershing did have some success, and this expedition gave him combat experience that would come to be very useful.
4. He didn’t give into French and British demands.
When the U.S. entered the war, what did the Allies want from us? Men, of course. Young, healthy men who hadn’t already been wearied by three years of war. Both the French and British wanted American troops to be integrated into their units upon arrival in Europe. Pershing adamantly refused. Americans would fight independently under their own flag and in their own divisions.
Today that probably seems like the typical American (stubborn) attitude, but it is important to remember at the time America was a small force. While the country itself was growing rapidly it terms of industry and population, the military was far behind. Our forces would grow from a few hundred thousand to two million in a year and a half.
Despite all the pressures from our allies immediately after joining the war, Pershing focused on training and supplying troops, very much aware of what was at stake. That’s why it took a year before we arrived in Europe in substantial numbers, but it paid off.
5. He is on par with George Washington
Only two U.S. officers have held a rank higher than General of the Army or Fleet Admiral: Pershing and George Washington, who held the rank of General of the Armies. Pershing was promoted to General of the Armies in 1919, and Washington received a posthumous promotion in 1976, as part of the United States’ bicentennial celebration (more here).