General John J. Pershing

The recent decision to turn Pershing Park, near the White House, into a National World War I Memorial has re-focused attention on the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.)----General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. The man himself had a wide and varied career even before the War.

If not quite born in a log cabin, Pershing’s beginnings were humble enough. His father was a foreman in the Hannibal & St. Louis railroad, raising his growing family in a shanty near Laclede, Missouri. Pershing himself was born there on September 13, 1860.

When Pershing was still in his teens, he took his first job as a schoolteacher in an Afro-American school. Local bullies tried to attack Pershing for this, but he always fought back----and won. Meanwhile during the summer months he attended Kirkville Normal School, getting an A.B. degree in 1880.

And then, came the moment that changed the rest of his life, and that of many other people. By chance, Pershing came across an ad for West Point, seeking “honest, strong, God-fearing boys.” He took the entrance tests, achieved “top honors,” and joined West Point in 1882.

Pershing graduated in 1886, 30th in a class of 77. His first posting was at Fort Bayard, New Mexico, where, among other things, he became a 1st lieutenant commanding a unit of Afro-American cavalry, the “buffalo soldiers.” One theory is that this is where he got his nickname of “Black Jack” Pershing. Another explanation is that it was an old army term for a punishment detail. Apparently, Pershing could be a strict disciplinarian at times.

Returning to West Point as an instructor, he served in Cuba during the 1898 Spanish American War, achieving the rank of Captain. In 1899, he was sent to the Philippines, to put down revolts by the Moros tribe.

In September 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as a brigadier general, ahead of 862 other officers with more seniority. In 1914 Pershing was sent to the Mexican border. In 1916 and 1917 he entered Mexico itself, in a futile effort to catch Pancho Villa, who had been attacking Americans across the border.

Pershing became a major-general just before the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. This time he was appointed over the heads of 5 other major-generals, to become the commander of the AEF. On June 13, 1917, he landed in France, at Boulogne. Pershing’s arrival in Paris was greeting by tens of thousands of well-wishers lining the streets, waving American flags and shouting “Vive l’Amerique!”.

The American military at this time was a small, mostly inexperienced force, the result of decades of neglect and budget-cutting. It would take time to turn it into a professional force numbering in the millions, and able to fight a major war.

Meanwhile, there soon followed a major development that would increase the pressure on Pershing in particular and the western front in general. Germany had defeated Russia on the eastern front, imposing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in January 1918, whereby Germany occupied eastern Europe almost as far as Moscow, a continent-sized empire. This freed up a large number of German soldiers to send to the western front in France and Belgium.

Now the question was, could the Allies on the western front, bled white by 3 years of war, hold out until the Americans arrived in sufficient numbers to make a difference? Germany’s spring offensive did push back the Allied lines to within some 50 miles of Paris, but the Allied lines held and did not break.

Needless to say, the British, France, and others were frantic to get as many American soldiers into action as possible, as soon as possible. They wanted to integrate American soldiers into their depleted units at once. Pershing, however, insisted on keeping his men under one unified command, which led to delays. Occasionally, he even had shouting matches on the subject with other Allied leaders.

But when the AEF got into action, it made a difference, pushing back the German army at places such as Catigny, Chateau-Thierry, St. Michiel, and Meuse-Argonne. By mid-1918 the German government was faced with 2 million American soldiers among the Allied ranks, and 2 million more on the way.

Germany agreed to surrender, doing so on November 11, 1918. Back then it was called Armistice Day. Now, in the U.S., at least, it is called Veterans Day.

At this point there came what was probably the low point of Pershing’s career. Pershing was of the opinion that the War should continue until Germany was fully occupied. Otherwise, they might convince themselves that Germany hadn’t really lost, and might decide to try again.

In fact, in the 1920s and 1930s, just such a myth appeared, that Germany had not actually been defeated, but had been “stabbed in the back” by the new Weimar republic. It made a useful rallying cry for demagogues such as Hitler.

Nevertheless, Armistice Day was decided on as the end of World War I. But on November 11, Pershing still ordered his men into battle, resulting in an extra and avoidable 3500 casualties.

After World War I, Pershing lived quietly, unsuccessfully warning the Harding administration not to cut back the armed forces to a bare-bone level of 115,000, in case of another war someday. In 1922, Pershing was interviewed in the May 19 New York Times, warning: “It is inconceivable that the lessons of the war, to learn which we paid such a tremendous price…have seemingly gone unheeded by the people of our country.”

In 1939 he paid a last visit to France, and lived to witness the new war he had been warning against.

There is now a statue of General Pershing in Pershing Park, gazing in the direction of the General Sherman equestrian statue across the street.

Bronze statue of General John Pershing
Pershing Park on Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C.

NPS