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John Joseph Pershing: “The Black Jack” of the American Army
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John Joseph Pershing: “The Black Jack” of the American Army

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John Joseph Pershing, one of the most prominent U.S. Army generals of all time, was born this day, September 13, in 1860. Geographically, he was basically born in the middle of nowhere – the town of Laclede, Linn County, Missouri, that would definitely be able to serve as a location of another movie devoted to deep and rural areas of the US. You know - the one with the three billboards on the border of it.

John was born to a family of businessman John Fletcher Pershing and homemaker Ann Elizabeth Thompson, so his family was considered really rich in comparison with his neighbors: since the first years of his life John Joseph Pershing was a Fortunate Son, unlike many of those who he would command when he grew up. 

At the same time, the year Pershing was born indicates that he “witnessed” the Civil War within his home state, but couldn’t remember it, because by the end of it he was just about to turn 5 years old. Yet, since the outcome of it lasted for decades, Pershing, for sure, was a child of war to some extent.  

What did Missouri look like during the Civil War? This is a very interesting issue, since Missouri was a hotly contested border state populated by both Union and Confederate sympathizers. And while one part of its inhabitants fought for the North, the other part chose the South as their side in the most brutal clash in American History, so a mini Civil War was also fought within the borders of the state Pershing was born in. By the end of the war in 1865, about 110 thousand Missourians had served in the Union Army, and no less than 30 thousand fought for the Confederates. The state was also famous for its pro-Confederate partisan movement – “the bushwhackers”.

The fierce nature of the fighting is proven by the fact Missouri saw no less than 1200 skirmishes, battles and minor military engagements within its borders, with the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on the 10th of August 1861 and the Siege of Lexington the following month, being the most famous ones. The only two states where these numbers were higher were Virginia and Tennessee: the main battlefields of the Civil War in terms of the density of military actions. Missouri saw the war. Missouri witnessed it, like no one else.

As for Pershing himself, he attended a school in Laclede that was reserved for the children of prominent citizens. He graduated in 1878, and for the first years of his adulthood was a teacher of local African American children and also studied scientific didactics at the State Normal School, which is now called Truman State University. After receiving his bachelor's degree, he eventually joined the U.S. Military Academy in West Point in 1882. Pershing later confessed he only wanted to get better education there, since in rural Missouri the quality of education was far from perfect. In the fall of 1882 he was sworn in as a cadet at the Academy. Pershing graduated in the summer of 1886 ranked 30th in his class of 77, and was commissioned a second lieutenant.

John Joseph Pershing: “The Black Jack” of the American Army

Late September 1886 lieutenant Pershing was assigned to the 6th U.S. Cavalry unit. The unit was stationed in Fort Bayard in the New Mexico territory, where, at that point, the main “enemy” was the Apache Native Americans tribe. So, that was the first time this future brave general saw action himself.

By the beginning of the Spanish-American war in 1898, having also served as a professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as a commander of the 10th Cavalry Unit, and as an instructor at West Point Academy, where he actually was granted his long-life nickname “The Black Jack”, John Joseph Pershing had been promoted to First Lieutenant and served as the regimental quartermaster for the 10th Cavalry. He fought in the war on Kettle and San Juan Hills (July 1, 1898) in Cuba, and was cited for gallantry.

"Pershing was cool as a bowl of cracked ice…" – the officers who served with him during the Spanish-American War used to say.

Pershing also was among the commanders of the 10th Cavalry Unit of the U.S. Army during the siege and surrender of Santiago-de-Cuba: the heart of Spanish tenure in the Caribbean. He later participated in the Philippine–American wars (1899-1902), where he suppressed the Filipino Insurrection.

However the main battles of Pershing’s life and his marvelous career as the U.S. Army general were yet to come.

President Theodor Roosevelt, also a hero of the Spanish-American War, petitioned the Army General Staff to promote Pershing to colonel, which was against all existing rules at that time, since promotion depended on seniority rather than merit. Teddy Roosevelt and Pershing were good friends; they both certainly were powerful, popular and influential, nevertheless, the Army General Staff didn’t let the promotion happen and declined the Presidential petition.

Pershing was only promoted to the rank of Brigadier General (with great support from Roosevelt) two years later, in the fall of 1905, after serving as an observer in the Russo-Japanese War and military attaché in Tokyo. That meant Pershing was promoted through three ranks and 835 officers senior to him, but as history showed this was the right decision.

After serving as a military observer in the Balkans, Pershing was appointed as the Commander of the 8th Brigade during the 1914 border tensions between the U.S. and Mexico.  During this period of service he experienced the worst personal tragedy of his personal life: on August 27, 1915 his wife and three young daughters died when the family home in Precidio, San Francisco burned down. The only survivor of that catastrophe was a son of John Pershing, Francis Warren. Interestingly, the junior Pershing later had relations with Nita Patton: the younger sister of his protégé, future general George Patton, who was going to play his own important role in American history 30 years later. As the Commander of American forces Pershing also led an unsuccessful expedition to Mexico to overthrow Pancho Villa, who was one of the main actors of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) between March 14, 1916 and February 7, 1917 and dared to attack the bordering city of Columbus, New Mexico five days before.

Several months after the Mexican Expedition, May 10, 1917, Pershing received the appointment of his life: the position of the Commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe, as the American involvement in the Great War started around that time. October 6, 1917, Pershing, then a major general, was promoted to full general in the National Army. He bypassed the three star rank of lieutenant general, and became the first full general since Philip Sheridan in 1888. As AEF commander, Pershing was responsible for logistics, training, and supply of a combined professional and draft Army and National Guard force that eventually grew from 27,000 inexperienced men to two Armies, with a third forming as the war ended, totaling over two million soldiers. Pershing realized how difficult it was for the soldiers to cope with trench warfare, so he introduced an improved combat boot, also called as the "1918 Trench Boot," in January 1918. These boots were so made for walking they received the name “Pershing Boot”. American successes in the fronts of World War One were largely credited to Pershing, and he became the most celebrated military leader of that era.

For his service in World War One he was promoted to General of the Armies September 3, 1919, becoming the first and only person to hold this rank in his lifetime. The other famous man “holding” this rank posthumously is George Washington.

In his later years he was famous for being one of the greatest military advisors the U.S. Army ever had. In 1921 he invented “The Pershing Map”: a proposed national network of military and civilian highways. Interesting, the Interstate Highway System instituted thirty-five year later, in 1956, bears considerable resemblance to the Pershing map. He significantly helped the U.S. Army Headquarters during World War Two, witnessing his earlier protégé General Patton fighting against the Nazis as commander of the U.S. Seventh Army in North Africa and Sicily, and, after the Allied Invasion of Normandy, the U.S. Third Army in France.

No doubt, sending Armored Divisions of the U.S. Third Army equipped with heavy M26 “Pershing” tanks into the enemy lines, General Patton recalled his teacher numerous times with words of respect and honor. Not only heavy-tanks of the Second World War were named after prominent American general: one of the potentially deadliest weapons of the Cold War Era, and one of the mere symbols of it, a solid-fueled two-stage ballistic missile, introduced in the end of the 1960's was given the name "Pershing".

John Joseph Pershing: “The Black Jack” of the American Army

General Pershing survived his beloved apprentice George Patton, who died following a car accident and other health problems on December 21, 1945, a few months after the victory over Nazism, and died at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington D.C. July 15, 1948, aged 87.

Following his last will, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery near the graves of the soldiers he commanded during World War One.

Author: USA Really