November 11, 2015
The allied forces were crushed under the German onslaught that threatened all of Europe. The allies were in desperate need for American reinforcements as they battled from trench to trench and faced certain death the moment they entered no man’s land. The tide of World War 1 began to turn as American General “Black Jack” Pershing and his troops arrived in St. Mihiel in September 1918. Pershing then led the AEF in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in October and early November. The effectiveness of this attack so dismembered the German defensive positions, they were forced to negotiate an armistice.
John “Black Jack” Pershing remains the highest ranked military General, sharing the Title ‘General of the Armies’ with only General George Washington himself. Pershing’s leadership skills were evident from his beginning at West Point. Even as an average student, he quickly rose to the rank of First Captain, the highest possible cadet rank, and his classmates elected him class president of 1886. He graduated 30th out of 77 but was commended by General Wesley Merritt for his “superb ability”. Upon graduation the 26-year-old was sent to Fort Bayard in the New Mexico Territory as a Second Lieutenant.
From Fort Bayard, Pershing spent the next five years participating in several successful campaigns against Indian tribes. Because of his skills as a commander, he was assigned to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as a Professor of Military Science and Tactics. While there he obtained a law degree and was promoted to first lieutenant.
In 1895 he was assigned the command of the 10th Calvary Regiment, one of the original Black “Buffalo Soldier” units. A few years later, while instructing at West Point with the tactical staff, his strict and rigid style led the indignant cadets to nickname him “Nigger Jack”, due to his connection with the 10th Calvary. Though the name later changed to “Black Jack”, his famous moniker was not a term of endearment, but derision.
When war broke out with Spain in April of 1898, Pershing was reunited with the Black soldiers of the 10th Calvary in active duty. At the time, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, resigned his position in order to organize a regiment of cowboys and college men, dubbed the “Rough Riders”, to fight in the war. Due to a mix-up when leaving Tampa, half of his Calvary regiment and all their horses were left in Florida. Teddy Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders” charged up San Juan Hill on foot, accompanied by Pershing and his Buffalo Soldiers. Pershing’s gallantry at San Juan Hill was immediately noticed by Roosevelt and eventually by the entire military. (see A Tale Of Two Soldiers) “Black Jack” received the Silver Citation Star in 1919 for his actions which was later upgraded to the Silver Star decoration in 1932.
Over the next several years, Pershing served commands in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippines and Japan of which he was cited for bravery on multiple occasions. Roosevelt, who became President in 1901 upon the assassination of William McKinley, knew well of Pershing’s skills and valor. When Pershing returned to the states in 1903, Roosevelt appealed the Army General Staff to promote him from captain to colonel. Though it was agreed Pershing should serve as a colonel, the tradition of promotion in the military at the time was seniority-based, not merit-based. The Army General Staff rejected Roosevelt’s petition.
As President, Roosevelt only had the authority to promote Generals. To circumvent the military structure Roosevelt turned to the United States Congress to authorize a diplomatic posting. Pershing was assigned to Tokyo as military attaché in 1905. Before leaving, he married Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of Republican Senator Francis E. Warren, who also happened to be chairman of the Military Appropriations Committee.
When Pershing returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1905, Roosevelt nominated Pershing to Brigadier General, which Congress approved. In doing so Pershing skipped over three ranks and 835 higher seniority officers. Even though the move was not unprecedented, it did not stop the accusations of political ties over military abilities. Roosevelt addressed the criticisms, noting "To promote a man because he married a senator's daughter would be an infamy; to refuse him promotion for the same reason would be an equal infamy."
Over the next several years, Pershing and his family were bounced around the world with only one of his four children being born in the United States. In December of 1913, Pershing was commissioned to San Francisco to command the 8th Brigade at the Presidio. He was there only a few months before the tensions on the American-Mexican border resulted in the brigade being deployed to Fort Bliss, Texas.
After over a year apart, Pershing sent for his family in August of 1915. While the final arrangements were being made, a fire in the Presidio claimed the life of his wife and their 3 daughters. The only surviving family member was his 6-year-old son Warren. Devastated, Pershing buried his family in Wyoming before returning to Fort Bliss with his son and his sister, Mary, to resume his command.
During his time at Fort Bliss, Pershing formed a political friendship with Pancho Villa, who sent his condolences after the death of his wife and daughters. But in March of 1916, Villa attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, after the United States chose to support Venustiano Carranza over him. Despite obstacles from both the American and Mexican governments, as well as insufficient supplies, Pershing led 10,000 troops, including your great-grandfather, in the Mexican Punitive Expedition to track down Villa. The troops infiltrated 350 miles into Mexico in a quest to capture Villa. Though they tracked Villa, they were unable to ever capture him. Despite the failure to apprehend Villa, Pershing was promoted to Major General in September of 1916.
When the United States entered World War I in April of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson selected Pershing as the Commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) with a promotion to full General. Even though Democrat President Wilson and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker gave him full delegation of authority, their political and racist “separate but equal” policies tied Pershing’s hands in regards to utilizing black regiments along with other American troops. “Black Jack’s” past experience leading black units alongside white units let him know the quality and bravery of such troops. However, unlike Republican administrations, Pershing could not allow black units to participate with the American forces. Even though the Buffalo Soldiers were the first Americans to fight in France in 1918, Pershing was forced to assign them under French command, separate from the other American Forces, where they remained for the duration of the war.
Pershing began building an American Army using many of the soldiers that helped him on the Mexican border. Assigned to the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion, your great-grandfather sailed to France in June of 1917 as part of the 1st Infantry Division. Among the very first troops to enter the war, these soldiers became known as “The Fighting First” as well as “The Big Red One” (see Duty First), due to their shoulder patch displaying a red number one on army green. On July 4th, days after arriving in France, Pershing marched through Paris with members of the 2nd Battalion and 16th Infantry to raise the spirits of the French. Stopping at Lafayette’s tomb, Pershing’s aide, Colonel Charles E. Stanton, declared, “Lafayette, we are here!” (see Hero Of Two Worlds 1 & 2)
Pershing quickly discovered the English and French were not interested in waiting for a strong American Army to be assembled. The European’s simply wanted men. The French initially trained the first American divisions, but Pershing refused to allow this to remain a permanent arrangement. American’s fought in concert with Allied leadership until Pershing was able to organize a full American Army. Still insisting the AEF fight under American command, Pershing did loan out some divisions to Allied forces during critical times in the spring of 1918. It wasn’t until August of 1918 that the American Army was completely under Pershing’s direct command.
It only took Pershing’s Army four months to put the final blows on the German forces. All other members of the Central Powers had declared a ceasefire. Much to Pershing’s dismay, the Allied Supreme War Council accepted Germany’s truce in November. He wanted the Allies to continue fighting until an unconditional surrender was obtained, even sending the Council a letter demanding as such. President Wilson was eager to end the war, though, before the mid-term elections.
“The Great War” was officially over on the 11th hour of the 11th day on the 11th month of 1918. Barely evading a serious reprimand by Wilson’s administration, Pershing soon after apologized for his boldness to the Council. Years later, many agreed Pershing was right in his strategy, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Pershing returned to America a celebrated war hero. Recognizing his outstanding leadership in creating a powerful national Army from the ground up, Congress approved the formation of a new rank, General of the Armies of the United States, which Pershing was promoted to in 1919. In the history of the country, he is the only living general to hold this rank. Pershing chose to wear four gold stars as his insignia but still outranks the rank of five-star General of the Army, created in 1944. In 1976, during our country’s 200th Anniversary, President Gerald Ford posthumously promoted General George Washington to the same rank of General of the Armies. Pershing and Washington are the only two men in history to hold such a rank.
Realizing good military leaders make good Commander in Chiefs, a movement began across the nation to nominate Pershing for President in 1920. He refused to campaign, but said he “wouldn’t decline to serve” if the people choose him. However, due to his military service under Wilson, many Republicans considered him too closely connected to Wilson’s Democrat policies. The party nominated Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding instead.
Pershing was appointed Chief of Staff of the United States Army in 1921. During his three years of service, he created a national network of military and civilian highways, known as the Pershing Map. His actual proposal was never adopted. However, the Interstate Highway System enacted by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 overwhelming favored his design.
Forced to retire on his 64th birthday on September 13, 1924, Pershing published his memoirs, My experiences in the World War. This not only brought him additional fame but the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for history. Pershing moved to Washington D.C. in 1944, where he died at Walter Reed Hospital on July 15, 1948. He was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery among the soldiers he commanded in Europe.
Liberty, William Shakespeare once wrote, “Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” Pershing was not the best student, but he sought out the best education he could. He was given assignments with the odds stacked against him and he prevailed. His troops and cadets often bulked at his strict military discipline, but he stuck to his principles because he knew it meant their lives. He never sought to be great, he just sought to do what was right.
On this Veterans’ (Armistice) Day we should bow our heads to all those who have given their lives for our freedom. May we not make their sacrifice in vain.
That’s my 2 cents.
(Click HERE to see a letter from Gen. Pershing to the AEF forces after the War.)
THE FORGOTTEN GENERAL