General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing began his rise through the ranks of the U.S. Army with distinguished service in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines. After leading U.S. forces in pursuit of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, Pershing served as commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during World War I.
Early Life and Launch of Military Career
Pershing was born in 1860 near the small Missouri town of Laclede. While still a teenager, he got a job teaching at a school for African American students. After seeing an advertisement for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Pershing applied and won acceptance in 1882. He graduated four years later, ranking 30th in a class of 77.
Pershing spent the first years of his military fighting in U.S. campaigns against the Apache and Sioux Native Americans in New Mexico, Arizona and other outposts in the West. In Montana, he was promoted to first lieutenant of the 10th Cavalry, becoming one of the first white officers to command an all-Black regiment. Pershing often expressed praise and admiration for the Black soldiers he commanded, which may have earned him the nickname “Black Jack”—although an alternative theory holds it was due to his strict attitude toward discipline.
Service in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines
After spending several years teaching military science and tactics at the University of Nebraska (where he also obtained his law degree) and returning to West Point as an instructor, Pershing headed to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War. In 1898, he and the 10th Cavalry Regiment fought bravely in the Battles of Santiago and San Juan Hill alongside Theodore Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders.” Pershing earned a Silver Star for his service and was promoted to the rank of captain.
After the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War, Pershing sailed for the Philippines, where he led American soldiers in repeated efforts to subdue the rebellious Moro tribes. In 1906, Roosevelt (now president) promoted Pershing to brigadier general, vaulting him over more than 800 other more senior officers.
Personal Tragedy and Role in Pursuit of Pancho Villa
After another tour in the Philippines from 1906-13, Pershing returned to the United States, where he was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco and placed in command of the Army’s 8th Brigade. In August 1915, while Pershing and his men were on assignment in Fort Bliss, Texas to defend the southern border from attacks by Mexican bandits, a fire broke out at the Presidio. Pershing’s wife, Helen Frances, and three daughters died of smoke inhalation; only his son, Warren, survived.
Devastated by the loss, Pershing threw himself into his work. In March 1916, President Woodrow Wilson tasked him with leading an expedition of nearly 12,000 soldiers into Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa, a Mexican revolutionary whose forces had recently raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Pershing’s forces were restricted by U.S. unwillingness to incite war with Mexico, and though Villa remained at large after nearly a year’s pursuit, Pershing earned Wilson’s praise for his handling of the expedition.
Leadership in World War I
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Wilson bypassed five other major-generals to appoint Pershing as commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). U.S. armed forces expanded quickly during the conflict, and Pershing was tasked with turning some 2 million relatively inexperienced troops into a professional fighting force. Soon after he arrived in France with the first AEF troops in June 1917, Germany defeated Russia, freeing up large numbers of German soldiers to face the Allies on the Western Front.
Though French and British officers wanted to absorb AEF troops immediately into their units, Pershing insisted on keeping Americans under a single unified command, even as the Germans pushed ahead with a spring offensive in 1918. But when U.S. troops entered combat in earnest that May, they made an immediate impact, pushing back the Germans in key battles at Catigny, Chateau-Thierry and St. Mihiel. The Allied victory in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive led Germany to seek an armistice, ending the war on November 11, 1918. Pershing argued against the armistice, believing that fighting should continue until Germany surrendered unconditionally.
Pershing’s Later Years
When Pershing returned home, Congress made him only the second person (after George Washington) to be honored with the rank of “General of the Armies of the United States.” As the war’s greatest American hero, he was considered a possible president, but failed to win the 1920 Republican nomination. He served as U.S. Army chief of staff from 1921 to 1924, and remained a respected adviser on military matters for decades to come.
In 1932, Pershing won the Pulitzer Prize in History for his two-volume memoir, My Experiences in the World War. When World War II broke out in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed as army chief of staff George C. Marshall, one of many younger military leaders Pershing had commanded during his career. Others included George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In 1946, at the age of 85, Pershing secretly married Micheline Resco, a much younger French-Romanian artist he had met in Paris during World War I and been discreetly involved with for nearly 30 years. He died on July 15, 1948 at the age of 88.
John J. Pershing. Historic Missourians.
Today in History: July 15. Library of Congress.
General John J. Pershing. National Park Service.
Andrew Carroll. My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War. (Penguin Press, 2017)