The following article on John J Pershing is an excerpt from H.W Crocker III’s The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The General of the Armies, John J Pershing (1860-1948) was born in Missouri a year before the War Between the States. One of his earliest memories was of his proudly Unionist, anti-slavery father barricading the house and holding off pro-slavery raiders (when Pershing was four).
At the end of his teenage years, he became a school teacher, and showed a facility for facing down young toughs, and occasionally their parents—at least in the case of one rawboned farmer who came riding to the school swearing murder, packing a gun, and looking for vengeance against the teacher who had dared whip his son for kicking a dog. The stalwartJohn J Pershing presented himself to the farmer and convinced him to settle the matter mano-a-mano; Pershing, eighteen years old, took the farmer apart, and in the rough-and-ready fashion of the time, farmer and son came to see things Pershing’s way.
When not laying down the law in the classroom, he was attending classes himself at a small local college, where he scraped together enough credits to be awarded a bachelor’s degree in something called “scientific didactics.” When the chance presented itself to take the qualifying examination for West Point, he seized it, not because he wanted to be a soldier—he had his eye on practicing law—but because he considered it a free ticket to a quality education. He passed the preliminary qualifying examination and then crammed his way through the even more exacting entrance test into the Academy.
JOHN J PERSHING: A NATURAL LEADER
Older than most of his fellow cadets—in fact at twenty-two Pershing was just under the age limit for entering the Academy—he took naturally to command; and for someone often regarded as austere, unsentimental, and a bit of a martinet, he was surprisingly prominent at dances and popular with girls. Some looked askance at this, but among his fellows he was a soldier’s soldier, and his interest in presenting an immaculate appearance was as military as it was social. His one unmartial characteristic—unexpected in one so self-disciplined— was that he was perpetually late. A middling student, he was nevertheless class president and captain of the cadet corps. He graduated and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1886. Given a choice of branches, he selected the cavalry, hoping to get a shot at some Indian fighting.
His wish was granted on his very first assignment, when he was sent to New Mexico and skirmished against marauding Apaches. He later saw action against the Sioux in South Dakota. Throughout his years as an Indian fighter,John J Pershing distinguished himself as a tough, talented, and dedicated officer. He taught himself Indian languages; led a company of Sioux scouts; became an expert marksman with revolver and rifle; looked after his men to an unusual degree, ensuring they were properly provided with clothing, supplies, and equipment (especially during the winter campaigning in South Dakota); and almost invariably retired with a book in his hand. Before he took up instructing duties at West Point in 1897, he commanded a unit of “Buffalo Soldiers,” black cavalrymen, in Montana. His mission was to catch and return renegade Cree Indians to Canada. He had already caught the eye of veteran Indian fighter General Nelson Miles, who made Pershing his aide-de-camp and then recommended him as an instructor to the Military Academy.
He was less successful with the cadets at West Point than he had been with the cadets in Nebraska. The West Pointers found him too strict by half. Behind his back they called him “Nigger Jack,” from his experience with the buffalo soldiers. What started as an insult became his nomme de guerre, for nothing better described Pershing’s tough, hard personality than “Black Jack”—the sort one cracks over another’s skull.
When the Spanish-American War erupted in 1898, West Point instructors were charged with staying at their posts and training new officers.John J Pershing naturally wanted to see action. He pleaded his case, succeeded, and rejoined his Buffalo Soldiers, this time as a quartermaster of the 10th Cavalry Regiment. It wasn’t the job he wanted, but amid the chaos of preparing for the invasion of Cuba, he ensured that his men were as well provisioned as possible. In Cuba, his conduct under hostile fire was exemplary. His commanding officer, Colonel Theodore Baldwin, was so impressed he wrote Pershing a letter stating flatly, “I have been in many fights and through the Civil War, but on my word ‘You were the coolest and bravest man I ever saw under fire in my life.’” Pershing charged up San Juan Hill, battled through malaria (which cut a swath through the Americans), and added to his duties that of regimental adjutant and commander of three troops of cavalry. Even with a fever, he relished his additional responsibilities.
JOHN J PERSHING’S JOURNEY FROM THE BORDER TO THE MARNE
Years passed. On 9 March 1916, Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa, angry at American support for his nemesis Mexican president Venustiano Carranza and hungry for supplies, raided Columbus, New Mexico, killing eighteen Americans and leaving more than two hundred of his own banditos behind as casualties. Pershing’s mission was to track him down (with the help of Apache scouts), punish him, and avoid provoking the Mexican government, which was itself at war with Villa but did not welcome gringos across the border. Pershing’s column traversed hundreds of miles into Mexican territory. While Villa avoided capture, Pershing’s troopers bloodied Villa’s banditti (and Villa himself) and effectively ended the guerrilla threat to America’s southern border. It was, de facto, a tremendous training exercise. Pershing had under his command the largest American army in the field since the War Between the States. The fact that Pershing’s men had skirmishes with Mexican troops, which fell short of escalating into war, only added to the vigor of the exercise—useful experience when, just two months later, the United States was officially at war with Germany.
Secretary of War Newton Baker narrowed the competition for command of the American Expeditionary Force to two candidates— Leonard Wood and John J Pershing. Wood, though the senior of the two, had the disadvantage of being highly political, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and a possible Republican presidential candidate. All that leapt Pershing to the top of the list—and Baker stayed resolutely loyal to his chosen commander. Pershing needed loyalty because his task was formidable. He had to create, from the barest of essentials already in existence, a massive new army that could join the fighting line in Europe. He would, at least, have very little interference from the White House. The president disdained military matters, and his one instruction to Pershing was entirely to the general’s liking. Pershing’s first—and near constant—battle was to prevent America’s infantry from being parceled up into replacement units for the French and the British. This Anglo-French tack had behind it the logic of speed—it would get American combat troops to the front faster. From the Western Allies’ point of view, it had the additional advantage of expediting American casualties, which they assumed would heat up the blood of the American people for jumping into the fray.
John J Pershing was insistent that the American Expeditionary Force remain an independent American command, entire and whole, and not be amalgamated piecemeal into the British and French armies. President Wilson’s orders to Pershing, via Newton Baker, stated,
In military operations against the Imperial German Government you are directed to cooperate with the forces of other countries employed against that enemy; but in doing so the underlying idea must be kept in view that the forces of the United States are a separate and distinct component of the combined forces, the identity of which must be preserved. This fundamental rule is subject to such minor exceptions in particular circumstances as your judgment may approve. . . . You will exercise full discretion in determining the manner of cooperation.
Just as Field Marshal Haig and Marshal Joffre seemed to epitomize their respective nationalities, Pershing fit the British and French image of what an American officer should be: a fit, confident, firmjawed, no-nonsense man of military business. Even if his opponents had been heretofore limited to Indians and banditos, Moros and Spaniards, behind him lay the immense promise of America’s manpower—if only it could be mobilized, trained, and brought to bear on the Western Front in time.
Aside from trench raids and scuffles, it was more than a year from John J Pershing’s appointment as commander of the American Expeditionary Force to its first major battle, at Cantigny. But once committed, Pershing expected his men to show their tenacity. At Cantigny they did, taking and holding their position at the cost of more than a thousand casualties. A small theater of war, perhaps, but big enough for those who were in it, and big enough for Pershing to prove that the Americans could hold a position that the French had not. In June 1918, the Americans proved their mettle again—this time at Belleau Wood. It was a small patch of hell that cost the Marines five thousand casualties, but once again the Americans showed an offensive spirit that had long abandoned the French and that impressed the Germans. Pershing, visiting a hospital after the battle, received an apology from a wounded Marine for not saluting. His right arm was gone. Pershing replied, “It is I who should salute you.”7 In July, Pershing’s men turned back the German assault at Château-Thierry, with the 3rd Division earning its distinction as “the Rock of the Marne.”
ON TO VICTORY
With Ludendorff’s offensives spent, John J Pershing was for going on the attack. The American Expeditionary Force could now bring, in rough terms, as many fighting men to the Western Front as the British or the French. They were much less experienced, but their esprit de corps was unmatched; indeed, their only real match were the elite units of the German army. Despite the machinations of Marshal Foch, who wanted to subordinate the AEF to the French, Pershing stubbornly insisted on—and with the help of General Pétain succeeded in—keeping his army intact to reduce Saint-Mihiel, which the Americans did before rapidly swinging into action for the final great push in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign. If there was any doubt about the AEF’s fighting prowess, about its crucial role in ensuring an Allied victory, it was answered here.8 As Pershing later wrote of his audacious plan to defeat the Germans at Saint-Mihiel and then pivot into the giant Meuse-Argonne Offensive, “When viewed as a whole, it is believed that history gives no parallel of such an undertaking with so large an army. . . . It was only my absolute faith in the energy and resourcefulness of our officers of both staff and line and the resolute and aggressive courage of our soldiers that permitted me to accept such a prodigious” task.9 It was Pershing who kept them pressing forward.
It was John J Pershing too who pressed for an armistice on the basis of unconditional surrender—until he was told by Colonel House that peace terms were a political matter. In Pershing’s own view, the Germans had to be convinced they were utterly beaten. He foresaw that anything short of unconditional surrender would leave the impression among some in Germany that they had not lost the war, only the peace; and revanchist sentiment, like that which had waxed in France after the Franco-Prussian War, would wax in Germany. He might have been right about that—circumstances are hard to judge in retrospect— but when he was told to keep his nose out of the political settlement, he did. In the meantime, he helped win the war.
John J Pershing did, however, have a flicker of political ambition; on his return stateside he let it be known that he might consider a presidential run in 1920. When it became clear that this was a quixotic hope, he swiftly withdrew. Congress, meanwhile, rewarded him with the highest rank ever given to a military officer, General of the Armies. The only other American general to hold that rank is George Washington, who achieved the distinction posthumously in 1976. In 1921, Pershing took up his last post, as the Army’s chief of staff. He tried—and largely failed—to save the Army from Congress’s swingeing budget cuts. But he also tried—and largely succeeded—in maintaining the morale of the officer corps, improving their training and education, and creating a general staff ready for any military challenge. He retired in 1924.
John J Pershing’s days as chief of staff, dismantling the Army he had created, had been unhappy. His nights were no happier; he disliked Washington social life. In retirement, he turned to writing his memoirs (another noisome task, though they won a Pulitzer Prize); leading the American Battle Monuments Commission10 (less bothersome, in part because he was aided by a highly efficient major named Dwight David Eisenhower); and making the argument for military preparedness. The Second World War did not surprise him. He had no direct role in the war (at that point he was living in the Walter Reed Army Hospital) but played an indirect role through the generals he had helped train, especially George Marshall (whom he admired), George S. Patton (whom he liked), and Douglas MacArthur (whom he tolerated)—and the Moros, who still remembered him and killed Japanese on his behalf. He died in 1948. Of few generals can it be said that they never lost a battle. It can be said of John J Pershing.
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