The General of the Armies

The career of John Pershing

John J. Pershing (Photo: Library of Congress)
John J. Pershing
(Photo: Library of Congress)

General John Joseph Pershing (1860-1948) is best known for leading the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in World War I, the conflict that arguably established the U.S. military as a force to reckon with on the world stage. Pershing’s career, however, spanned several wars, and his legacy continued in World War II through his talented protégés, prominent commanders such as George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Leslie McNair, Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton. Pershing truly casts a long shadow over the history of the U.S. Army, an influence reflected by the fact that he was promoted to a special rank which only he has ever held alive: the General of the Armies of the United States.
Pershing was born into a Missouri farming family to a homemaker mother and a father who served the Union cause during the Civil War as a sutler (a civilian merchant who accompanied an army and sold goods to soldiers). He had no interest in a military career early in life; he taught African-American schoolchildren, studied to be a professional teacher and developed an interest in law. In fact, he only applied to the Military Academy at West Point because it offered free and high-quality education he could not get in Missouri. His leadership skills quickly manifested while he was a cadet, and he ended up commanding the honor guard President Ulysses S. Grant’s funeral train passed West Point in 1885.

John Pershing as a West Point cadet (Photo: public domain)
John Pershing as a West Point cadet
(Photo: public domain)

Pershing reported for duty as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1986 and was posted to the 6th U.S. Cavalry Regiment in New Mexico. He participated in several campaign against various Native American tribes who fought back against colonialist expansion, fighting not only in New Mexico but also Arizona and South Dakota, and became known as an expert marksman with both rifle and pistol.
In 1892, while also teaching military science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Pershing was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and assigned to a troop of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, one of the original Buffalo Soldiers, racially segregated black units often serving under white officers. This began Pershing’s long association with black units.

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Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment about 5-6 years before Pershing was posted there
(Photo: Arizona Historical Society)

He was appointed to West Point as an instructor in 1897. He was a strict and rigid teacher, which earned him the enmity of his students. His unpopularity and his association with a Buffalo Soldier unit earned him the nickname “N****r Jack,” which later softened to Black Jack, a sobriquet that became known by the public during World War I and remained with him for the rest of his life.
Pershing served in the Spanish-American War as quartermaster of the 10th Cavalry. He participated in the famous Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba on July 1, 1898, where the 10th Cavalry fought alongside Theodore Roosevelt’s famous
Rough Riders (Read our earlier article – Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Jr.). Pershing later recalled: “...the entire command moved forward as coolly as though the buzzing of bullets was the humming of bees. White regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders, representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans.” Pershing himself was described by a fellow officer as "cool as a bowl of cracked ice” during the battle.

Artist’s depiction of the 9th and 10th Cavalry at the Battle of La Guarina (Image: Library of Congress)
Artist’s depiction of the 9th and 10th Cavalry at the Battle of La Guarina
(Image: Library of Congress)
After the war, Pershing was put in charge of the Office of Customs and Insular Affairs, which was in charge of the overseas territories the United States took form Spain during the war. These areas included Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, the latter two playing important roles in World War II. The Philippines in particular came to occupy much of Pershing’s attentions. The local Muslim Moro people previously fought for their independence against the Spanish; now they continued that fight against the United States (and would later go on to fight against the Japanese and the Filipinos). Pershing fought against both the Moros and the wider Filipino insurrection. At the same time, he also studied Moro culture and dialects, read the Koran, and built relations with various Moro chiefs.
Pershing (left) with the commander of the Philippines Constabulary (right) and Moro chieftains in 1910 (Photo: Fort Huachuca Museum)
Pershing (left) with the commander of the Philippines Constabulary (right) and Moro chieftains in 1910
(Photo: Fort Huachuca Museum)

Pershing returned to the States in 1903, where he found a powerful mentor: President Theodore Roosevelt, who knew him from the Spanish-American War and thought highly of him. Roosevelt asked the Army General Staff to promote then-Captain Pershing to colonel, but the army refused. At that time, promotions were handed out based on seniority rather than merit, and the army was not willing to upset this system just for one individual (and Roosevelt did not have the authority to order the promotion). Instead, Pershing attended the War College and was given a diplomatic posting as military attaché to Tokyo after his graduation in 1905, which also allowed him to be an official observer in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. It was also during this time that he met and married the daughter of Francis E. Warren, a powerful Republican Senator, who would later use his influence to help Pershing’s career. Once Pershing returned from oversees, President Roosevelt used his prerogative to promote him directly to brigadier general, skipping three ranks and over 830 officers – at the time, the President could appoint general staff officers, but not lower-ranking ones. This ruffled quite a few feathers and gave rise to accusations of favoritism, but Roosevelt also promoted several other promising junior officers the same way, and Pershing did have the support of many soldiers who acknowledged his abilities.

Captain Pershing and correspondent Frederick Palmer in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War (Photo:
Captain Pershing and correspondent Frederick Palmer in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War

Pershing returned to the Philippines for a few years, then later posted along the Mexican border. Personal tragedy struck in 1915: his home in San Francisco caught fire when hot coals spilled out of the hearth onto a waxed floor. The resulting blaze killed his wife and three daughters (aged eight, seven and three), with his five-year-old son being the only survivor, rescued by Pershing’s old African-American orderly.

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Pershing’s San Francisco home after the fire, with the arrow indicating the window through which his son was rescued
(Photo: National Park Service)
Pershing had no time to grieve, as conditions along the border were unstable. Mexican bandit and revolutionary General Pancho Villa led several raids into U.S. territory, leading to the death of several soldiers and civilians; Pershing was ordered to lead 10,000 men on a punitive expedition into Mexico. The operation was hampered from the beginning by the Quartermaster Corps dropping the ball: the possibility of a border war had been talked about for several years, and yet the Corps failed to handle the logistics needed for such an expedition. The expedition ended as a mixed success: Villa was not captured, but his forces were deterred from entering the U.S. again. (Also, one of Pershing’s young officers, future General George S. Patton, ended up leading the first motorized assault in U.S. military history and killing Villa’s second-in-command – Read our earlier article – The wars of George S. Patton).
Pershing (front, right) with Pancho Villa (center) half a year before the expedition (Photo: University of Texas at Austin)
Pershing (front, right) with Pancho Villa (center) half a year before the expedition
(Photo: University of Texas at Austin)
Meanwhile, World War I broke out in 1914. Wilson was considering sending American troops to Europe from the beginning, but the political landscape made the idea unfeasible during the early years of the war.  When the option became a political reality, the first choice to lead the expeditionary force was General Frederick Funston, Pershing’s superior in Mexico. Funston, however, died of a heart attack in February 1917, and Pershing was selected as his replacement. Pershing was a major general at the time but was quickly promoted to full (four-star) general, skipping the rank of lieutenant general.
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Pershing arriving in Europe
Pershing oversaw the organization, training and supply of the professional army, the draft army, and the National Guard. This was a big job and involved the overhaul of the American Expeditionary Force’s Office of Supply, which was struggling to keep up. Wilson enabled Pershing to do his job by giving him unprecedented authority to run the AEF. In exchange, Pershing tacitly agreed not to use this authority to meddle in political or national policy issues. This compromise, though necessary, had an unfortunate effect on the black soldiers serving in the AEF. Pershing’s past proves that he was happy to lead colored soldiers in battle, but the army was segregated due to Wilson’s racial policies, which Pershing could not interfere with. This limited African-American units’ ability to fight, but Pershing still did what he could and had two black divisions see combat under French leadership, which the Wilson administration was fine with.
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Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Division inspecting gas masks in France, 1918
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Even as the AEF was being shipped overseas, the matter of command became a point of contention. The British and the French wanted American troops to join already fighting British and French units as reinforcements and fight under those two nations’ officers. Pershing, on the other hand, insisted that American soldiers should fight as their own national force under American leadership. 

It’s hard to judge who was right. National pride and independence were important and valid considerations. On the other hand, the U.S. military had no experience with the style of trench fighting that characterized the Western Front. American soldiers serving in other nations’ units could have gained useful experience under officers already familiar with the tactical situation. Fighting on their own meant that the American military establishment could gain more hands-on experience, but also caused the deaths of many more American soldiers due to rookie tactical mistakes. In the end, some U.S. units ended up seeing some combat with other Entente nations’ forces for a while, and others were lent to the French an the British during the hard-pressed days of the Ludendorff Offensive, Germany’s final desperate push to win the war in 1918, but by and large, the AEF remained an independent force. 
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Pershing saluting the grave of the Marques LaFayette, the famous French aristocrat who supported the War of Independence, in Paris
(Photo: National Archives at College Park)
Two little-known aspects of Pershing’s command of the AEF are that he established the Military Police Corps of the U.S. Army, and that he oversaw the design and production of a new boot, the “Pershing boot,” to protect soldiers against trench foot.
While Pershing’s accomplishments in establishing and organizing the AEF were titanic, he also came under criticism for certain perceived tactical shortcomings. More specifically, he was accused of relying too heavily on massed infantry formations with insufficient artillery support, leading to heavy casualties among U.S. soldiers who were cut down by German machine guns and artillery batteries.
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Artillery-damaged trees at Belleau Wood, the site of a bloody battle involving two U.S. divisions and a USMC brigade
(Photo: USMC Archives)
Another contentious point of Pershing’s leadership was his conduct at the end of the war. Once the Ludendorff Offensive ran out of steam and Entente forces were making their final offensive, he sent an unsolicited letter to the Supreme War Council, in which insisted that the Entente should reject and German requests for an armistice, and instead push into Germany and occupy the entire country. He reasoned that if the war ended without an actual occupation of Germany, the German people might later feel they were never “properly” defeated and might entertain revanchism. Today, we know that this was exactly what happened, and what led to Hitler’s rise to power (Read our earlier article – Becoming Führer). During his own tenure as President, Franklin D. Roosevelt also acknowledged that Pershing was right. At the time, however, Pershing’s demands could not be met. Woodrow Wilson was anxious to finish the war before the upcoming mid-term elections, while Britain and France had been bled dry by the war, and thus an armistice was agreed on.
American soldiers of the 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division celebrating the Armistice (Photo: public domain)
American soldiers of the 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division celebrating the Armistice
(Photo: public domain)
Once the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, Pershing let his emotions get the better of him, and he did not order American troops to stand down before the actual moment of peace. This led to 3,500 American casualties on the last day of the war, as U.S. forces continued fighting until the last moment. Pershing later defended himself by claiming that had doubts about the sincerity of German High Command, and did not know whether the Germans would truly stop fighting.
Nevertheless, Pershing became the hero of the United States. Congress authorized President Wilson to promote him to the rank of General of the Armies of the United States, a unique rank. It was originally created by Act of Congress in 1799 and intended for George Washington, but Washington died before he could be promoted. The rank was revived and given to Pershing in 1919, making him the first person in history to actually hold it, and the only living person to hold it in life. (Washington was eventually promoted to the rank posthumously in 1976, and Ulysses S. Grant in 2020.)
The United States did not have a rank above full (four-star) general at the time. Pershing was entitled to design his own insignia, but he decided to stick with the standard four stars. The rank also made him the second-highest paid government official after the President, and he was entitled to the same pay even in retirement.
A five-star general rank, “General of the Army” also exists and was awarded to three persons after the Civil War and five more during World War II and the Korean War, but Pershing’s unique rank stands above it, essentially being a virtual six-star rank even though no six-star insignia had ever been approved.
Pershing as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army (Photo: Library of Congress)
Pershing as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army
(Photo: Library of Congress)
One of the first things Pershing did as General of the Armies was to advocate for the creation of an organization that would oversee the construction of war cemeteries and monuments. This organization became the American Battle Monuments Commission (Read our earlier article – “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”), which maintains its mission to this day and celebrates the 100th anniversary of its creation in 2023.
Pershing became Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army in 1921 and held the position for three years. During this time, he created a map of a proposed national network of military and civilian highways, which became the foundation of the Interstate Highway System. Pershing retired from active service in 1924, having reached the mandatory retirement age in effect at the time.
One version of the Pershing Map (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
One version of the Pershing Map
(Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Though he retired, Pershing still took America’s security to heart. When World War II broke out, he spoke up in favor of providing aid to the United Kingdom, and publicly supported the Destroyers for Bases Agreement (Read our earlier article – America’s politics before World War II). One unusual honor he received during the war was having a tank named after him. The M26 Pershing served in the last months of the war, but also saw some action during the Korean War. Interestingly, its design lineage lived on in another tank, named after one of Pershing’s subordinate officers during the Pancho Villa Expedition: the M46 Patton (and its later models.)
An M26 Pershing tank crossing the Rhine in March 1945 (Photo: U.S. Army)
An M26 Pershing tank crossing the Rhine in March 1945
(Photo: U.S. Army)
John Pershing passed away in 1948. He rests in Arlington National Cemetery at a site known as Pershing Hill, near the graves of Americans whom he commanded in Europe.
The grave of John Pershing at Arlington National Cemetery (Photo: public domain)
The grave of John Pershing at Arlington National Cemetery
(Photo: public domain)

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Winston Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall in London as they celebrate V-E Day, May 8, 1945.
(Photo: Imperial War Museum)
On May 8, we will celebrate the 78th anniversary of V-E Day, standing for Victory in Europe Day, the date of the formal surrender of the German armed forces in World War II on May 8, 1945. On this occasion, you will get a discount of $500 on all our tours if you book and pay in full until May 8, 2023. In addition to the discount, this promotion includes also our available 80th anniversary D-Day tours in 2024. According to statistics, seats for the main D-Day anniversaries get sold out approximately a year before the event. So book your tour as soon as possible because the most popular ones will get fully booked very soon. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, feel free to contact our travel consultants.
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