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John J. Pershing (1860 - 1948)

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Introduction

John J. Pershing was one of America’s most accomplished generals. He is most famous for serving as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. These troops from America bolstered the spirits of European allies and helped defeat the Central Powers in 1918. Congress promoted Pershing to the rank of “General of the Armies of the United States” in 1919. He and George Washington are the only two people who have received this honor.

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Early Years and Education

On September 13, 1860, John Joseph Pershing was born near Laclede, Linn County, Missouri. He was the first child born
The Pershing family The Pershing family.

Standing (left to right): John J., sisters May and Elizabeth, brothers Ward and James
Sitting (left to right): father John F., sister Grace, and mother Ann Thompson Pershing

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1870 U.S. Census showing John and his family 1870 U.S. Census showing John and his family.

[1870 U.S. Census]
to John Fletcher Pershing and Ann Thompson Pershing. John had eight younger siblings, but only five survived to adulthood: May, Elizabeth, Grace, Ward, and James. His father owned a general store and served as postmaster of Laclede.
John as a boy John as a boy John as a young boy.

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In 1873 an economic depression swept across the United States, affecting millions of Americans. John’s father had taken out numerous bank loans to purchase area farmland. When the economic crisis hit, the elder Pershing was unable to pay back the loans and watched helplessly as the banks foreclosed on all but one of his farms. The Pershings lost almost all of their wealth. John’s father was forced to take a job as a traveling salesman. Fourteen-year-old John was put in charge of the family while his father was on the road. He was expected to make the family farm profitable and attend school.

Kirksville State Normal School Kirksville State Normal School The Normal Building at Kirksville State Normal School around the time Pershing attended.

[SHS citation]

John’s family could not afford to send him to college, so he took a job as a teacher at Prairie Mound School Pershing’s teaching contract with Prairie Mound School in Chariton County, Missouri, 1881.

[John J. Pershing Teacher's Contract, 1881 (C2038), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]
in Chariton County, Missouri. Once he had saved enough money, John enrolled at Kirksville Normal School (now Truman State University). He graduated in 1880 with a teaching degree. John returned to Prairie Mound School after graduation. He soon decided, however, that he wanted to be a lawyer and returned to Kirksville to study law.

After reading an advertisement announcing an entrance exam for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, John decided to take the test to earn a free education. His sister Elizabeth helped him study. Only one person in the congressional district would win an appointment. Pershing earned the top exam score by a narrow margin and entered West Point in July 1882.

While Pershing struggled academically his first year at West Point, he was determined to succeed. Although he graduated thirtieth out of a class of seventy-seven in 1886, he was elected class president four years in a row.


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Early Military Career

Geronimo Geronimo Geronimo after his capture by U.S. Troops.

Geronimo, or Goyothlay, “One Who Yawns,” was born in 1829 in what is now New Mexico. As an Apache medicine man and military leader, he fought against the Mexican and United States governments over rights to traditional Apache land. Known as a fierce and brave leader, Geronimo resisted government efforts to move his people to the reservation. He finally surrendered to General Nelson Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, on September 4, 1886.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress, photo by A.F. Randall, circa 1886]

After graduation, Pershing was assigned to the Sixth Cavalry and spent the early years of his career fighting Native Americans to protect white settlers. In his first assignment with the Sixth Cavalry, he was stationed in New Mexico and Arizona where he fought Apaches led by Geronimo.

Pershing next participated in the campaign to subdue the Sioux, or Lakota, tribes in the Dakota Territory where the U.S. government sought to eliminate the Ghost Dance, a Native American religious movement. A confrontation at Wounded Knee between the Lakota and the military resulted in gunfire. Between 200 and 300 Sioux men, women, and children were killed, along with 25-30 soldiers. The incident later became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. The Seventh Cavalry opens fire on the Lakota people at Wounded Knee.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress, photomechanical print by Frederic Remington, Harper’s Weekly, January 24, 1891]
Although Pershing did not participate in the battle, he helped establish and maintain a perimeter to keep the Lakota from fleeing.

Native americans performing the ghost dance Ghost Dance The Ghost Dance

By the late 1800s, the United States government confined most Native American tribes to overcrowded reservations without adequate food or shelter. The Ghost Dance movement became popular among the Plains and Southwestern tribes because it promised to remove all the white people and restore their traditional way of life. Unlike other tribes, the Lakota believed that the special “ghost shirts” worn by the dancers protected them from the soldier’s bullets. The Ghost Dance movement died out quickly after the Wounded Knee Massacre.

[Courtesy of the Library of Congress, wood engraving from The Illustrated London News, January 3, 1891]

During his time in the West, Pershing learned some of the Apache dialects and Plains sign language, which helped foster the respect he held for the Native Americans. He maintained his enthusiasm for learning about his adversaries throughout his military career.

While serving a four-year stint as a professor of military science at the University of Nebraska, Pershing earned a law degree in 1893. He later told a family acquaintance from Laclede that he felt his law degree helped him with his military career.

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The Buffalo Soldiers

Major Pershing Major Pershing Pershing during the time he served as a major with the Tenth Cavalry.

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In 1896 Pershing was assigned to the frontier with the Tenth Cavalry, Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry, Troop A, c. 1902.

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an all-black regiment. The Native Americans called these troops buffalo soldiers because they believed the soldiers’ hair resembled that of a buffalo. At the time, blacks were segregated from whites in the military.

Pershing was then assigned to teach at West Point. Here he was given the nickname “Black Jack” because he had spent time with the Tenth Cavalry. When the Spanish-American War broke out, Pershing was selected to command the Tenth Cavalry once more and led his men in Cuba Map of Cuba with San Juan Hill marked.

[modified from the CIA World Fact Book: Central America and Caribbean : Cuba , accessed Nov. 24, 2009]
at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Map showing the position of troops during the Battle of San Juan Hill near Santiago de Cuba, July 1, 1898.

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The bravery and courage shown by the men of the Tenth Cavalry earned them Pershing’s respect and admiration. He often praised the black soldiers to others, an unusual thing to do during this time.
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The Philippine Insurrection and a Controversial Promotion

The Philippines The Philippines Map of the Philippines with the area in which the Moros live highlighted.

[modified from the CIA World Fact Book : East & Southeast Asia : Philippines, accessed Nov. 24, 2009]

After Spain was defeated in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States took control of the Philippines. Beginning in 1899, Pershing was stationed there for three and a half years. While there, he led American forces against several tribes, collectively called “Moros,” who were resisting the United States’ control. The fighting was difficult and flared off and on for several years. During his time in the Philippines, Pershing learned the Moros’ language and studied their customs, which helped him gain their respect and confidence. One of the tribes even named Pershing a minor noble.

After returning from his first tour in the Philippines, Pershing met and married Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of U.S. Senator Francis E. Warren of Wyoming. They had four children: Helen, Ann, Warren, and Margaret.

President Theodore Roosevelt promoted Pershing in 1906 to brigadier general, a jump in rank of four grades. The promotion was controversial because Pershing bypassed more than eight hundred senior officers. Many within the military thought he had received the promotion because he was married to a senator’s daughter. President Roosevelt, however, had suggested the promotion three years earlier, before Pershing had met the Warren family.

Pershing returned to the Philippines for a second tour from 1906 to 1913. Once again, he used force and his knowledge of his adversaries to quiet the rebelling Moro tribes.

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Family Tragedy

In late 1913 Pershing and his family moved to San Francisco where he commanded the Eighth Brigade. Two years later, while Pershing was on assignment in Texas, he received the news that his wife and daughters had been killed in a fire.
Pershing's wife and their children Photograph published in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 28, 1915, after the death of Pershing's wife and three daughters, Helen (8), Ann (6) and Margaret (3). Only his son Warren survived.

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The residence where Pershing's wife and three daughters perished in a fire The residence where Pershing's wife and three daughters perished in a fire, August 1915.

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Only his six-year-old son, Warren, survived. Pershing was devastated by the loss, and those who knew him said he never fully recovered. He distracted himself by becoming immersed in his work. Pershing’s sister May was put in charge of Warren’s care and upbringing.
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Going After Pancho Villa

On March 9, 1916, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and his men raided the border town of Columbus, New Mexico, where eighteen American soldiers and civilians were killed and ten others wounded. In response, President Woodrow Wilson ordered Pershing to capture Villa.

The expedition into Mexico began on March 15, 1916. Pershing and his soldiers experienced harsh conditions. Their supplies soon ran low, and the Mexican government forbade them from using rail lines to transport troops and supplies. The terrain was extremely rugged and mountainous. The area was also unmapped and had no roads, so the expedition had to rely on local guides.

Several skirmishes took place that resulted in the U.S. military restricting Pershing’s movements. President Wilson worried that a war might start. Eventually, Pershing was ordered to stop the expedition. This greatly frustrated him as he had spent almost a year in Mexico pursuing Villa, but was never able to catch him. Pershing described the failed mission as “a man looking for a needle in a hay stack with an armed guard standing over the stack forbidding you to look in the hay.”

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The Great War

Pershing in France Pershing in France General Pershing (in light-colored uniform) in France during World War I.

Standing to the left of Pershing is Joseph Joffre, Marshal of France. Also pictured are Raymond Poincare (second from right) and Paul Deschanel (extreme right).

[SHS 009268]

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, Europe erupted into World War I. While the continent quickly sank into one of the most deadly wars in history, the United States did not become involved right away. At the time, the country had a policy to remain neutral during conflicts. The United States finally entered the war in 1917.

Pershing with troops Pershing with troops General Pershing reviews troops during World War I.

[Ruby Dwight Garrett Papers, c. 1910-1968 (C2558), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]

Pershing was appointed commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the military force sent to Europe. General Pershing faced many challenges as the United States’ standing army swelled from slightly less than 130,000 men to 2,000,000 in just eighteen months. He had to make many decisions, such as how large the AEF should grow, how to organize supplies, where the AEF should fight in Europe, and when his troops would be ready for combat. America’s European allies were eager for the war to end and demanded that American troops be prepared to fight as soon as they arrived.

Thanksgiving address to troops Thanksgiving address to troops Pershing's 1918 Thanksgiving address to American soldiers was printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

[World War I Collection, 1917-1921 (C3223), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]

General Pershing also needed to decide whether or not to lend American soldiers to the European allies. When the AEF arrived in Europe, the Allies were exhausted from three years of war. While some American military personnel and European allies wanted Pershing to send American troops to “fill in gaps” in the Allied armies, he established his authority by refusing to do so. He believed the strategy would not work because the training methods used by the U.S. and the Europeans were too different from each other. He also thought that a united American military force would hurt German morale more. Despite opposition, Pershing stood firm in his decision.

The AEF participated in numerous important battles such as the Battle of Cantigny, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and the Battle of St. Mihiel. General Pershing eventually cut the Germans’ lines at Sedan on November 6, 1918. He counted this as one of the AEF’s most important accomplishments. On November 11, 1918, World War I ended, due to the combined efforts of the AEF and the European allies. General Pershing and his men were celebrated as heroes.


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After World War I

Thanks from the U.S. Congress Thanks from the U.S. Congress General Pershing responds to the thanks of the U.S. Congress, September 18, 1919.

[Clarence Cannon Papers, 1893-1964 (C0892), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]

In 1919 Congress honored General Pershing by naming him General of the Armies. This special honor allowed General Pershing to be on “active duty” for the rest of his life and continue to be available for assignments.

General Pershing served as Army Chief of Staff from 1921 to 1924. He later oversaw a commission to settle a boundary dispute between Chile and Peru, and he served as a consultant when the United States entered World War II. He also wrote a memoir, My Experiences in World War, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1932.

On July 15, 1948, Pershing died in his sleep from complications of a stroke. His body lay in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, and an estimated 300,000 people came to see his funeral procession. He was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.


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Pershing's Legacy

Pershing during World War I Pershing during World War I Pershing during World War I.

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Out of all of his numerous military campaigns, General Pershing’s leadership of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I was his greatest accomplishment. The introduction of the AEF troops helped end World War I, and without the American soldiers, the European allies would have faced an uncertain outcome.

Over the course of his military career, General Pershing commanded several famous Americans, including fellow Missourian and future President Harry S. Truman, General George S. Patton, General and later U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, and General Douglas MacArthur, making General Pershing one of America’s most influential military leaders.




Text and research by Stephanie L. Kukuljan and Kimberly Harper

Meets Show-Me Standards SS: 2, 6, 7; 4th grade GLE 2a.A.

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References and Resources

For more information about John Pershing's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about John Pershing in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets.


  • Articles from the Missouri Historical Review
  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 609-611. [REF F508 D561]
    • Dobak, William A. and Thomas D. Phillips. The Black Regulars, 1866–1898. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. [REF 357.1 D65]
    • “General John Joseph ‘Black Jack’ Pershing: The Missourian Awards, 1999.” The (Columbia) Missourian. November 6, 1999. [REF Vertical File]
    • Harr, Helen K. “A Missouri History Calendar.” Bushwhacker’s Annual, 1983.
    • “Masonic Portrait: A close look at one of the workers in Freemasonry’s quarries; Brother John Joseph ‘Blackjack’ Pershing.” The Missouri Freemason, Spring 2002. [REF Vertical File]
    • “Missouri’s ‘Black Jack’ Pershing: ‘The Coolest Man Under Fire I Ever Saw.’” Senior Life Times, September 1999. [REF Vertical File]
    • O’Connor, Richard. Black Jack Pershing. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961. [REF F508.1 P43o]
    • Palmer, Frederick. Pershing: General of the Armies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. [REF F508.1 P43p]
    • “Pershing Avoids Politics During Bombardment by Thirty Newspaper Men.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 9, 1919. [REF Vertical File]
    • Pershing, John J. My Experiences in the World War. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1931. [REF F508.1 P43]
    • Smith, Gene. Until the Last Trumpet Sounds: The Life of General of the Armies John J. Pershing. New York: Wiley, 1998.
    • Smythe, Donald. Guerrilla Warrior: The Early Life of John J. Pershing. New York: Scribner, 1973. [REF F508.1 P43s]
    • Welsome, Eileen. The General & the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006.
  • Books and Articles
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.  pp. 602-604 [REF F508 D561]
    • Coghlan, Ralph. “Boss Pendergast: King of Kansas City, Emperor of Missouri.” Forum and Century. v. 97, no. 2 (February 1937), p. 67-72. [REF F508.1 P373c]
    • Coulter, Charles E. “Take Up the Black Man’s Burden”: Kansas City’s African American Communities, 1865-1939. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. [REF H128.52 C832]
    • Dillard, Irving. “Missouri’s Boss Pendergast.” The Nation. v. 143, no. 25 (December 1936). [REF F508.1 P373d]
    • Dorsett, Lyle W. The Pendergast Machine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. [REF H128.74 D 738]
    • Ferrell, Robert H. The Kansas City Investigation: Pendergast’s Downfall, 1938-1939. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. [REF F508.1 P373ha]
    • _____. Truman and Pendergast. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. [REF F508.1 T771fe5]
    • Irey, Elmer, and William J. Slocum. “How We Smashed the Pendergast Machine.” Coronet. v. 23, no. 2 (December 1947), p. 67-76. [REF H128.74 Ir2]
    • Larsen, Lawrence H., Nancy J. Hulston. Pendergast! Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. [REF F508.1 P373l]
    • Milligan, Maurice M. Missouri Waltz: The Inside Story of the Pendergast Machine by the Man Who Smashed It. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1948. [REF H128.74 M621]
    • Powell, Eugene J. Tom’s Boy Harry: The First Complete, Authentic Story of Harry Truman’s Connection with the Pendergast Machine. Jefferson City, MO: Hawthorn, 1948. [REF F508.1 T771p]
    • Reddig, William M. Tom’s Town: Kansas City and the Pendergast Legend. New York: Lippincott, 1947. [REF H128.74 R245]
    • Schirmer, Sherry Lamb. A City Divided: The Racial Landscape of Kansas City, 1900-1960. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. [REF H128.52 Sch 35]
  • Manuscript Collection
    • Crowder, Enoch H. (1859-1932), Papers, 1884-1942 (C1046)
      Correspondence and other papers of a judge advocate general who administered the Selective Service during World War I and served as ambassador to Cuba. References to Pershing can be found throughout the collection.
    • Lockmiller, David A. (1906-2005), Papers, 1880-1964 (C0405)
      This collection contains the papers of General Enoch H. Crowder’s biographer. Crowder was the administrator of the Selective Service during World War I and an ambassador to Cuba. Several letters written by Pershing to Crowder concerning Pancho Villa and World War I can be found in folder 1.
    • Lomax, Victor W., “Oh Yes, Some Called Him ‘Black Jack’,” n.d. (C3078)
      Recollections of John J. Pershing by a native of Laclede, MO, Pershing’s home town.
    • Lomax, Victor W., Papers (SUNP2851)
      Correspondence, photographs, newspaper clippings, and questionnaires concerning General John J. Pershing, Pershing Memorial State Park, and World War I.
    • State Historical Society of Missouri, Typescript Collection (C0995)
      Item #70 of this collection contains a statement of Pershing’s military service by the Adjutant General’s Office of the War Department.

Outside Resources

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Historic Missourians: John J. Pershing
John J. Pershing John Joseph Pershing (September 13, 1860 – July 15, 1948)

Commander in Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces in France

[SHS 029283]

John Joseph Pershing


Born: September 13, 1860
Died: July 15, 1948 (age 87)
Category: Military Leaders
Region of Missouri: Northeast
Missouri Hometown: Laclede

John Pershing's Signature