The chronicle of the life of a man who embodied every great part of American leadership from the past; then became the model for every American General in the future.
John Pershing was first General to hold the official rank of General of the Armies of the United States. It is a rare club that was only joined posthumously by General George Washington in 1976 by order of then President Gerald Ford. Lace writes that Pershing was born at the beginning of the Civil War and at the age of three survived an attack of Southern raiders on the family store in Laclede, MO. These early experiences molded Pershing into a leader and innovator who was a contrast between old school military tactics and modern training procedures that have survived into the twenty-first century.
John’s father was the proprietor of a General Store. He was not averse to taking some risk and that was an influence that Pershing would inherit when it came to exhibiting leadership. The store faced bankruptcy after the panic of 1873 and John’s father went on the road as a traveling salesman. This left John and his brother to begin farming careers. For three years these young farmers struggled and barely made ends meet but John said he learned more of “the practical side of life than during any similar period.”
He knew he needed an education so he enrolled in the local school again and juggling farm work and school work learned enough to pass the test to become a teacher himself by the time he was 18. His first class included a band of older toughs who had run every teacher out who had taken their charge. Lacey relates that this may have been a very strong reason that John had this opportunity at such a young age. Within two weeks the group decided it was time to test the new “professor”. After being asked to stay after school the entire bunch decided to walk out. Pershing confronted the largest one of the bunch and threatened to thrash him if he did not submit. Apparently Pershing was a convincing presence because they all sat down and never gave another thought to classroom mutiny!
Lacey reports that Pershing sought an appointment to the West Point Military Academy for the same reasons many do today. He saw it as a good career move in his quest to become a lawyer and it was a free education. At West point he was an average student who loved to dance and enjoy “the society of women”. While not distinguished academically, he was the leader of the class of 1886 in every other way. Robert Bullard said that his leadership was not offensive but that, “His manner carried … the conviction of an unquestioned right to obedience.”
His first army experience was in several of the Indian wars in the west. He then became a Military Instructor at the University of Nebraska. In 1895 he took command of the all black 10th Cavalry, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers. It was here that he picked up the nickname “Black Jack”. After a fortuitous hunting trip he became an aid to General Nelson Miles which led to a brief stint in Washington, D.C. he met Theodore Roosevelt who was to become an influential patron. When Pershing took a job as a tactical officer at West Point, he learned valuable lessons in disciplining and managing troops.
The Mindanao Muslim Moros and Poncho Villa
Pershing made a name for himself when he took an assignment in the Philippines where earned the respect of the Muslim Moro people on the island of Mindanao. Using a combination of force and friendship, he pacified the region as it had never been. In 1909 he actually returned there and became Military Governor. In 1916 he lead an American Army into Mexico to pursuit Poncho Villa, a Mexican insurgent who had killed 18 Americans. It was an exercise in futility. Finally, a diplomatic solution brought Pershing’s army home in time to realize that this unprepared force was not ready for the war in Europe.
World War I
When Woodrow Wilson Finally declared War against Germany, Pershing was sent as the Commander of the American Army in Europe. However there was effectively no Army to speak of. His job included procuring training bases, equipment and supplies to assist the French and English in the 3 year stalemate on the “Western Front.” It took about a year to finally bring a force to bear that would ultimately be successful. It was this Herculean achievement that taught Pershing the principles of Army leadership and training that have inculcated Army society even until today. It was after the war in 1921 that Congress bestowed the Rank General of the Armies that he held until his death in 1948.
Jim Lacey does an admirable job of introducing the reader to this great General. His representation of the process of creating a modern army out of the traditions of the Civil War clearly illustrates Pershing’s importance to the progress of the American Armed Forces. Pershing is portrayed as a true Hero, one with all of the faults, sorrows and successes that Americans expect their heroes to possess!
- Pershing A Biography, The Great Generals Series by Jim Lacey, 2008, Palgrave Macmillan