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Who Was John Joseph Pershing?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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John Joseph Pershing was an American Army general who is probably most noted for his role in the First World War as the leader of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Pershing's long and colorful career was highly distinguished, with numerous domestic and international citations and medals being awarded to him for his role in various military actions. Pershing is widely regarded as one of the most notable generals in American history, and many of the noted military figures of the Second World War looked to General Pershing as a mentor.

Pershing was born in 1860. Initially, he trained as a school teacher, but at the age of 22, he decided to train at West Point, rapidly rising in the ranks even before he entered the field of battle. By 1898, he had become a recognizable figure in the Spanish American War, and he was promoted to Captain in 1901 for his service. In 1906, John Joseph Pershing became a Brigadier General, and when the First World War broke out, he had a prime opportunity to distinguish himself.

As a commander, General Pershing was very forceful, and he had a strong independent streak, sometimes pulling rank or going beyond his job duties to accomplish his goals in the way he saw fit. While his style of command ultimately helped to win the First World War, he was also heavily criticized as a commander, with some people suggesting that he didn't always make the wisest choices. At times, Pershing put soldiers in direct danger, despite available alternatives.

Even with his brash, aggressive style of command, Pershing attracted admiration, and in 1919, he was awarded the rank of General of the Army of the United States. He was the only living American to have held a rank that high; while Washington was named General of the Army, the award was posthumous. Pershing didn't retire on his laurels, either, continuing to play an active role in military strategy and military education until his death in 1948.

In the First World War, the media dubbed John Joseph Pershing “Black Jack Pershing,” in a reference to his service with the Buffalo Soldiers, a primarily black military unit. The original version of this nickname was less polite, including a racial epithet rather than “Black.” This nickname only increased the mythology of John Joseph Pershing, making him a household name even before his Pulitzer Prizewinning book, My Experiences in the World War, published in 1932.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By titans62 — On Dec 06, 2011

I remember when I was in college a few years ago I took a trip to Arlington National Cemetery and looked extensively for Black Jack John Pershing's grave. For some reason I could not find his grave site and I was very disappointed that I was not able to find it.

However, I have looked at pictures of his head stone and realized that it is not a very elaborate gravestone and looks like the grave of a simple soldier that died and is buried in Arlington.

One would think that one of the greatest Generals in American history would have a large and elaborate gravestone at Arlington, however this is not at all the case with Pershing and his grave site is lost along the rest of the thousands of headstones, and is lost to most passers by looking for it.

By Emilski — On Dec 05, 2011

@stl156 - It is amazing to think of Black Jack's meteoric rise to the top of the military world and also think that he is the only American to be a permanent Five Star General, with the other being George Washington.

John Pershing was obviously a very talented military commander, who is known by most people for only leading American troops for a short time in WWI. However, this is not at all the case, as Pershing had much experience and a variety of different battles in which he fought.

For someone studying military history, they must look at John Pershing and begin to understand him as the first modern 20th century General and led the way for many of the famous WWII Generals to follow him.

By stl156 — On Dec 04, 2011

@jmc88 - It is amazing to think about the accomplishments that Black Jack Pershing had throughout his life and the sights he saw.

What I thought was amazing was that when he was promoted to General he was not promoted from being a Colonial, he was promoted straight from Captain to General.

It used to be the promotions in the Army were based on service time as opposed to merit, like what Pershing had a lot of. Roosevelt wanted Pershing to be promoted, as he saw him as a valuable asset and deserving of high command.

However, the Army chose not to deviate from their tradition, and this left Roosevelt few options.

As President Roosevelt could promote someone, but only as a General, with approval of Congress. Skipping three ranks, Roosevelt nominated Black Jack as a General and this was approved by Congress.

This was very controversial at the time, but it turned out to give Black Jack about fifteen years experience as a General before he led his troops

in WWI and became a Five Star General.

By jmc88 — On Dec 03, 2011

As far as military careers go there are very few commanders who have seen the variety of famous battles and campaigns that Black Jack John Pershing has.

Before he became a famous commander he was a civilian worker for the Union Army int he Civil War, although he did not fight, only supplied the troops in his native Missouri.

Later he went to West Point and obtained the highest rank possible for a cadet, which is captain.

Right out of the academy he was sent to fight the Apaches in the Indian Wars, soon after participating in the Wounded Knee, although he showed up late to it.

He then participated in the charge up San Juan Hill along with future President Theodore Roosevelt as well as becoming an ambassador and seeing the Russo-Japanese War first hand. This is where he became a General as Roosevelt felt he needed to be promoted and promoted him straight from Captain to General, which I find amazing.

By jonrss — On Dec 03, 2011

My grandfather served under General John J. Pershing and often spoke of him highly. His war service was one of the proudest moments of his life and in his old age he spent a lot of time reflecting on it.

He was not a naive man or insensitive. He knew that WW1 was a terrible time but he also recognized how necessary the fight was. For him it was a necessary sacrifice. I think that my grandfather admired Pershing because he understood better than most how many tough choices go into the prosecution of a war. Pershing was a hero because he did what he had to do.

By Ivan83 — On Dec 02, 2011

I recently finished reading a history of WW1 and I learned a lot about General Pershing that I never knew before. Honestly, I knew very little before but after reading this book I think I got a pretty complete picture of a very dynamic man.

Pershing embodies all the contradictions that go in to being the commander of a war. He made difficult choices that were often callous.Hhe accomplished great things by sacrificing the lives of others. He showed courage even as he avoided the fight and he was as much a hero as a villain.

Its hard to know how the war would have gone without his influence. He is one of the great figures in American history because his influence is so large. I would recommend anyone that is interested in war, history, America or the 20th century to look further in to General Pershing

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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