Today in History

Today in History: July 15

General John J. Pershing

General John J. Pershing
John J. Pershing, General, U.S.A.,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

John J. Pershing, a military commander whose brilliant career earned him the title General of the Armies of the United States, died on July 15, 1948. The first general awarded the title since George Washington, Pershing was given a hero's burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Pershing was born in Laclede, Missouri, on September 13, 1860, the first of six children. His mother taught him at home, helping to inspire in him a love of learning. He realized his dream of attaining a formal college education when he won a scholarship to the U.S. Military Academy.

After graduating from West Point in 1886, Pershing was given command of the 6th Cavalry Regiment in the West, where he participated in the Apache and Sioux campaigns. He was promoted to first lieutenant of the 10th Cavalry Regiment in Montana, one of several segregated regiments formed after passage of an 1866 law authorizing the U.S. Army to form cavalry and infantry regiments of black soldiers. Reflecting the racial prejudices of the era, the law also stipulated that the units be commanded by white officers. Pershing expressed his admiration for the black soldiers under his command forcefully and often, earning for himself the honorary nickname of "Black Jack."

African American Troops in the Spanish-American War

25th Infantry
25th Infantry,
American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1900.
The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures

Filmed March 23, 1900, in the Philippine Islands, following the 25th Infantry's participation at the battle of Mt. Arayat in January 1900. The 25th Infantry was one of two infantries formed from the 39th through 41st infantries, organized after the Civil War. It was identified in the Biograph picture catalogue as "the famous 25th Infantry, colored."

After a period teaching military science at the University of Nebraska and at West Point, Pershing was commissioned to Chickamauga, Georgia, to command a regiment bound for Cuba. He distinguished himself for his composure under fire during the Spanish-American War and was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry in the Battles of Santiago and San Juan Hill. The African-American troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry divisions played a prominent role in these battles, fighting bravely beside the volunteer Rough Riders.

Copy Photo: Pancho Villa , Alvaro Obregon and John J. Pershing, August 27, 1914
Pancho Villa, Alvaro Obregon and John J. Pershing,
August 27, 1914.
The South Texas Border, 1900-1920: Photographs from the Robert Runyon Collection (external link)

Pershing's later service in the Philippines and as military attaché in Japan, where he was an official observer of the Russo-Japanese War, won him praise and promotion from President Theodore Roosevelt. His tact in handling the restrictions imposed on the movements of the American forces in Mexico during his command of the expedition in pursuit of Pancho Villa earned him the notice of President Woodrow Wilson.

After the United States entered the First World War on April 6, 1917, Wilson appointed Pershing commander of the American Expeditionary Forces to Europe. Coming to the aid of the trench-fatigued French troops, Pershing galvanized the novice American forces, molding them into a fighting army to be reckoned with.

"From the Battlefields of France"

Three thousand miles from home, an American army is fighting for you. Everything you hold worthwhile is at stake. Only the hardest blows can win against the enemy we are fighting. Invoking the spirit of our forefathers, the army asks your unshrinking support, to the end that the high ideals for which America stands may endure upon the earth.

General Pershing's patriotic message was recorded at American field headquarters during the battle of Picardy and Flanders on April 4, 1918. Listen to this and other recordings from World War I in the collection, American Leaders Speak, 1918-1920.


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Pershing introduced the first tank battalion used in battle by the American armed forces and made effective use of detailed operational orders that enabled his combat commanders to interpret his intentions on the field.

Although the American armed forces continued to be segregated, General Pershing attempted to give African-American soldiers the opportunity to advance in command by placing them under the leadership of the French who were able to honor them as they deserved. Under Pershing's leadership, the First U.S. Army helped bring an end to the stalemate with Germany, hastening the Armistice.