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John J. Pershing

the last person to ever hold the rank of General of the Armies of the United States

John Joseph Pershing

John Joseph Pershing was born on a farm near Laclede, Missouri, on September 13, 1860. He was educated at local schools until age 17, when he began teaching at Prairie Mound School, near Laclede, and at a local Negro school. During the summers of 1880 to 1882, he attended a teacher-training school in Kirksville, Missouri. While in school Pershing saw a newspaper announcement of competitive examinations for admission to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Although not really interested in becoming a soldier, he thought it would be a good way to get a free education, so he took the test, and passed. He graduated 30th in a class of 77, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1886.

Pershing's first posting was in New Mexico, where he scouted and fought against the Apache. In 1890, he was part of a unit that put down an uprising of Sioux in what is now South Dakota. While serving as a Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska (1891-1895), Pershing studied for the law; he graduated with the class of 1893. In 1895, Pershing, by now a First Lieutenant, was sent to Montana, where he was active in rounding up renegade Creeks and deporting them to Canada. In 1897 he was assigned to West Point as an assistant instructor in Tactics. Pershing was teaching at the Military Academy when the Spanish-American War began in 1898. He fought with distinction in the Santiago campaign, and was cited for gallantry and awarded the Silver Star.

Pershing was next posted to the Philippines, where he served from 1899 to 1903. Between 1900 and 1901, he successfully directed the Mindanao Island campaign against the Moros, a rebellious tribe. Still a Lieutenant at age 40, Pershing considered resigning from the Army, but was promoted to Captain in 1901 and decided to stay.

In 1903, Pershing was posted to Washington, D.C., and it was at this time that he met Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of one of the Senators from Wyoming. The two were married on January 26, 1905, and she and their children subsequently followed him to virtually every posting. (In fact, of their four children, only one was born in the United States.)

On December 7, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt mentioned Pershing by name in his address to Congress about the Army promotion system, saying that men who had served with such distinction as Pershing should be rewarded by promotion directly to Brigadier General. It was one of the very few times that any member of the American military would be so recognized.

When the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904, Pershing was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Japan as military attaché. He spent most of the war in Manchuria with Japanese General Tamemoto Kuroki, studying modern warfare on a large scale.

In 1906, President Roosevelt decided it was time to follow through on the comment he had made to Congress, and promoted Pershing to Brigadier General, despite the fact that there were 862 senior officers ahead of him. Soon after his promotion, Pershing was sent back to the Philippines, where he took command of Fort McKinley.

In the fall of 1908, when war seemed imminent in the Balkans, Pershing was sent to Paris to serve as military adviser. The crisis passed without hostilities, however, and he returned to the United States in January 1909.

In October 1909, Pershing returned to the Philippines to take charge of Moro Province as Military Governor, in which capacity he disarmed the again hostile Moros, sometimes by force but usually through peaceful means. In June 1913, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in action. In December he turned the office over to a Civilian Governor and embarked for his next posting.

With trouble brewing along the U.S.-Mexico border, Pershing was placed in command of the 8th Brigade, stationed at San Francisco, in 1913. In 1914 the Brigade was transferred to Fort Bliss, from which it patrolled the border. In 1915, Pershing made arrangements for his family to join him, but before preparations were completed he received word that his wife and three daughters had been killed in a fire at the Presidio; only his son, Warren, survived. On March 15, 1915, Pershing took command of the army that entered Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa and his bandits, who had raided and burned the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. The Mexican Expedition pursued Villa through Chihuahua for eleven months (March 1916-February 1917), but failed to capture him. The long pursuit did reduce Villa's power, however, and ended his reign of terror along the border. The Mexican Expedition made Pershing a public figure in the U.S., and on September 25, 1916, he was promoted to Major General.

On February 5, 1917, the United States formally entered World War I by declaring war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Pershing was chosen to lead the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) in Europe (which would become the first U.S. Army ever sent to Europe). At this time the U.S. Army consisted of about 25,000 poorly trained and equipped men, far short of the 2,000,000 that Pershing estimated would be required. Always willing to take on a challenge, however, he instituted a recruiting and training program that resulted in his raising the required troops within 18 months. Although the French and other European allies had hoped that American troops would be fighting as part of a European force, Pershing insisted that the American Army should fight independently. Pershing's leadership abilities allowed the American Army to sweep through Europe and defeat Austria-Hungary in two years. Towards the end of the war he personally led the army at the battles of Mihiel Salient and Meuse-Argonne. In September 1919, Congress passed a special act naming him General of the Armies, making him the highest ranking military officer in U.S. history to that time, outranking even George Washington.

As Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army between 1921 and 1924, Pershing designed a new permanent framework for the Army. He retired from active service in 1924. In 1931, he published My Experiences in the World War, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1932.

Unlike many noted military personalities before him, Pershing made it a point to stay out of politics, and he refrained from making public statements about how the country was being run. He was an early advocate of U.S. entry into World War II and consulted with Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, but took no other part in the war.

General John Joseph Pershing died at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., on July 15, 1948. He is buried alongside the "Doughboys" of World War I at Arlington National Cemetery, where his grave is marked by a standard white marble marker (shown below).

Arlington National Cemetery
First World
General John J. Pershing Boyhood Home State Historic Site

United States Military Academy at West Point
New Mexico
South Dakota
Spanish-American War
President Theodore Roosevelt
Pancho Villa
World War I
George Washington
World War II
George C. Marshall

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