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Through These Halls: General John J Pershing

A military instructor and law student at the University of Nebraska goes on to lead American forces in World War I

Office of University Communications - Craig Chandler

Unquestionably, one of the University of Nebraska’s most famous alums is General John J Pershing. Pershing was a Professor of Military Science and Tactics from 1891-1895 at Nebraska. Simultaneously, he attended the law college and received his bachelor of law degree in 1893.

The picture below is from the 1892 Cornhusker yearbook.

General Pershing was born in 1860 in Missouri as the oldest of nine children. Three of his siblings died as children. In his early life he worked in his father’s store and on the farm. Some land speculation on the part of his father resulted in difficult economic times. He took a job as a teacher and saved enough money to attend college and earn a teaching degree. He returned to his previous school as a teacher but really wanted to be a lawyer.

As he looked around for options for additional education, the idea of earning a West Point appointment appealed to him because it would provide a free education. His sister helped him study for the entrance exam and he was appointed to West Point in 1882. While at the academy, he was never noted for his academic achievements, but was a natural leader and consistently earned top leadership roles all four years at the academy.

(Hat tip to the State Historical Society of Missouri for much of the above info.)

In his early military career, he was assigned to Indian territories and he was noted for taking time to learn some of the language of the Apache and Lakota. His unit was part of the Wounded Knee campaign but not a part of the massacre in which nearly 300 Lakota men, women and children were killed.

It was at this point in his career that he was assigned to the University of Nebraska. The climate of much of the United States at that time was anti-war due to the lingering effects of the Civil War. The unit he oversaw was not well-received within the University, contained few members, and possessed low levels of training and morale. Within short order, he built an elite drill team - which eventually became known as the Pershing Rifles.

Related: As of 2018, the University of Nebraska has restarted its Pershing Rifle drill team.

From the Nebraska historical society (you get a historical marker and alumni profile in one!):

Read more about the Pershing Rifles

During his time at Nebraska, Pershing was promoted from second lieutenant to first lieutenant. If you check the yearbook photo above, his contemporaries at UNL were all captains.

After his time at Nebraska, Pershing commanded one of the “Buffalo Soldiers” units (an all-black unit). He also returned to West Point as an instructor and was unpopular with the cadets for his strict discipline. As such, he was given the nickname “Black Jack” - a reference to his time commanding black troops. It was not a compliment, but over time the hostile origins moved into the background and he was known by that moniker throughout his life.

His next major assignment came during the Spanish-American war in which the U.S. took control of the Philippines. He was tasked with quieting a rebellion by the Moros people in the southern part of the territory. During his time in the Philippines, he was promoted to the rank of captain.

John Pershing In The Field
8th April 1903: US Captain John Joseph Pershing (1860 -1948) in command during the advance on Fort Bacolod, Lanao District in the Philippines during the islands’ fight for independence.
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Between 1903 and 1906, Pershing bounced around to various duties, keenly watched by President Theodore Roosevelt, who wanted to promote him directly to the rank of colonel. The President faced resistance from Army leadership, so it was not done.

In 1905, Pershing married his wife Helen Warren who was the daughter of a U.S. Senator. They would go on to have four children. In 1915, tragedy struck as Helen and their three daughters were killed in a fire. Only their son, Warren survived. He was sent to live with an aunt as being a single parent in the military was not a practical option for an up-and-coming officer like Pershing.

John J Pershing
American General John J Pershing pictured on horseback, circa 1915.
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1905, President Roosevelt decided to bypass Army leadership and exercised his prerogative to promote Pershing directly from captain to the rank of brigadier (one star) general. He bypassed over 800 officers that held seniority over him and caused a bit of a stir that his promotion was due (at least in part) to marrying the daughter of a powerful Senator. However, other officers similar to Pershing’s rank also received similar promotions.

Between 1906 and 1916, Pershing again served in the Philippines and was sent by President Wilson on a [failed] attempt to capture Pancho Villa in Mexico. During this time, he was promoted to major (two star) general.

At this time, World War I had been raging in Europe since the 1914 assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand. In 1917, the United States discarded its policy of neutrality and entered the conflict. Pershing was promoted to full (four star) general and named commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).

John J Pershing
American General John J Pershing (centre) greeted by crowds as he lands at Boulogne, June 13th 1917.
Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Those of you who are military history or WWI history enthusiasts probably can describe many of the details related to Pershing’s service in WWI. I won’t add those here, but Pershing was credited with many successes and became a rock-star celebrity general in the process.

In 1919, Congress named him “General of the Armies”. From the U.S. Army Center for Military History:

Following the establishment of the General of the Army grade on December 14, 1944, Army Regulations 600-35 were changed to prescribe that Generals of the Army would wear five stars. Although General Pershing continued to wear only four, he remained preeminent among all Army personnel, by virtue of Congressional action and Army Regulations governing rank and precedence, until his death on July 15, 1948.

He served as Army Chief of Staff until 1924, when he retired from active duty.

He died in 1948 and is buried next to two of his grandsons in Arlington National Cemetery.

Generals Pershing & Menoher
American General John Pershing (1860 - 1948, left), commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, and Major General Charles Menoher (1862 - 1930), circa 1917.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
General Pershing’s Career Path
The professional advancement of American Army officer John Pershing (1860 - 1948) is seen in this composite of four photographs, each taken at a different stage in his career. He is (left to right) a United States Military Academy (West Point) cadet in the 1880s, a captain of the Tenth Cavalry in the Spanish-American War (1898), a brigadier general in the campaign against Pancho Villa in Mexico (early 1910s), and commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War One (1918).
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Medal Presentation
November 1921: American General John Pershing (1860 - 1948) receiving the American Legion medal, also present are (from left) Colonel John Palmer, Major John Mackeney and Major Buchanan.
Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
John J Pershing
American General John J Pershing speaking in to a series of news microphones during a broadcast, August 1940.
Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A memorial timeline of General Pershing can still be seen in the Pershing Military and Naval Science building on campus.