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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 407

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This is the grave of John J. Pershing.

Black Jack Pershing was born in 1860 on a Missouri farm. He graduated from high school in 1878 and took a job teaching local African-American children. At the same time, he went to college at what is today Truman State University. He graduated in 1880 and then applied to West Point, basically just for the educational opportunity. He finished there in 1886 and began his military career in New Mexico Territory. He was on the edges of the Ghost Dance repression, but didn’t play a serious role. In 1891, he also started teaching military tactics at the University of Nebraska and was there on and off for the next four years, though he was also on active duty at the same time and was often away. That included leading one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments, which led to his Black Jack name, which, uh, was not his original nickname and was related to how much his white cadets hated him for working them too hard. Oh, racism.

Pershing went to the Philippines during the colonial war of conquest there and his troops were involved in some of the atrocities that happened there that included throwing bodies of Filipinos into an mass grave with a dead pig, although there’s no evidence he was particularly involved in any of this, despite Donald Trump’s lie about this in 2016. Pershing was a rising star during this period and Theodore Roosevelt worked to help him. Unfortunately, the Army promotion policy at this time was largely based on seniority, which is not exactly the best way to run a military. Pershing was only a captain at this time. Roosevelt wanted him to be a colonel. The Army flat turned him down and would not even promote him to major, as there wasn’t a current vacancy. Roosevelt responded by having him sent to Tokyo as a military attaché in 1905, just in time to be on the ground for the Russo-Japanese War. The same year, Pershing also married the daughter of Senator Francis Warren, one of the most powerful Republicans on military issues. To say the least, this all advanced his career very quickly. When he returned to the U.S., Roosevelt nominated Pershing to jump all the way to brigadier general and he had the support in Congress to overrule the Army seniority system and make it happen. In the aftermath, he spent several years as part of the occupying force in the Philippines.

In 1913, Pershing was named to the command of the 8th Brigade. It was deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border soon after. Shortly after that, his wife and all but one of his children died in a house fire. In 1916, Pershing was ordered to cross into Mexico to hunt down Pancho Villa after the latter burned the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. The Mexican Punitive Expedition was pretty unsuccessful. First, it failed to capture Villa. Second, it made Mexico, in utter chaos due to the Mexican Revolution, unite against the U.S. invaders. The Carranza government was outraged at an American invasion of Mexican territory and finally diplomatic pressure ended the hunt for Villa.

When the U.S. entered World War I, Pershing was named the nation’s commanding officer, after Frederick Funston dropped dead of a heart attack. Named the nation’s first full general since Philip Sheridan in 1888, Pershing had pretty wide leeway to run his own ship with little interference from Wilson, though in return, he downplayed his own relatively strong commitment to black civil rights and did not push full use of black troops to please Wilson and the other Democrats in power. He did however allow those troops to be fully used under French command. In fact, he allowed American troops to be used under the command of foreign forces for the first time in American history, both black and white. He ordered new styles of boots to be developed to help soldiers survive life in the trenches.

Pershing had a lot of contempt for the way the war was fought and believed superior American troops would break through the trench warfare stalemate fairly easily. He was very wrong about this. He also publicly stated that he thought the Allies should march right on into Germany and demand unconditional surrender, which caused a fairly significant international incident and the Wilson administration forced him to publicly apologize. He also ordered American troops to continue fighting even after the Armistice was more or less agreed to, leading to 3,500 American casualties on the last day of the war. He also received a lot of criticism during the war for staying behind his desk and not engaging with the troops. That was certainly Douglas MacArthur’s fairly open beef with him, though given the rest of the latter’s career, behavior, and personality, I’m not sure how much stock we should put in it.

In 1919, Congress created a new category of general for Pershing–General of the Armies of the United States and he created the four gold star general insignia for it. He became Chief of Staff for the Army in 1921 under Harding and was very involved in creating and running World War I veterans organizations. His 1932 memoir on his experiences in the war won the Pulitzer Prize. He was a major player in pushing support for Lend-Lease before U.S. entry in World War II. He died in 1948.

John J. Pershing is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia,

If you would like this series to cover additional military leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Douglas MacArthur is in Norfolk, Virginia and Chester Nimitz is in San Pedro, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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