General John Joseph Pershing served in Texas immediately prior to the United States’ entry into World War I. His name might be familiar to some in Texas due to the raids into Mexico that were intended to catch the bandit Pancho Villa.
Pershing was born September 13, 1860 in LeClede, Missouri to John Fletcher and Ann Elizabeth Tompson Pershing. His father was described as a laborer in the 1860 census and is thought to have worked for one of the railroad companies. John Joseph was the oldest of six children. By the time John Joseph was 10, all but one of his siblings were born and his father was working in the dry goods business, though the family was still residing in Missouri. John Joseph gravitated toward a career in the Army and in 1882, he secured an appointment to West Point. There Pershing was remembered as being an average student but a natural leader and graduated in 1886 as first captain and president of his class. Soon the Army was mobilized to fight in the Apache Wars in New Mexico and Arizona. From 1886 to 1890, Pershing served as a second lieutenant in the 6th Cavalry and earned the first of his combat citations. For about a year, he served in the Sioux campaigns in South Dakota.
From about 1891 to 1895, he served as a military instructor and earned a law degree at University of Nebraska. While there, he was promoted to first lieutenant. In 1896, he headed up the roundup of members of the Cree tribe who were deported to Canada. For the next two years, Pershing returned to the West Point as an instructor in military tactics. One of the theories about how he acquired his nickname “Black Jack” was that he was so named by West Point cadets at this time, because of his iron discipline. Another theory was that he acquired it while serving as commander of so-called buffalo soldiers (Black troops), which he did on several postings. Pershing served in the Spanish-American War in 1898, primarily in Cuba. From 1899 to 1903, he was posted to the Philippines where he was promoted to Captain. Pershing returned to the United States in 1903 where he studied at the War College and served on the Army general staff. While there, he met and later married the much younger Helen Frances Warren, daughter of United States Senator Francis E. Warren of Wyoming. Senator Warren was well known and their wedding was attended by President Theodore Roosevelt. After this short time in the United States, Pershing was posted to Japan in 1904, where he served as a military attaché and advisor in the United States Embassy in Tokyo during Japan’s war with Russia.
(Image credit: Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, NM)
In 1906, he was promoted from Captain to Brigadier General over 862 other potential candidates. Despite his service time and qualifications, this drew criticism and feelings that the promotion was influenced by his wife’s family’s relationship to Roosevelt and his father in law’s service on a military oversight committee.
Pershing was again ordered to go to the Philippines where he served as commander of Ft. McKinley until 1913. Around 1914, he received orders to return to the United States to command the 8th Infantry. He first established his residence at the Presidio in San Francisco, in the former commandant’s home, his family consisting by then of his wife Frances, their son Warren and three daughters Helen, Ann and Mary. Around that time, tensions increased along the Mexican border due to the Mexican Revolution and, in part, due to the raids of bandit Pancho Villa and the Mexican government’s failure to control the bandit’s actions. Pershing was ordered along with the 8th Infantry to serve at Fort Bliss in Texas, temporarily leaving his family behind in California until they could be relocated with him in El Paso.
On August 17, 1915 at around 4:30 AM, a fire broke out at the two story family residence in the Presidio. The residence was situated in a prominent location, across from the headquarters flagpole. The fire is thought to have started when hot coals spilled from the hearth onto a waxed wooden floor. Frances and the three daughters, then aged eight, seven and three each succumbed to smoke inhalation. Five year old Warren was rescued by Pershing’s orderly, William J. Johnson. Also injured but surviving the fire were workers in the home and three guests of Mrs. Pershing, Mrs. Annie Boswell and her two children, five year old James and two year old Philip. The Boswells had jumped from the roof over the veranda on the first floor. Annie Boswell was the wife of a former aide on Pershing’s staff. Lt. Boswell was not at the Presidio, since he was in the hospital elsewhere, recovering from surgery. Orderly Johnson caught the two Boswell children as they jumped. It is said that Pershing never recovered from the loss of his wife and daughters. He never remarried.
After the funerals and burials in Wyoming, Pershing returned to Texas. In January of 1916, Pancho Villa raided a Mexican train capturing and killing eighteen American mine workers. Ironically, the United States had at least tacitly supported Villa against the military dictator General Victoriano Huerta who had seized power a few years earlier. The following March, Villa crossed the border and raided the community of Columbus, New Mexico. Between one and two dozen American civilians were killed along with a greater number of Villa’s troops. The United States Army’s rules of engagement forbade them from crossing the Mexican border, although some were thought to have followed Villa at the time. This precipitated President Woodrow Wilson to order the United States Army to cross the border and pursue Villa with the permission of the Mexican government. About 6,000 troops led by Pershing under the command of General Frederick Funston searched for Villa for about a year. Although they were not successful in capturing the bandit, except for a small number of incursions into Texas, Villa largely confined his activities to Mexico thereafter.
After many months had passed with no favorable results, the president of Mexico, Venustiano Carranza, eventually withdrew his permission to allow United States forces to pursue Villa. Also, with World War I already underway in Europe, President Wilson is believed to have not been anxious to continue these potentially incendiary activities in Mexico, the expedition was discontinued. Pancho Villa had eluded the United States Army for years, but the United States activities at least contributed to Villa discontinuing his raids across the border. He eventually ceased all hostilities, was pardoned by a Mexican president and lived on his ranch in Chihuahua, residing there until he was assassinated in 1923.
Pershing was promoted to Major General around 1917 and received orders to be transferred to Washington, D. C. following the sudden death of General Funston. Pershing had served under Funston since the Philippines and until the General took ill and died of a heart attack in San Antonio.
Pershing was named by President Wilson to command the force that was to be called the American Expeditionary Forces, conceived in response to America’s entry into the war in Europe. Pershing was considered a highly regarded and capable commander, also able to manage the coalition of allied forces against the enemy, for the relatively short time the United States was directly involved in the conflict. Following the end of the war, Pershing was promoted and confirmed by the Senate as a General in 1919. He was offered the rank of five stars, but declined. He served as chief of staff of the Army from 1921 until 1924, when he retired.
In many ways, his military and post-war civilian life foreshadowed the life and career of Dwight Eisenhower. Pershing was promoted as a Republican candidate for President, but the movement lost momentum in favor of future President Warren G. Harding. Pershing never again ran for public office.
Pershing served as an informal consultant to the Army in World War II and lived in Washington, D. C. until his death in 1948. Upon his death, he had requested that he have the same white tombstone that his men had received. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Pershing was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, and many foreign awards.
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