Commander of the American Expeditionary Force (World War I)
John Joseph Pershing was an Army officer best known for leading the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during World War I. In addition to serving as its combat commander, Pershing essentially developed the AEF into an independent army. At the time, leaders from the European powers were skeptical of American military capabilities. The U.S. Army had stumbled badly during its last overseas service, the Spanish–American War. Many British and French commanders insisted that American troops serve as part of existing Allied units because they believed that was the quickest way of getting them into battle and blocking the German offensive in 1918. But Pershing took such proposals as insults to the professionalism of the American officer corps. He also agreed with Pres. Woodrow Wilson that the Army’s performance was critical to the nation’s role in the peacemaking process.
Pershing was born in rural Missouri in 1860, the son of a small shopkeeper and farmer. Although he was unsure about a military career, Pershing enrolled at the United States Military Academy to finish his education. Although only an average student at West Point, he excelled in his military duties to the extent that he was chosen as senior cadet captain, the school’s highest military honor. Lieutenant Pershing served with distinction in the 6th Cavalry on the American western frontier. He won a commendation from Gen. Nelson Miles during the final campaign against Chief Geronimo and the Apache. These achievements earned him the command of the Sioux Scouts, which he led during the battle of Wounded Knee. His Indian-fighting career earned Pershing a reputation for organizational efficiency and personal bravery.
This service also provided the context in which Pershing gained his famous nickname of “Black Jack,” a reference to his outspoken support of African American troops. Contrary to existing racial prejudices, Pershing argued that African Americans could make good soldiers, given what he saw on the frontier. Pershing’s new moniker was far from complimentary; indeed, in some circles, he was known as “Nigger Jack” Pershing, which the press eventually softened because of the general’s prestige. These epithets reflected the Army’s prevailing attitudes toward African Americans as well as personal animosity for Pershing—the result of his reputation as a strict disciplinarian.
Pershing served briefly at West Point as an instructor in cavalry tactics, but returned to field service during the Spanish–American War. As a captain in the 10th Cavalry, he again demonstrated coolness under fire that drew the attention of none other than Theodore Roosevelt. In 1899, Pershing was transferred to the Philippine Islands where he helped to put down the Muslim Moro insurrection. During this episode, Pershing demonstrated another key quality that marked his career, an ability to work with soldiers of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds than his own. Pershing prepared to lead indigenous troops by studying the Koran and learning their dialects. Still only a captain, Pershing commanded five troops of cavalry and a battalion of infantry and artillery in the battle to take the Moro stronghold at Lake Lanao.
Pershing was later assigned to duty with the General Staff in Washington, D.C., where he found himself the darling of the city’s political elite, including President Roosevelt. While there, he married Helen Warren, the daughter of Sen. Francis Warren of Wyoming, in a ceremony attended by the president. Given his past accomplishments and newfound political connections, Pershing was rewarded with new assignments that furthered his chances at promotion. While only a major, he served as a military observer during the Russo-Japanese War, often interacting with foreign officers quite senior to him. In 1906, President Roosevelt promoted Pershing to brigadier general, bypassing more than 800 officers to do so. In the tradition-bound Army of that era, a president rarely trespassed seniority. Many of Pershing’s peers protested what they viewed as political nepotism, but Roosevelt persisted in having the appointment confirmed, and the new general returned to the Philippines to command the military department on Luzon.
Pershing returned to the United States in 1914 to command the Army’s 8th Brigade in San Francisco. This assignment was a time of great personal tragedy. In August 1915, Pershing’s wife and three daughters were killed in a fire at their quarters in the Presidio. Pershing threw himself into his work after leaving his sole surviving child with family in Nebraska.
Several crises loomed that the Army was unprepared for. Besides the war in Europe, tensions were growing between the United States and Mexico. The worst episode involved an attack in March 1916 by forces of the Mexican nationalist and outlaw leader Pancho Villa on the town of Columbus, New Mexico, that left 17 Americans dead or wounded. Despite calls for action from the Wilson administration, the Mexican government did not capture Pancho Villa.
Pershing was put in charge of what was called “the punitive expedition” to bring Villa to justice. Eventually, 12,000 American soldiers were deployed to Mexico as part of the search. However, the difficult and unfamiliar terrain, along with the Mexican government’s intransigence, made finding Villa impossible. Pershing gained additional experience organizing and leading a large operational command, experience most other generals did not have on their resumes. The highly publicized affair also put his name before the public, making him the leading candidate for other operational commands once the United States became involved in World War I.
President Wilson promoted Pershing to the command of the AEF over five other generals senior to him. Pershing’s relative youth was also a factor in winning this assignment. Wilson wanted a general with the stamina to handle what he knew would be a difficult job. Nothing in the Army’s history approached the complexity of what was about to be undertaken. Mobilization planners were predicting the end strength of the AEF to be around three million soldiers. Even adding the National Guard and reserve forces, this was essentially creating an army out of nothing. The majority of this force would have to be organized and trained before it was battle ready, which could take two to three years.
Pershing and his staff left for France in May 1917 before any combat troops had sailed. His officers were challenged to create the logistical infrastructure, the supply depots and lines of communication, to support an independent army. Many British and French officers believed that this effort was an unnecessary delay and preferred that troops be routed as soon as possible into existing Allied units. Pershing and Wilson never viewed this as an option. The American public would never have tolerated their troops being used as cannon fodder for the next disasters on the Western Front. Despite their troops’ inexperience, Pershing and his officers also believed that Americans would perform better under their own commanders.
As commander of the AEF, Pershing often had to defend the decision to form an independent army to the civilian leaders of the French and British governments. His bluntness in doing so led some foreign officials to request that President Wilson relieve Pershing of command. However, by the spring of 1918, Pershing had five divisions ready for combat, enough to form an army. In expediting combat troops to France, the AEF lacked the support troops to sustain operations. To get his troops combat experience and to relieve the pressure on Allied forces, Pershing agreed to have some units serve temporarily under French command. But these forces were to be released to American control as soon as the AEF became operational, and finally happened in July. The First American Army took over a supposedly quiet sector of the Western Front, the St. Mihiel salient. However, fighting flared up in this area as the Germans launched their last major offensive of the war.
The AEF contributed the most to the Allied victory during the Meuse–Argonne campaign in the summer of 1918. As American troop strength increased, Pershing assumed responsibility for a larger sector of the Allied front. The inexperience of the AEF showed in its first few battles, and probably resulted in higher casualties. The courage and freshness of the American troops more than compensated for any performance deficiencies and ultimately broke the German attack. The specter of an unending stream of American reinforcements led to an armistice that November. Pershing’s tenacity in building and preparing the AEF contributed in large part to the expedition’s success.
After the war, Pershing was promoted to general of the armies, a rank that had previously been held only by Civil War luminaries Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, and Philip Sheridan. Despite calls to enter politics, Pershing remained in the Army, possibly because he was aware of the poll of nearly 13,000 World War I veterans in 1919 who answered the question “Would you favor a military man for President” with a resounding no (9,471 to 3,208); the stiff and formal Pershing would have been the figure in the minds of most of these veterans. Eventually he served as the Army’s chief of staff. Pershing also wrote an autobiography, My Experiences in the World War (1931). In his later years, he assumed a role that was largely ceremonial, representing the United States at various conferences abroad and in celebrations commemorating the Army’s achievements during World War I.
Geronimo; Harlem Hellfighters; National Guard; Philippine War; Spanish–American War; Wilson, Woodrow; World War I
After the US entry into World War I (1917), he commanded the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France, independently...
Full text Article John J. Pershing (1860-1948) Commander of American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War I
John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing was born on September 13, 1860, in Laclede, Missouri. He was the oldest of eight children born to Ann Thompson
“Black Jack Pershing.” Commandant of the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I . He first saw action in the Great Plains ...