Pershing, John Joseph (1860–1948)

By: Leon C. Metz

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 1995

Updated: July 28, 2017

John Joseph Pershing, United States general, was born on September 13, 1860, near Laclede, Missouri, the son of Ann Elizabeth (Thompson) and John F. Pershing (originally Pfoersching), a railway section foreman who later became a prominent merchant. The family was Methodist. Pershing graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1886 and promptly saw service against Apaches in New Mexico and against the Sioux at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. In 1897 he returned to West Point, where he taught tactics and received the nickname Black Jack for having served with black troopers of the Tenth Cavalry. During the Spanish-American War he rode as a first lieutenant with the Tenth Cavalry in the Santiago campaign in Cuba. From 1899 through 1903 he fought in the Philippines during the Mindanao campaign. Shortly afterwards, he rose to captain, became military attaché to the American embassy in Japan, and observed Japanese forces fighting in Manchuria, China. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Pershing brigadier general. The promotion bypassed 862 officers, a move that made Pershing militarily prominent but not personally popular. Pershing married Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of Senator Francis E. Warren of Wyoming, on January 26, 1905; President Roosevelt and most of the cabinet and Congress were in attendance. In 1915 Pershing's wife and daughters died in a fire at the Presidio, San Francisco.

In April 1914 Pershing took command of Fort Bliss, which had been an infantry post. By 1916 he had set up a field camp outside of El Paso. More than 50,000 American soldiers, most of them National Guard, lined the border at Columbus. Their objective was to subdue revolutionary forces and to capture Francisco (Pancho) Villa. On March 16 Pershing's punitive expedition crossed the international line and entered Chihuahua. During the campaign the general encountered major transportation problems; heavy trucks attempted to negotiate dirt roads designed for lighter traffic. Pershing introduced to warfare the use of aerial reconnaissance to search for the best routes through difficult terrain, and he used railroads when possible. Despite heroic efforts in engagements such as that of the Seventh Cavalry at Guerrero on March 29 and a disastrous defeat at Carrizal in June, Pershing returned to the United States in January 1917 without Villa. He had, however, scattered the Villistas. Pershing returned to Fort Bliss and, on February 21, 1917, assumed command of the Southern Department, which took him to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. There he received with enthusiasm the news of Wilson's resolution to enter the European war. He wrote the president on April 10 to congratulate him on the decision and immediately began preparing Fort Sam Houston for the coming conflict.

In addition to his military duties, Pershing advised and assisted San Antonio civilian authorities. He spoke to any audience that invited him and educated them on the proper duties of a citizen in wartime. He supported the drafting of all-bodied men and convinced Governor James Ferguson to argue his case before the Texas congressional delegation. After notification on May 2, 1917, that he would be in charge of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, he left for Washington, D. C., after only two months in the Fort Sam Houston command. In Europe he avoided trench warfare and generally fought independently of Allied forces.

After World War I he helped frame military terms for the Treaty of Versailles. In 1919 he received the highest rank ever given an American army officer-General of the Armies of the United States. Furthermore, he served as chief of staff from 1921 to 1924, when he retired. Pershing suffered heart and kidney problems, became an invalid, and, on July 15, 1948, died at Walter Reed Army Hospital. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Clarence C. Clendenen, Blood on the Border: The United States Army and the Mexican Irregulars (London: MacMillan, 1969). Richard Goldhurst, Pipe Clay and Drill: John J. Pershing, the Classic American Soldier (New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1977). Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr., The Great Pursuit: General John J. Pershing's Punitive Expedition across the Rio Grande to Destroy the Mexican Bandit Pancho Villa (New York: Random House, 1970). Richard O'Connor, Black Jack Pershing (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961). Donald Smythe, Guerrilla Warrior: The Early Life of John J. Pershing (New York: Scribner, 1973). C. L. Sonnichsen, Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande (2 vols., El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1968, 1980). Frank E. Vandiver, Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing (2 vols., College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1977). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Who's Who in America, 1946–47.

Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Leon C. Metz, “Pershing, John Joseph,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995
July 28, 2017