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Morton: Pershing was one of America's greatest generals

On this day (July 15) in 1948, Gen. John Joseph Pershing died of congestive heart failure in Washington, D.C., at Walter Reed Hospital.

Renowned primarily as the leader of the American Expeditionary Force that was sent to Europe shortly after America’s April 6, 1917, declaration of war against Germany to bolster the English-French armies in their increasingly bloody stalemate trench war of attrition in France, Pershing, in fact, had a long and distinguished military career that spanned 38 years (1886 to 1924).

Born Sept. 13, 1860, on a farm near Laclede, Mo., into the family of businessman/farmer John Fletcher Pershing and Ann Elizabeth Thompson, John early on showed great promise as a student.

He first attended local schools in Laclede, and, in 1880, enrolled in the North Missouri Normal School (now Truman State University). In 1882, he applied to and was accepted at the U.S. Military Academy. At age 26, in 1886, he graduated from West Point (30th in a class of 77) and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

His early military career was spent fighting Indian Wars in the West. Black Jack (nicknamed that because he once commanded a troop in the 10th Cavalry Regiment, which was one of the original Buffalo Soldier units composed of African-American soldiers under white officers) served (1891to 1895) as an instructor of military tactics at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. While teaching, Pershing attended law school and graduated with a bachelor of laws degree and a deserved reputation, among his students, for being a strict disciplinarian and a rigid, no-nonsense instructor.

By 1897, Black Jack was considered one of the bright young army officers obviously destined for high command and preferment, which was confirmed by appointment to and graduation from, in 1904, the prestigious Army War College. A two-year appointment (1897 to 1899) as an instructor at West Point, which was briefly interrupted by a brief stint in Cuba in the Spanish American War, was followed by tours in the Far East – first in the Philippines to fight in the Philippine Insurrection (1899 to 1903) and later, at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, as military attaché in Tokyo.

In 1905, the 45-year-old Pershing married Helen Frances Warren (daughter of Wyoming Republican Sen. Francis E. Warren), with whom he had four children (three daughters and one son). Tragically, on Aug. 27, 1915, Pershing, while on duty at Fort Bliss, Texas, received a telegram informing him of the death of his wife and three young daughters in a fire in their residence at the Presidio of San Francisco. Thereafter, friends and colleagues often remarked that he never really recovered from the deaths of four of his immediate family members.

In 1916, President Wilson appointed Pershing to lead the Mexican Punitive Expedition into Mexico to capture the bandit Pancho Villa. Pershing’s force of 10,000 men penetrated some 350 miles into Mexico, routed Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries, but failed to capture the Mexican leader.

Pershing is, of course, best remembered and honored for his World War I service as commander of the American Expeditionary Force in France. Given complete control over his troops, Pershing initially was determined to maintain the American Expeditionary Force as an independent army, whereas Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch wished to use American troops as replacement units in the depleted English and French divisions.

In 1918, the more than a million American troops in France acquitted themselves well in the Battles of Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, which were allied victories and hastened the defeat of the German Army on the Western Front. They led to the Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice.

In 1921, Black Jack served, with distinction, as Army chief of staff until his retirement from military service in 1924. At the time of his death (age 87), Pershing was eulogized as one of America’s greatest generals.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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