John Joseph Pershing
commanded the American Expeditionary Forces

1860 - 1948

John Joseph Pershing commanded the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) in Europe in World War I (1914-1918). The A.E.F. was the first United States army ever sent to Europe. Pershing trained and led in battle an army that grew within 18 months from a small group of regulars to almost 2 million men. After the war, he received the highest rank ever given an American Army officer, General of the Armies of the United States. But Congress granted the same title to George Washington in 1976, so that no other general, past or present, would outrank him.

Pershing was born near Laclede, Mo. He began to teach in a local black school at age 17.

Pershing graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1886 and began active service by fighting against the Apache. While serving as military instructor at the University of Nebraska, Pershing earned a law degree.

Pershing was teaching tactics at the U.S. Military Academy when the Spanish-American War began in 1898. He fought with distinction as a first lieutenant with the 10th Cavalry in the Santiago campaign.

Pershing served in the Philippines from 1899 to 1903 and directed the Mindanao Island campaign against the rebellious Moros tribe. He was still a first lieutenant at age 40 and considered resigning from the Army because of slow promotion. But he became a captain in the Philippines. His work in subduing the Moros, who had never been conquered, won the admiration of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Pershing became military attache to the U.S. Embassy in Japan after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. He went with Japanese General Tamemoto Kuroki to Manchuria, where as military observer he studied modern warfare on a large scale. He returned to the Philippines after the war. In 1906, President Roosevelt raised Pershing's rank from captain to brigadier general.

In 1916, Pershing took command of the army that entered Mexico in pursuit of Pancho Villa and his rebels. Villa's troops had raided and burned the border town of Columbus, N.M. Although Pershing did not capture Villa, the long pursuit made "Black Jack" Pershing (so called because he had once commanded an all-black troop) a public figure in the United States. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he was chosen to command the A.E.F.

World War I. Upon arriving in France, Pershing laid a wreath on the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette. One of his staff officers, Colonel Charles E. Stanton, gave a speech on Pershing's behalf. In the speech, Stanton said, "Lafayette, we are here." This symbolized the repayment of aid that Lafayette and other Frenchmen had given America during the Revolutionary War.

Pershing's greatest work as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces was to preserve the unity of the American army in combat and maintain the spirit of the offensive. The Allied generals wanted to use the American troops to fill the ranks of their battered armies, but Pershing insisted that, except in certain cases, the American army should fight independently. He believed that the arrival of a large, fresh American army at the front would hurt German morale. Also, the Americans had been trained for fast, driving warfare, which Pershing believed was needed to win. Pershing opposed the slow trench warfare of the Allied armies. His theory of offensive warfare, though it cost many American lives, succeeded against the German army.

Pershing served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 1921 to 1924. After his retirement, he served as chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission and in several honorary diplomatic assignments. During World War II (1939-1945), he consulted with Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, but took no other active part in the war. Pershing was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Contributor: Christopher R. Gabel, Ph.D.

Additional resources

Trask, David F. The AEF and Coalition Warmaking, 1917-1918. Univ. Pr. of Kans., 1993. Covers Pershing's role in World War I.

Vandiver, Frank E. Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing. 2 vols. Tex. A & M Univ. Pr., 1977.


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