If you take off east across U.S. 36, about half way across the state of Missouri, you will run across the birthplace of John J. Pershing, near Laclede, in Lynn County. Pershing was our nation's most influential Army general.

Born in 1860, John graduated in 1880 from Kirksville Normal School (now Truman State University) with a teaching degree.

He applied to take the entrance exam for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he earned the top exam score and entered West Point in July 1882.

After West Point his first military assignment was chasing Geronimo across Arizona. Then, it was up in Dakota country against the Lakota Sioux for the Wounded Knee massacre.

While serving four years as a professor of military science at the University of Nebraska, Pershing earned his law degree by 1893.

In 1896, Pershing was assigned to the frontier commanding the Tenth Calvary, the all-black force known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Pershing was then assigned to teach at West Point, where he was given the nickname “Black Jack” because of his time spent with the Tenth Cavalry. When the Spanish-American War broke out, Pershing once again commanded the Tenth and led his Buffalo Soldiers in the Battle of San Juan Hill.

After Spain was defeated, the United States took control of the Philippines and Pershing was there. After returning from the Philippines, Pershing met and married Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of U.S. Senator Francis E. Warren of Wyoming. They had four children.

President Theodore Roosevelt promoted Pershing in 1906 to brigadier general, a jump in rank of four grades. The promotion was controversial, because Pershing bypassed more than 800 senior officers. Many within the military thought he had received the promotion because he was married to a senator’s daughter. Roosevelt, however, had suggested the promotion three years earlier, before Pershing even met the Warren family.

In late 1913, Pershing moved to San Francisco where he commanded the Eighth Brigade. Two years later, while Pershing was on assignment in Texas, he received the news that his wife and daughters had died in a fire. Only his six-year-old son, Warren, survived. Pershing was devastated by the loss, and those who knew him said he never fully recovered. He distracted himself by becoming immersed in his career.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson sent Pershing after Poncho Villa, to no avail. The extremely rugged and mountainous Mexican terrain made his capture next to impossible.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Pershing was appointed commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, the American military force we sent to Europe. The AEF participated in numerous important battles such as Cantigny, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and the Battle of St. Mihiel. General Pershing eventually cut the German lines at Sedan on Nov. 6, 1918, and the war ended Nov. 11.

In 1919, Congress honored General Pershing by naming him General of the Armies. He and George Washington are the only two people who have received that honor. General Pershing served as Army chief of staff from 1921 to 1924. He later served as a consultant when the United States entered World War II. He also wrote a memoir, “My Experiences in the World War,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1932.

Over the course of his military career, Pershing commanded Captain Harry S Truman, General George S. Patton, General George C. Marshall, and General Douglas MacArthur, making General Pershing one of America’s most influential military leaders.

Reference: “Black Jack Pershing” by Richard O'Connor.

To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.