Americas Greatest Soldier

General Pershing: America’s Greatest Soldier (1919)

John J. “Blackjack” Pershing (1860-1948) was promoted to General of the Armies during World War I, the highest rank ever held in the United States Army. With nearly two million men under his command, Pershing was responsible for more troops than any commander in American history. Further, he helped keep American forces independent, despite repeated European requests to put American troops under foreign command. In his later career, he was key in formulating the plan that would become our Interstate Highway System.

This profile ran in Frank Leslie’s Weekly on January 4, 1919.

America’s Greatest Soldier (1919)

By Thomas F. Logan

General Pershing’s happy star has been ascendent throughout the period of his service in France. No stain of criticism or glaring error mars his scutcheon. His record of achievement as Commanding Officer of the American Expeditionary Force in France has been unusual in that from its beginning until today there were no untoward events or reverses to impair the feeling of almost awed confidence with which he is regarded by the American people. Pershing came through clean. He has a tremendously hard record to live up to.

Pershing did not avoid mistakes by avoiding decisions. He struck and struck hard for his own ideas. His aggressive personality and confidence in his own estimate of one phase of the military situation in France turned the tide of battle against Germany. That phase was the morale and fighting ability of the American troops. The French generals , even Marshal Foch, it is said, did not believe the American forces were sufficiently trained to be relied upon in a vital way, even as reserves. They were deferring such reliance upon the Americans shortly before the second battle of the Marne. Pershing believed otherwise. He challenged their doubts. He staked his own military reputation and the reputation of the American armies in the war upon the ability of his troops to deliver. By his own faith and forcefulness he imposed his own estimate upon the Allied supreme command. The result was the appeal to the Americans to save the Allied cause at the second battle of the Marne.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.

The Americans, as the story goes, advancing to the attack, encountered vast numbers of the defeated French. The French warned the Americans that the boches were coming. “They are the ones we are looking for,” cried the Americans. “Divide your lines and let us through.” And on they went to Château-Thierry and the greatest achievements of American arms in modern warfare. It was Pershing ‘s assertive confidence that placed these Americans in the strategic reserve where they could be thrown forward for the decisive counter-attack of the war.

Officials escorting General Pershing to a Hotel de Ville at the Independence Day celebration in France

Officials escorting General Pershing to a Hotel de Ville at the Independence Day celebration in France

What those nearest and dearest to Pershing —Senator Warren, his father-in-law, for instance—tell us is, that he is a warm-hearted, kindly man, whose self-discipline should not be mistaken for coldness. His friends sense and deplore the prevalent idea of Pershing ‘s grimness, which is not unlike the earlier conception of President Wilson’s personality. One of them remarked to me the other day that Pershing ‘s strong jaw should not be mistaken as an indication of an unemotional nature. “The strength of his face was also in his mother’s face,” said one of Pershing ‘s kinsmen, “and she was one of the gentlest, kindest of women.”

The first of his ancestors born in America, his great grandfather, was a Methodist minister. Pershing himself is an Episcopalian, and was confirmed by Bishop Brent during his service in the Philippines. He is also a thirty-second degree Mason.

It is the understanding that Pershing is a Republican. His father was at one time postmaster at Laclede, Missouri, and also was sutler to a Union regiment quartered there during the Civil War. Thus the boy is certainly of Republican extraction. Another fact upon which the supposition as to his political leanings is based is his relationship to Senator Francis E. Warren, Republican, of Wyoming, whose daughter he married in 1905.

It was not long ago, however, that I saw a prominent Democratic politician startle his companions in the smoking compartment of a Washington train by declaring that Pershing was Democratic in his inclination. This Democrat was not in a position to assert that Pershing had ever voted the Democratic ticket, but he said very positively that the General was one of Mr. Wilson’s strongest supporters.

The facts of the case probably are that Pershing is a man without very strong political affiliations or commitments. His official biography in “Who’s Who in America” does not include the mention of any political party, as is customary in that book. The same terse record shows that the greater part of his life has been passed in foreign service, first in Indian campaigns in the West, in the Cuban campaign, where the battle of San Juan Hill brought luster to his name, as well as to that of Theodore Roosevelt, in the Philippines, in the Far East as American military observer with Kuroki’s army, in commanding patrols on the Mexican border, and as leader of the American punitive expedition into Mexico in March, 1916.

Service in these various fields was interspersed, of course, with periods of duty on home soil, including a term as military instructor at the University of Nebraska, one as instructor at the West Point Military Academy, as organizer of the Bureau of Insular Affairs of the War Department, and service on the General Staff.

The wrath of partisanship swirled about him when he was promoted from captain to brigadier-general by President Roosevelt in 1906, and this promotion was attributed, in part, to the influence of his powerful father-in-law, Senator Warren. The judgment of President Wilson has vindicated the judgment of Mr. Roosevelt in making that appointment, however, and neither this nor any other mere talk of politics and partisanship appear to furnish grounds for the supposition that Pershing can be summoned by any one into the alignment of any party.

Pershing ‘s highest resolve has been to be a great soldier. He conceived of discipline as the essence of soldierliness. Discipline was to achieve the ends selected by his superiors; it impressed upon him no duty as a publicist or propagandist. In the Philippines and in those untempting days in Mexico he carried out orders and kept his mouth shut, completely ignoring the ebb and flow of political dicussion around the events in which he was the principal figure.

It was this soldierly quality that commended him alike to the judgment of Theodore Roosevelt, who made him a brigadier-general , and to that of Woodrow Wilson, who made him commander-in-chief of the greatest and most glorious American army. It can safely be predicted that the future will deal kindly and generously with General Pershing .

General Pershing was born in Linn County, Missouri, September 13, 1860, and graduated from West Point in 1886. His first active service was in the Apache Indian campaign in 1886. He was with the 10th cavalry in the Santiago campaign in 1898, and from 1899 to 1903 he was engaged in fighting and governing the Philippines. In March, 1916, he was placed in command of the U. S. troops sent into Mexico in pursuit of Villa. In May, 1917, he was sent to France in command of the American Expeditionary Forces, and in October, 1917, he was commissioned a general . In August he was decorated by the French Government with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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