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By Jim Lacey
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2008 Jim Lacey
All rights reserved.
Born in War
At 4:00 p.m. on June 18, 1863, thirty southern raiders commanded by Clifton Holtzclaw stormed into Laclede, Missouri, shot up and then sacked the town. The Civil War was in its third year and Missouri was suffering under a scourge of raiders who swarmed about the contested border state like locusts, leaving death and wreckage in their wake. Pershing's father, also named John, was in his store, which fronted on the town square, as the raiders rode in. Since his young son, only three at the time, accompanied him to work, the store shotgun was kept unloaded. There was no time to load it, so John Pershing Sr. just turned and locked the safe, which also stored many of the townsfolk's valuables, picked up his shotgun, and strode out the back door with his young son under his arm.
The Pershings lived only five doors down from the store and John Sr. stole in the back door of his home just as two raiders were leaving from the front, convinced by Mrs. Pershing that her husband was not there. He loaded the gun, then walked to the window, raised the gun, and took aim in the direction of his store. Mrs. Pershing, instantly grasping the situation, threw her arms around her husband and begged him not to do anything rash. As the raiders were robbing his store, she pleaded, "You'll be killed. Let the money go." Pershing came to his senses and lowered his rifle. Eventually, a train full of Union soldiers approached the town and the raiders decamped. They took with them property worth about $3,000 and left several dead Laclede citizens in their wake.
Thus, at the tender age of three, John Joseph Pershing, future commander of all American forces in Europe during World War I, chief of staff of the army and General of the Armies of the United States, had his first taste of war. All he later remembered of the incident was that he was scared his father would be killed and that his mother had almost crushed him, as she kept him pinned to the floor with her foot throughout the ordeal.
When John Joseph Pershing was born on September 13, 1860, the country was on the eve of civil war. Though Pershing's only memory of the war was the faded images of this terrifying encounter, it still had a profound influence on his life. Throughout his youth he thrilled at the stories of returning veterans, and though they did not inspire him to pursue a military career, they were deeply embedded his memory.
During his early life, Pershing's family was not rich, but they were comfortably well off. As Pershing remembered it:
[It] was a time of prosperity and father and mother had hopes of sending all us children eventually to college. Farming was profitable and business at the store was flourishing. One day I overheard a clerk say that father was regarded as one of the wealthiest men in the county. For a time I could picture myself as a student at a college and then at law school. Apparently there was not a cloud in the business sky. Money was plentiful, prices of commodities were increasing; wages were good; and people were spending freely and incurring new financial obligations without hesitation.
Pershing's father was aggressively incurring debts and had invested his entire worth, plus borrowed funds, in land speculation. This idyllic start came to a crashing end in the Panic of 1873, arguably the worst financial shock the United States has ever suffered, with the exception of the Great Depression. When it struck, Pershing was too young to understand what was happening until one day his father took him aside and explained the extent of the family's troubles. Pershing was abruptly brought face to face with the realities of life, and the revelation that his father was close to bankruptcy made a deep impression on him. At the same time, he felt proud, as for the first time he was being trusted with the responsibilities of manhood.
The store was shuttered and the bank foreclosed on most of Pershing's land holdings. To make ends meet, John Sr. hit the road as a traveling salesman, while thirteen-year-old John Jr. and his younger brother quit school to become full-time farmers. Luck, however, continued to be against young Pershing. In young Pershing's first year as a farmer he was beset by drought and the next year a plague of locusts destroyed his crop. It was hard, but Pershing counted his family luckier than many other local families and he later wrote, "There was no depression in the morale of the family." It was a difficult three years before the family's prospects minimally revived, but Pershing found the experience worthwhile nonetheless because "as difficult as times were, I learned more of the practical side of life than during any similar period."
Young John eventually returned to school. Despite often missing classes due to his duties on the farm, Pershing kept up with his school work during the evening. By the age of eighteen he had passed the test to be a teacher. He applied at a local school about ten miles from Laclede and, despite his youth, the board decided to give him a chance. Previous teachers had left because they could not maintain discipline among the older children, several of whom were older and larger than Pershing. In his second week, the boys, who had forced out his predecessor, decided it was time to test Pershing. After acting up in class, Pershing told them to stay after the rest of the class was dismissed. When they defied him and got up to walk out, Pershing slowly approached the largest of the boys, and calmly informed him, "I am here to run this school and you will obey my orders. If you do not take your seat I will thrash you on this spot." Seeing that Pershing was deadly earnest, the troublemaker took his seat and that was the end of discipline problems. Pershing called his early teaching experience the best lessons he ever had in the art of managing others.
Pershing used the money he earned teaching to attend a small local college at Kirksville, and dreamed of getting enough education to become a lawyer. It was at one of his intermittent stays at Kirksville that he spotted a newspaper notice for a competitive examination for West Point. The test was two weeks away and Pershing took leave from his courses to prepare himself. At the time, he had no thought of a military career and merely saw West Point as a free education and an opportunity to eventually go to law school. When Pershing arrived for the test he found himself pitted against thirteen other applicants for one slot. That number was narrowed down to two after the written test, and Pershing was one of them. The final selection came down to a single question on the oral exam: parse the sentence "I love to run." His competitor said "to run" was an adverbial clause, while Pershing said it was the object of the verb. On this minor grammatical point rested Pershing's fate and by extension, America's. Pershing was right and won the appointment.
* * *
Pershing arrived at West Point in 1882, at 5'9" and a muscular 155 pounds. He claimed to be twenty-two years old, which was probably a lie, just under the age limit for a new cadet. Knowing that there was one more test to take before entrance into the academy, Pershing arrived four months early to be tutored along with several other perspective cadets by a former Confederate officer with a reputation for getting his charges past this final barrier to entry. It was also during this time that Pershing got his first glimpse of General Ulysses S. Grant and long afterward he would tell how thrilled he was by the experience. A little over three years later, Pershing, now Cadet Captain, marched the entire corps of cadets several miles from West Point to present themselves along the rail line when Grant's funeral train passed. Until his death, Pershing considered Grant the greatest general the United States had ever produced.
Pershing was one of 104 (out of 144) who passed the final test and was admitted into the West Point Class of 1886. Although a middling student, through dogged persistence he graduated thirtieth out of the seventy-seven cadets who made it through all four years. He was particularly plagued by French and never achieved any practical ability in the language. If not the best student in the class, he was definitely the class leader in every other regard. Robert Bullard, who was a year ahead of Pershing and would later command the Second Army in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), said of him, "His exercise of authority, was then and always has been since, of a nature peculiarly impersonal, dispassionate, hard, and firm. This quality did not in him, as in many, give offense; the man was too impersonal, too given over to pure business and duty. His manner carried to the minds of those under him the suggestion, nay, the conviction, of unquestioned right to obedience."
But Pershing was not all business. He was known as a "hop man." He never missed an opportunity to attend one of the many dances at West Point or other local social events. Even as a cadet he was known for, in the delicate phrasing of the period, "enjoying the society of women." It was a characteristic of his nature that was to last a lifetime. Even during World War I his staff would go out of its way to make sure there were women at headquarters for Pershing to socialize with at dinner, as it always seemed to improve the boss's mood. Pershing was also selected class president, a position he held until his death, and was selected to the highest cadet rank each year until finally becoming first captain of the Cadet Corps. Later he said that no rank he ever attained after that gave him as much satisfaction.
While at the academy, Pershing had the opportunity to observe the character and natural leadership abilities of other cadets. He was a superb judge of men, and those he noted with special favor at this time would come to the attention of the rest of the country three decades later as America entered World War I. Pershing's class of 1886 produced ten brigadier generals, fifteen major generals, and one General of the Armies—a total of twenty-six general officers, or over a third of the class. All told, the men Pershing knew during his four years at the academy furnished over a quarter of the 474 American generals in the war.
Characteristics that Pershing later displayed as General of the Armies were already in evidence when he was a cadet. He worked hard. He was confident and possessed a strong intolerance for anyone he perceived as lazy. However, Pershing also gained a reputation for tardiness; every account of West Point days, written by men who knew him then, states that Pershing's overriding concern was seeking out the society of local ladies to join him for solitary walks along "flirtation lane." His classmates also considered him an odd mixture of vanity and shyness. He had a visceral negative reaction to being embarrassed. Among women, he was relaxed and even voluble, but when he was with other cadets he remained aloof. His classmates state that he was sociable and was considered a man among men, but he was never part of any clique or considered "one of the gang." One cadet, who later commanded a corps in World War I, said, "Pershing was never the kind of guy you walked up to and greeted with a slap on the back and a crude remark—twice."
* * *
Despite his middling academic achievements, Pershing's military achievements at the academy entitled him to a high choice in selecting his branch of service and first assignment. He chose the Sixth Cavalry, mainly because it was still engaged in active operations, in the Southwest against the Apache Indians. He had intended to join the regiment immediately upon graduation, but as the Geronimo campaign was concluding, he decided to take his postgraduation leave and visit his family, now living in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Pershing's first posting was Fort Bayard, New Mexico, where he arrived just in time to go out on patrol in pursuit of the last of the Apache renegades, Chief Magnus. This first patrol was a shock to the new lieutenant, for it was quite obvious that many of the soldiers, including the troop's first sergeant, had liberally partaken of spirits prior to departing. But he also noted that the mules were all packed properly, the troopers' weapons were well maintained, and that they rode from dawn to dusk without complaint. Pershing's patrol never came across any hostile Apaches, as Magnus had returned to a reservation in Arizona, but the excursion taught Pershing how to plan and command an extended campaign in the field. It became one of many learning experiences he was to absorb during his four years in the Southwest.
During those years Pershing served in several posts and appears to have made a favorable impression on those above him. One commander said that new officers usually kept their mouths shut until they learned the basics of their profession from the ground up. But he said that Pershing was always different; "he was listened to by even the most senior officers almost from the day he arrived. He did not say much, but when he did it always went right to the meat of the problem."
But Pershing was learning as well. Foremost among these lessons was how to handle enlisted men. In turn, his men discovered they were commanded by a man with real metal in his gut, who was not above enforcing discipline with his fists. For the most part, though, he respected his men and they repaid the feeling. Believing that the best way to inspire them was by setting the example, Pershing became almost fanatical about ensuring that he accomplished all of his assigned duties far above standard. He also took time to become an excellent marksman and was selected to defend his post's honor in a number of shooting competitions. His love affair with the rifle continued through the end of World War I, and it took a long time to convince Pershing that new artillery doctrine and massed machine guns had become a more important factor in war than well-trained marksmen.
As at West Point, Pershing was not all work. With the end of the Indian Campaigns, life in the far-flung Western outposts assumed a more leisurely pace. Pershing found ample time for extended hunting and fishing expeditions. Moreover, there seemed to be no shortage of social events to amuse young officers, and Pershing found that there were numerous opportunities for "spooning," a turn-of-the-century term for dating, and he went through an assortment of female admirers. Pershing also discovered that he had a natural affinity for poker, a talent that provided plentiful opportunities to supplement his salary. However, not wanting to get a reputation as a cardsharp, and troubled that he was beginning to drift off to sleep thinking about poker hands, he gave up the game.
* * *
To relieve the boredom of camp life and keep his men sharp, General Nelson Miles, the department commander, initiated a series of grueling training exercises. One favorite exercise had a troop of cavalry playing the part of raiders. They received a twelve- to twenty-four-hour head start, before a second troop was sent in pursuit. Pershing liked the maneuvers and considered them good training, despite the long days in the saddle. In one exercise, Pershing's troop covered 130 miles in less than forty hours. And the troop still finished with every horse and mule in good condition. Pershing beamed when Miles personally congratulated him on this achievement.
While assigned to Fort Wingate, Pershing was sent to arrest three white men trapped by over one hundred Zuni warriors intent on punishing them for killing three of their tribes people. Pershing found the men under siege in a log house with the Zuni preparing a final rush to capture or kill them, the latter being their declared preference. Pershing convinced the Zuni to cease fire and allow him to arrest the men, whereupon, he explained, they would surely be tried and hanged. Alone, Pershing entered the log house, and told the men that if they did not agree to being arrested he would depart and leave them to the Zuni's "tender mercies." The men saw reason and Pershing led them out on a buckboard, wondering if the Indians would jump the entire party. When he returned, the post commander congratulated him on his peaceful handling of a touchy situation. In the end, however, one of the prisoners escaped from the post stockade, and civilian authorities failed to convict the other two.
On November 23, 1890, the Sixth Cavalry received orders to move to South Dakota. At the time, a new movement was spreading rapidly among the Plains Indians. Known as the Ghost Dancers, this group claimed that any Indian who wore special magical shirts and performed the Ghost Dance would become immune to the white man's bullets. In November 3,000 Sioux Indians left the Rosebud Pine Ridge Reservation and fortified themselves on a high mesa, where they awaited the arrival of an Indian messiah who would lead them in a great war to take back their lands. As other Indians began leaving the reservation, civilian authorities lost control of the region and Miles received orders to take charge.
According to Pershing, Miles was a fine soldier with much experience fighting Indians who also understood and felt sympathy for the natives and their plight. Even before being assigned to the command, Miles had made protestations to Washington on the Indians' behalf and had received permission to feed starving tribes out of Army stores. Realizing that if the great multitude of roving Indian bands were able to concentrate, they would constitute a significant military threat, Miles planned his campaign so as to isolate and then overwhelm each Indian band in turn. From the start, Miles understood that many of the Indians were waiting on the actions of their great chief, Sitting Bull, the man who wiped out General George Custer's Seventh Cavalry. In an effort to remove the famous chief, Miles sent Buffalo Bill Cody to induce him to surrender. When that failed, he sent a platoon of Indian scouts to arrest him. A firefight ensued and the aged Indian chief was killed during the melee, further enraging the hostile tribes.
Excerpted from Pershing by Jim Lacey. Copyright © 2008 Jim Lacey. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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