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PERSHINGCommander of the Great War
By John Perry
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 John Perry
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTeacher and Student
John Joseph Pershing's first memories were of war. He was a few months shy of his fourth birthday when on June 18, 1864, Captain Clifton Holtzclaw led a Confederate raid on his hometown of Laclede, Missouri. John Fletcher Pershing and his wife, Anne Elizabeth, had raised little Jackie in a home loyal to the Union. Though Missouri remained officially part of the United States, its citizens were sharply divided. Only President Lincoln's intervention with federal troops had kept the state from splitting the way Virginia had, where Union sympathizers left the Confederacy to form West Virginia. As it was, Missouri was an unsettled, lawless, often dangerous place. In practical terms it stood neither solidly Union nor Confederate. It was a slaveholding Northern state where brother fought against brother, raiders and profiteers from both sides roamed at large, and a town might be occupied by Bluecoats one day and Rebels the next.
Laclede was a small farming community in north central Missouri, away from the worst of the intense fighting in the South and in the southwest part of the state. Yet loyalties ran deep and tempers flared in the opening months of the war as neighbors took their stands for one side or the other. John and Anne boldly displayed their loyalty to the Union by raising the Stars and Stripes over their house. Confederate supporters in town said if John didn't take the flag down, they'd do it for him. After he promised to shoot anybody who tried, they changed their minds and left the flag alone.
John Pershing ran the general store in Laclede and also supplied the local Union soldiers, two regiments of Missouri Volunteers, with everything from spurs to toothbrushes. For this reason and because of the flag incident, Pershing was a prime target of the ragtag unofficial raiding party that galloped into town that June afternoon. As invaders charged in through the front door of the store, Pershing ran out the back. The raiders went to Pershing's house where Jackie, his mother, and his infant brother, Jim, waited in terror. After the invaders searched the rooms and left, John came in the back door with a shotgun, determined to fight. Jackie's mother screamed at him to lie flat on the floor. He watched as she put her arms around his father and begged him not to fight, for her sake and the boys'. If he fired, she knew he would be killed and maybe the rest of them as well. Pershing put his gun down and waited for the marauders to finish their work and leave. They ransacked his store, stealing all the merchandise they could carry and three thousand dollars in cash.
In the wake of the attack, men in the community formed a home guard, electing Pershing lieutenant and later captain, but there were no more raids. In less than a year the war was over. By then Jackie was a familiar figure at the Missouri Volunteers commissary, where he sometimes went with his father on business. The supply sergeant gave the boy hardtack "rations" that he carried home with pride. Seeing how he liked playing soldier, his mother made him a child-sized uniform for his "marches" to camp and back.
Even after the war ended, Laclede remained an unpredictable and sometimes wild place. Veterans from both sides drifted in and out, and homesteaders heading west passed through on their way to a new life on the frontier. John Pershing prospered, adding a lumberyard and other businesses to his thriving store trade. Within a few years he was the richest man in the county and moved his family into a fine two-story house inside a trim white picket fence. In time Jackie and Jim had seven more brothers and sisters. The Pershings helped start a new Methodist church in town and held its quarterly business meetings in their home. Jackie, also called Jack or Johnny as he grew older, went to school, ran barefoot in summers except for Sundays, attended church, and got in his share of trouble for stealing peaches, fighting, and harassing neighborhood animals.
He was old enough to read about the Franco-Prussian War in the St. Louis newspapers in 1870, though by that time his early fascination with soldiering had faded. Johnny decided he wanted to be a lawyer. He went with his father to see his attorney at the Linn County seat of Linneus, watched him represent Pershing's business interests in court, and said he would go to law school some day. For the time being, he had his hands full with farm chores and school. His father invested heavily in real estate, buying two farms and large tracts of timber. Besides the usual chores of milking, chopping firewood, feeding the animals, and repairing equipment, Johnny learned to break horses, plow, and drive the huge reaper at harvest time. As he worked, he daydreamed of college and law school at the University of Missouri.
What neither Johnny nor anyone else could have imagined was that a settlement at the end of the war he'd read about set off a chain of events that financially ruined the Pershing family. A coalition of German states defeated France under Napoleon III, nephew of the great general and emperor. One of the spoils of victory was a large payment in gold, which prompted the German confederation to stop minting silver coins. Much of the world's silver was mined in the United States, so this decision caused a steep drop in the domestic silver market. In 1873 the United States, which had backed its paper money with both silver and gold, decided to move to a gold-only system as well. This policy led to high interest rates—a special burden to farmers and small businessmen—and a loss of confidence in financial markets, which were already overextended by heavy investment in a nationwide railroad expansion. Eighteen thousand banks and businesses failed within two years, driving unemployment to 14 percent.
These events rearranged Johnny's future. College was suddenly out of the question. His father lost his store and almost all his land to foreclosure, hanging on to the fine white house in town and one heavily mortgaged farm of 160 acres. John Pershing went on the road as a traveling salesman and his wife took in boarders. Johnny and Jim, thirteen and eleven, were put in charge of the farm, responsible for raising food and earning money to help the family along as best they could. Johnny had to quit school, except for a few weeks in the winter when it was too cold to go into the fields.
The brothers held on bravely for three years through drought, depressed prices, and an invasion of grasshoppers, until that farm, too, was foreclosed. Johnny still dreamed of being a lawyer but knew that for now he had to contribute to the household income. At seventeen he took a job teaching at a school for black children, despite his own lack of education. His father had once been the richest man in town; now young John was taunted by his peers for teaching the children of former slaves. Seeing him on his way to class, they called out, "Nigger!"
The jeers didn't deter him. He kept the job a year, reading law books on his own as time allowed. Before he was twenty he had read all the works of William Blackstone, the British lawyer and judge whose principles helped shape the U.S. Constitution. In 1879 he received a one-year appointment to teach at a white school ten miles away in Prairie Mound. The pay was forty dollars a month, ten of which went for room and board. The youngest of his forty-five pupils was six and the oldest twenty-one. Teaching there gave John Pershing some of the first lessons in leadership that would one day play such an important role in shaping his character. The oldest student, two years older than Pershing, once bullied another student. As punishment Pershing told him he had to stay after school. Yet when class was over, he got up to leave with everyone else. Pershing flew off the platform at the front of the room where he stood to teach and planted himself inches from the student.
"I am here to run this school," he declared. "You will obey me or you will face the consequences," meaning a whipping with the switch that stood ever ready in the corner. The student backed down. Pershing accepted his responsibility to uphold the school standards and to make someone under him toe the line. The boy was bigger than he was, and the school board would probably have taken up such a discipline problem instead of forcing a young, inexperienced teacher to deal with it. None of that mattered. Pershing was in charge; he was responsible. Rules were rules; he'd given an order, and that was the end of it.
Another time a student's enraged father came to school with a shotgun. Pershing met him outside and challenged him to get off his horse, put down his gun, and the two of them would fight it out. They fought and Pershing won. Then he dressed the father's cuts. Again Pershing was in charge, saw his duty, and carried it out regardless of the circumstances.
To get to law school Pershing had to earn more money. To do that he had to get a better position, which meant earning a degree from a teacher's college. He spent the summer at the state teacher's school in Kirksville, then taught a second year in Prairie Mound, followed by another summer of schooling, and a third year teaching in 1881.
The summer of 1881, Pershing was back in Kirksville again, where his sister Elizabeth had also enrolled. Reading the newspaper one Saturday, he saw that there would be an exam to select a student from their congressional district for an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. He and Elizabeth, called Beth, talked about it. John had never considered a military career and didn't know much about the Academy except that great Civil War generals had gone there, including the senior commanders from both sides, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. That connection appealed to him, as did the fact that tuition was free to everyone who was admitted. He could get through college much faster if he didn't have to teach most of the year to pay for a few months of summer courses. Academy graduates also had guaranteed jobs as commissioned officers. The military commission meant less to him than the fact that a West Point education would make him a better teacher and, one day, a better lawyer. He imagined himself a leader in the lecture hall or the courtroom, not on the battlefield.
John's sister encouraged him to apply and helped him study for the local admissions tests. Eighteen candidates gathered in Trenton, Missouri, to compete for the honor of applying to West Point from their district. Through a battery of written and oral exams, students were eliminated until only two were left. The examiner asked the other applicant to explain the function of the infinitive in the sentence "I love to study." He got it wrong. Then it was John Pershing's turn. He correctly answered that the infinitive "to study" is the object of the verb.
When his mother heard that John had won the competition and would take the admissions test at West Point, she was proud of her son. Until then she hadn't realized, though, that graduates from the Academy had to serve in the army. When she heard the truth, it made her anxious to think her firstborn would be traveling out of state for the first time in his life to go to college and then become a lieutenant in the army. It would have eased her motherly burden if, like her son and most of the rest of the country, she had believed American soldiers would not go to war again in the foreseeable future. What was there to fight about? The country had knit itself back together after the Civil War, its boundaries stretched from coast to coast, and its borders with Mexico on the south and British Canada on the north were peaceful and secure. Oceans separated it from other foreign powers to the east and west. About the only fighting on the horizon was against Indians as settlers continued pouring westward and crowding them off their traditional homelands. Still, Mrs. Pershing sensed looming war and worried.
Like a number of other West Point applicants, Pershing went to New York months ahead of the entrance exam to enroll in a prep school that specialized in Academy admissions tests. The course at Colonel Huse's School in Highland Falls was four months long and carefully tailored to the military curriculum. Since the school was just outside the entrance gate, Pershing and his eleven Huse classmates could go onto the Academy grounds for the evening parade and retiring of the colors. As he watched, it seemed almost impossible that he might soon be one of those cadets in their immaculate uniforms marching with absolute precision.
That year, all twelve of Colonel Huse's hopefuls passed their tests to join the class of 1886. Cadet Pershing began the summer ahead of his first, or plebe, academic year, with the other 128 members of his class in "Beast Barracks." Before the Civil War, a cadet's first West Point experience was summer camp—living in tents, marching long hours, and enduring punishing drills and exercises to equip him physically and mentally for life at the Academy. After the war, in order to prepare even more fully for what lay ahead, the cadets spent three weeks before summer camp segregated in the barracks under the command of upperclassmen. These intense weeks were designed to break down the individual cadet and remake him as part of a cohesive military unit. Students were treated like wild beasts being broken, hence the name Beast Barracks.
The "Beast" experience taught a cadet to obey immediately and without question, to think under pressure, to control the onset of panic, and to go beyond what he thought was the limit of his endurance—all essential characteristics of a military leader. Cadet Pershing quickly realized that grammar, geography, history, and everything he'd studied for his entrance exam meant nothing for now. What was important was following orders instantly, completely, and with enthusiasm. Duty and discipline were the only standard.
New cadets were at the mercy of their upperclassmen superiors. Upperclassmen yelled at them for everything, criticized them mercilessly, and punished them incessantly. Plebes had to stand at an exaggerated form of attention with their chins on their chests and shoulders square. Their clothing had to be in order and spotless at all times. They could never be late for anything, never question an order, never talk back. They spent hours practicing the most basic marching drills, learning the fine points of military courtesy and decorum, and keeping their quarters and the campus immaculate.
Exhausted after a grueling day of marching, they could be awakened in the middle of the night for foot inspection or any other whim of the upperclassmen. For the least mistake, an upperclassman could order a plebe to do almost anything: chew on rope, eat soap, pick up all the ants in an anthill one at a time, eat with his feet off the floor, balance on his stomach on a pole and pretend to swim, do deep knee bends until he passed out, stand at attention on his head, or whatever else he could think of.
After the rigors of Beast Barracks and summer camp, the plebes moved into their dormitories to start the fall term, though the intense hazing continued relentlessly.
The Academy curriculum covered all the traditional academic subjects including English, mathematics, history, chemistry, and French. Then there were military subjects from fencing and riding to gunnery and tactics, plus endless hours of marching, drill, inspection, and parades. These last were heavily emphasized, and cadets received demerits for the slightest infraction. A crooked cap, a muddy boot, talking or moving in ranks, excessive arm swinging while walking, or any one of a hundred other tiny mistakes drew a tongue lashing and a demerit, known informally as a "skin."
Excerpted from PERSHING by John Perry Copyright © 2011 by John Perry. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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