John Joseph Pershing was born on September 13, 1860 in Laclede, Missouri. His father was a businessman and ran a general store in town. When the Civil War erupted, his father did not volunteer for combat, but sold wares to the local 18th Missouri Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
As a youth, John studied at a small school located in Laclede. The school was private and attended only by highly intelligent children and the children of people of influence. John was able to study there since his father was a prominent local businessman.
In 1878, John graduated from school and started working as a teacher. He also volunteered to help teach the city's black children, who were previously lacking in education. During this time, he developed a racial tolerance and understanding of other cultures.
In 1880, John left town to study at the First Missouri Normal School (now known as Truman State University), in the city of Kirksville, Missouri. In 1882, he decided to apply to the United States Military Academy at West Point and he was accepted for the fall class. As a young cadet, he rose quickly through the ranks, eventually becoming First Captain, which was the highest rank attainable while a cadet at West Point. He was also placed in charge of the university's Honor Guard, which participated in the funeral of Ulysses S. Grant.
In 1886, John graduated from West Point and was personally commended by the school's superintendent, General Merritt, who said that John had great leadership abilities. He was ranked thirtieth in his graduating class of seventy-seven. After graduating, John wanted to study law, but decided that he would join the Army instead. In the fall of 1886 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. Unfortunately, not all was well this year, since both of his parents passed away in April of 1886.
On September 30, 1886, he was assigned to the 6th US Cavalry Regiment, stationed in Fort Bayard, New Mexico. His first action was in a number of military campaigns against the Apache tribe, in which he was cited for bravery. Over the next several years, he moved with the regiment between California and North Dakota.
Pershing was an excellent marksman and participated in a competition in 1891. Out of the entire United States Army, he was ranked second for pistol accuracy and fifth for rifle accuracy. That year, he was also appointed to teach military tactics at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He remained in this position until 1895, at which point he was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant and given command of a unit in the 10th Cavalry Regiment. During his time in Nebraska, he also managed to earn a law degree in 1893.
The 10th Cavalry Regiment was composed mostly of black soldiers, but commanded by white soldiers. Pershing's first action with the unit was a campaign to round up Cree Indians and deport them to Canada. Despite being unsympathetic to Native American interests, he was an advocate for black soldiers in the Army.
In 1897, Pershing was given a military tactics teaching position at West Point. He was reportedly very hard on his students and held very high standards for their performance. The cadets became upset over the difficulty of his classes and gave him the nickname "Nigger Jack", a name that was toned down in the future by the media to "Black Jack".
After the Spanish-American War began on April 25, 1898, Pershing was given the temporary rank of Major. After serving in the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba, he was commended for his bravery by his superiors. After the war, he developed a case of malaria and was granted sick furlough in the United States. In March of 1899, after recovering from the sickness, he was given command of the Office of Customs and Insular Affairs, which oversaw the command of forces in the United States' occupied territories of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.
On August 17, 1899, Pershing arrived in Manila to help suppress the Philippine rebellion during the Philippine-American War. On November 27, 1900, he was appointed Adjutant General and served the Department of Mindanao and Jolo until March 1, 1901. During this time, he was cited for his bravery while fighting a group of rebels in the city of Macajambo. Later that year, his temporary rank of Major was removed and he was recommissioned as Captain in the US Army. Over the next two years, he continued serving in the Philippines.
In June of 1903, Pershing was recalled to the United States, where President Theodore Roosevelt petitioned the Army to promote him. Unfortunately, Pershing's superiors refused to promote him and a powerless Roosevelt was unable to do anything about it. In 1904, Pershing was given the position of Assistant Chief of Staff of the Southwest Army Division in Oklahoma City. In 1904, he took classes at the Army War College before returning to Washington DC.
In Washington, President Roosevelt awarded Pershing with a diplomatic posting as a military attache in Tokyo, starting in 1905. That year, Pershing also married the daughter of Senator Francis Warren of Wyoming. The move would later greatly help his military career since the Senator was very powerful in Congress.
While a military attache in Japan, Pershing spent most of his time observing the Russo-Japanese War. In late 1905, he returned to the United States, where President Roosevelt declared that he wanted Pershing appointed as a Brigadier General in the US Army. Congress approved the promotion and Pershing was given the rank, skipping three ranks between his prior rank and the new rank. Some of his rivals in the Army would later claim that the promotion was due to his political connections rather than military ability.
In 1908, Brigadier General Pershing served as an observer in the Balkans. He returned to the United States in 1909 and he was reassigned to the Philippines. There, he became commander of Fort McKinley near Manila, and he was also made governor of the Moro Province. In 1912, he returned to the United States.
In January of 1914, he was given command of the Army's 8th Brigade, which was stationed in Fort Bliss, Texas. With this command, Pershing was responsible for helping to secure the United States' border with Mexico. In March of 1915, his Brigade joined the Punitive Expedition into Mexico to hunt for Pancho Villa. It is notable that during this time, future General George Patton served as one of his personal aides. Unfortunately, tragedy struck on August 27, 1915 when a fire erupted in his family's San Francisco home, killing his wife and three daughters. Only his six year old son, Warren survived and he returned with Pershing to Fort Bliss after the funerals.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Pershing to serve as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, which would serve in World War I. Over the next year, the force increased from 27,000 troops to over two million, eventually becoming known as the National Army. Prior to deployment to Europe, Pershing was promoted to the rank of Major General.
Once in France, Pershing was forced to spend much of his time fighting politicians that wanted to divide the American Expeditionary Force up to serve with various British and French units. In 1918, Pershing was again promoted to the rank of General and he continued to lead the US forces in Europe. As commander, Pershing promoted mobile warfare using tanks and other armored vehicles to swiftly attack the enemy.
Under Pershing's command, the AEF was able to gain a lot of ground against Germany in the cities of Meuse-Argonne and Saint-Mihiel in France. These victories helped to hasten the Allies' victory in World War I and he returned home as a war hero. However, his critics, including Douglas MacArthur, did not like his remote command style.
In 1919, the United States Congress authorized President Woodrow Wilson to promote Pershing to a special rank of General of the Armies of the United States. This rank was newly created for him and likely only surpassed by former President George Washington. Although he was allowed to create new insignia to represent the position, Pershing preferred the standard four stars worn by generals in the US Army.
In 1920, many people pushed Pershing to run for the presidency. However, he did not like the idea and did not actively campaign, but said that he wouldn't refuse the position if he was elected. He eventually lost the nomination to Warren Harding, who later won the election.
In 1921, Pershing was assigned to serve as Chief of Staff of the United States Army. In 1924, he retired from active service in the military to retire to a more relaxed lifestyle. During the 1930s, he published his memoirs in a book entitled, "My Experiences in the World War". The book later won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for history.
When World War II began, Pershing became an advocate for supporting the British. Despite being largely retired, he remained in the Army's ranks until his death on July 15, 1948. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.