John J. Pershing was born on a farm near Laclede, Missouri on 13 September 1860. He was the oldest of six children, three boys and three girls. He attended a school in Leclede considered exclusive for its time. Upon graduating, he became a teacher at a local African-American school called the Prairie Mound School.
While teaching, he took classes at a state college in Kirksville, Missouri and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1880. Always a learner, he applied for admission to the US Military Academy at West Point, later admitting that serving in the military was secondary to him. His goal in attending West Point was to get the
best education available.
From Teacher to Leader
Pershing was sworn in as a West Point Cadet in the fall of 1882. He was selected early for significant leadership positions throughout his time there, culminating in appointment as Cadet First Captain, the highest possible cadet rank. He was commissioned an officer in the summer of 1886. He reported for active duty on
30 September, 1886 and was assigned to Cavalry duty in New Mexico where he participated demonstrated sound leadership in several of the Indian campaigns.
Pershing was sent back to West Point as an instructor and Tactical Officer in 1897. He stern demeanor and exacting standards were not popular with young cadets, nor was his proud service with Negro troops, the famed “Buffalo Soldiers” of the US Cavalry. Cadets took to calling him a contemptuous epithet though not to his face. That nickname later became “Black Jack,” a title Pershing bore openly and with pride. He often spoke in glowing terms of his “Black Warriors.”
Company A, Varsity Rifles, Pershing Rifles
In 1891, Pershing was assigned as Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska. There he honed his concepts for developing young leaders by establishing the units named above which combined the teaching of leadership with precision drill and comradeship. To this day, Pershing Rifles,
named in Pershing’s honor when he left Nebraska, exercises influence in developing young men and women as leaders all across America.
Fruits of Leadership
Pershing served with distinction in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War and on the Mexican Border. Throughout these assignments, he demonstrated concepts of leadership which showed respect for, and confidence in, the American soldier. He consistently demonstrated the ability to train troops
and motivate them, to get them to do their best work. Ultimately, he was the officer selected to lead Americans in what was, at that time, the greatest foreign military expedition in US history, The First World War. He not only expertly commanded American troops in that campaign, but he laid the foundation for generations of American leaders who would serve in World War II and subsequent conflicts. He provided his country the leadership that a great democracy deserves.