Boys' Book of Famous Soldiers - J. W. McSpadden


The Leader of America's Biggest Army

It was a historic moment, on that June day, in the third year of the World War. On the landing stage at the French harbor of Boulogne was drawn up a company of French soldiers, who looked eagerly at the approaching steamer. They were not dress parade soldiers nor smart cadets—only battle-scarred veterans home from the trenches, with the tired look of war in their eyes. For three years they had been hoping and praying that the Americans would come—and here they were at last!

As the steamer slowly approached the dock, a small group of officers might be discerned, looking as eagerly landward as the men on shore had sought them out. In the center of this group stood a man in the uniform of a General in the United States Army. There was, however, little to distinguish his dress from that of his staff, except the marks of rank on his collar, and the service ribbons across his breast. To those who could read the insignia, they spelled many days of arduous duty in places far removed. America was sending a seasoned soldier, one tried out as by fire.

The man's face was seamed from exposure to the suns of the tropics and the sands of the desert. But his dark eyes glowed with the untamable fire of youth. He was full six feet in height, straight, broad-shouldered, and muscular. The well-formed legs betrayed the old-time calvalryman. The alert poise of the man showed a nature constantly on guard against surprise—the typical soldier in action.

Such was General Pershing when he set foot on foreign shore at the head of an American army—the first time in history that our soldiers had ever served on European soil. America was at last repaying to France her debt of gratitude, for aid received nearly a century and a half earlier. And it was an Alsatian by descent who could now say:

"Lafayette, we come!"

Who was this man who had been selected for so important a task? The eyes of the whole world were upon him, when he reached France. His was a task of tremendous difficulties, and a single slip on his part would have brought shame upon his country, no less than upon himself. That he was to succeed, and to win the official thanks of Congress are now matters of history. The story of his wonderful campaign against the best that Germany could send against him is also an oft-told story. But the rise of the man himself to such commanding position is a tale not so familiar, yet none the less interesting.

The great-grandfather of General Pershing was an emigrant from Alsace—fleeing as a boy from the military service of the Teutons. He worked his way across to Baltimore, and not long thereafter volunteered to fight in the American Revolution. His was the spirit of freedom. He fled to escape a service that was hateful, because it represented tyranny; but was glad to serve in the cause of liberty.

The original family name was Pfirsching, but was soon shortened to its present form. The Pershings got land grants in Pennsylvania, and began to prosper. As the clan multiplied the sons and grandsons began to scatter. They had the pioneer spirit of their ancestors.

At length, John F. Pershing, a grandson of Daniel, the first immigrant, went to the Middle West, to work on building railroads. These were the days, just before the Civil War, when railroads were being thrown forward everywhere. Young Pershing had early caught the fever, and had worked with construction gangs in Kentucky and Tennessee. Now as the rail-roads pushed still further West, he went with them as section foreman—after first persuading an attractive Nashville girl, Ann Thompson, to go with him as his wife.

Their honeymoon was spent among the hardships of a construction camp in Missouri; and here at Laclede, in a very primitive house, John Joseph Pershing was born, September 13, 1860.

The boy inherited a sturdy frame and a love of freedom from both sides of the family. His mother had come of a race quite as good as that of his father. They were honest, law-abiding, God-fearing people, who saw to it that John and the other eight children who followed were reared soberly and strictly. The Bible lay on the center table and the willow switch hung conveniently behind the door.

After the line of railroad was completed upon which the father had worked, he came to Laclede and invested his savings in a small general store. It proved a profitable venture. It was the only one in town, and Pershing's reputation for square-dealing brought him many customers. A neighbor pays him this tribute:

"John F. Pershing was a man of commanding presence. He was a great family man and loved his family devotedly. He was not lax, and ruled his family well.

"The Pershing family were zealous church people. John F. Pershing was the Sunday School superintendent of the Methodist Church all the years he lived here. Every Sunday you could see him making his way to church with John on one side and Jim on the other, Mrs. Pershing and the girls following along."

John F. Pershing was a strong Union man, and although local feeling ran high between the North and the South, he retained the esteem of his neighbors. He had one or two close calls from the "bushwhackers," as roving rangers were called, but his family escaped harm.

At times during the War, he was entrusted with funds by various other families, and acted as a sort of local bank. After the War he was postmaster.

The close of the War found the younger John a stocky boy of five. He began to attend the village school and take an active part in the boyish sports of a small town. There was always plenty to do, whether of work or play. One of his boyhood chums writes:

"John Pershing was a clean, straight, well-behaved young fellow. He never was permitted to loaf around on the streets. Nobody jumped on him, and he didn't jump on anybody. He attended strictly to his own business. He had his lessons when he went to class. He was not a big talker. He said a lot in a few words, and didn't try to cut any swell. He was a hard student. He was not brilliant, but firm, solid, and would hang on to the very last. We used to study our lessons together evenings. About nine-thirty or ten o'clock, I'd say:

"'John, how are you coming?'

"'Pretty stubborn.'

"'Better go to bed, hadn't we?'

"'No, Charley, I'm going to work this out.'"

Another schoolmate gives us a more human picture:

"As a boy, Pershing was not unlike thousands of other boys of his age, enjoying the same pleasures and games as his other boyhood companions. He knew the best places to shoot squirrels or quail, and knew where to find the hazel or hickory nuts. He knew, too, where the coolest and deepest swimming pools in the Locust, Muddy, or Turkey creeks were. Many a time we went swimming together in Pratt's Pond:"

About this time Pershing's father added to his other ventures the purchase of a farm near Laclede, and the family moved out there. Then there was indeed plenty of work to do. The chores often began before sun-up, and lasted till after dark; and the children were lucky to find time for schooling during the late Fall and Winter months. John, however, kept doggedly at it, and managed to get a fair, common-school education.

When he was barely in his 'teens, his first set task was 'given him—to teach in a negro school. This school had been established after the War ended, but the teacher had gone, and no one else seemed available for the job. John was sober and studious, and besides was so well grown for his age that they banked on his ability to "lick" any negro boy that got obstreperous.

He succeeded sufficiently in this venture, to cause him to take up teaching regularly, in white schools, with a view to paying for his education. He wanted to study law, and his parents encouraged the idea. His work in these country schools was invaluable to him in teaching him how to govern others. A former pupil of his writes:

"Though he never sought a quarrel, young Pershing was known as 'a game fighter,' who never acknowledged defeat. One day, at Prairie Mound, at the noon hour a big farmer with red sideburns rode up to the schoolhouse with a revolver in his hand. Pershing had whipped one of the farmer's children, and the enraged parent intended to give the young schoolmaster a flogging.

"I remember how he rode up cursing before all the children in the schoolyard, and how another boy and I ran down a gully because we were afraid. We peeked over the edge, though, and heard Pershing tell the farmer to put up his gun, get down off his horse, and fight like a man.

"The farmer got down and John stripped off his coat. He was only a boy of seventeen or eighteen and slender, but he thrashed the old farmer soundly. And I have hated red sideburns ever since."

After several terms of country school teaching, young Pershing saved up enough money to enter the State Normal School, at Kirksville, Mo. One of his sisters went with him. He remained there for two terms, doing his usual good steady work, but was still dissatisfied. He wanted to get a better education.

About this time he happened to notice an announcement of a competitive examination in his district for an entrance to West Point. The soldiering side did not appeal to him, but the school side did.

"I wouldn't stay in the army," he remarked to a friend. "There won't be a gun fired in the world for a hundred years, I guess. If there isn't, I'll study law, but I want an education, and now I see how I can get it."

His mother was by no means "sold" on the idea of his becoming a soldier either, and it was only when he assured her that there wouldn't be a gun fired in a hundred years, that she finally consented. If she could have looked ahead to his future career, and final part in the greatest war the world has ever known—one wonders what her emotions would have been!

Pershing passed his entrance examination by a narrow margin, and then entered a training school at Highland Falls, N. Y., for tutoring in certain deficient branches. At last in June, 1882, when he was just rounding his twenty-second year, he became a freshman in the great Academy on the Hudson.

The young plebe from the West speedily fell in love with the institution and all that it represented. He found the soldier life awakening in him, along with his desire for a good education. Four happy years were spent there—and while he didn't shine, being number thirty in a class of seventy-seven, his all-around qualities made him many friends among both faculty and students. He was made ranking cadet captain in his senior year, and chosen class president.

Twenty-five years later, writing from clear around the world, at Manila, to his class, at a reunion, he gives a long, breezy account of his experience there, from which we have space to quote only a few sentences:

"This brings up a period of West Point life whose vivid impressions will be the last to fade. Marching into camp, piling bedding, policing company streets for logs or wood carelessly dropped by upper classmen, pillow fights at tattoo with Marcus Miller, sabre drawn, marching up and down superintending the plebe class, policing up feathers from the general parade; light artillery drills, double-timing around old Fort Clinton at morning squad drill; Wiley Bean and the sad fate of his seersucker coat; midnight dragging, and the whole summer full of events can only be mentioned in passing.

"No one can ever forget his first guard tour with all its preparation and perspiration. I got along all right during the day, but at night on the color line my troubles began. Of course, I was scared beyond the point of properly applying any of my orders. A few minutes after taps, ghosts of all sorts began to appear from all directions. I selected a particularly bold one and challenged according to orders: 'Halt, who comes there?' At that the ghost stood still in its tracks. I then said: 'Halt, who stands there?' Whereupon the ghost, who was carrying a chair, sat down. When I promptly said: 'Halt, who sits there?'

"The career of '86 at West Point was in many respects remarkable. There were no cliques, no dissensions, and personal prejudices or selfishness, if any existed, never came to the surface. From the very day we entered, the class as a unit has always stood for the very best traditions of West Point."

While Pershing was still in West Point, the Indian chief Geronimo was making trouble in the Southwest. For several years he led a band of outlaw braves, who terrorized the Southern border. General Crook was sent in pursuit of him, and afterwards General Miles took up the chase. Finally in August, 1886, the chief and his followers were rounded up.

Pershing graduated in the spring of this year, with the usual rank given to graduates, second lieutenant, and was immediately assigned to duty under Miles. He had an inconspicuous part in the capture. But the next year in the special maneuvers he was personally complimented by the General for "marching his troops with a pack train of 140 mules in 46 hours and bringing in every animal in good condition." Doubtless his early experience with the Missouri brand of mule aided him.

Thereafter, for the next five years, Pershing's life was that of a plainsman. He was successively at Fort Bayard, Fort Stanton, and Fort Wingate, all in New Mexico, in the center of troubled country. In 1890 he was shifted north to take the field against the Sioux Indians, in South Dakota, and in the Battle of Wounded Knee he had a considerable taste of burnt powder, where the tribe that had massacred General Custer and his band was practically wiped out. The next year he was stationed at Fort Niobrara, in Nebraska, in command of the Sioux Indian Scouts.

This rapid summary of a busy and adventurous life on the plains does not convey any idea of its many activities. But it was an exceedingly valuable period of training to the young officer, He was finding himself, and learning something of the inner art of military science that he was later to put to such good use. Here is the opinion of an officer who was Pershing's senior in the Sixth Cavalry by six years, all of them spent in the Apache country:

"In those days, when a youngster joined a regiment, he was not expected to express himself on military matters until he had some little experience. But there was a certain something in Pershing's appearance and manner which made him an exception to the rule. Within a very short time after he came to the post, a senior officer would turn to him, and say: 'Pershing, what do you think of this?' and his opinion was such that we always listened to it. He was quiet, unobtrusive in his opinions, but when asked he always went to the meat of a question in a few words. From the first he had responsible duties thrown on him. We all learned to respect and like him. He was genial and full of fun. No matter what the work or what the play, he always took a willing and leading part. He worked hard and he played hard; but whenever he had work to do, he never let play interfere with it."

His experiences in the Wild West (and it was the Wild West in those days) cannot be passed over without relating one typical anecdote. Three cattle rustlers, white men, had gotten into a fight with the Zuni Indians, who caught them driving off some cattle. Three of the red men were killed before the outlaws were finally surrounded in a lonely cabin.

Word was sent of their predicament to the nearest fort, and Lieutenant Pershing was sent with a small detachment to their rescue. He rode straight up to the Zuni chief, who was now on the warpath, and told him he must call off his braves—that the United States Government would punish these men. The chief finally grunted assent, and Pershing strode forward alone into the clearing and approached the cabin. At any time a shot might have come out, but disregarding his own danger he went on, pushed open the door, and found himself looking into the muzzles of three guns.

A single false move on his part would probably have ended him, but he did not waver. He folded his arms and said quietly:

"Well, boys, I've come to get you."

The outlaws laughed noisily and swore by way of reply.

"You might as well come along," he went on, without raising his voice. "My men are posted all around this cabin."

More profanity, but the men at last consented to go, if they could carry their guns. They wouldn't budge otherwise.

"You'll come as I say, and you'll be quick about it," said Pershing, a note of command coming into his voice.

And they did.

The next duty which fell to Lieutenant Pershing was quite different. From chasing Indians and outlaws on the plains, he was assigned to the task of putting some "half baked" cadets through their paces. In September, 1891, he became Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska.

The discipline at this school was of a piece with that of other State colleges, where a certain amount of drilling was demanded, but beyond this the students were allowed to go their own gait. At Nebraska it had become pretty lax—but the arrival of the new instructor changed all that. A student of this time, in a recent article in The Red Cross Magazine, gives a humorous account of what happened.

It was the general belief that the students in these Western colleges, many of them farmers' sons, could never be taught the West Point idea. "But the Lieutenant who had just arrived from Lincoln received an impression startlingly in contrast to the general one. He looked over the big crowd of powerful young men, and, himself a storehouse and radiating center of energy and forcefulness; recognized the same qualities when he saw them.

"'By George! I've got the finest material in the world,'" he told the Chancellor, his steel-like eyes alight with enthusiasm. 'You could do anything with those boys. They've got the stuff in them! Watch me get it out!'

"And he proceeded to do so.

"By the middle of the first winter the battalion was in shape to drill together. Moreover, the boys had made a nickname for their leader, and nicknames mean a great deal in student life. He was universally called 'the Lieut.' (pronounced 'Loot,' of course', in the real American accent), as though there were but one lieutenant in the world. This he was called behind his back, of course. To his face they called him 'sir,' a title of respect which they had never thought to give to any man alive.

"By the end of that first academic year every man under him would have followed 'the Lieut.' straight into a prairie fire, and would have kept step while doing it."

As he gradually got his group of officers licked into shape, he found less to do personally. So he promptly complained to the Chancellor, to this effect, and asked, like Oliver Twist, for more.

"After a moment's stupefaction (the Lieut. was then doing five times the work that any officer before him had ever done) the Chancellor burst into a great laugh and suggested that the Lieut. should take the law course in the law school of the University. He added that if two men's work was not enough for him, he might do three men's, and teach some of the classes in the Department of Mathematics. Without changing his stride in the least, the young officer swept these two occupations along with him, bought some civilian clothes and a derby hat, and became both professor and student in the University, where he was also military attaché.

"During the next two years he ate up the law course with a fiery haste which raised the degree of class work to fever heat. Those who were fellow students with him, and survived, found the experience immensely stimulating."

Of course he graduated, and was thus entitled to write another title after his name—that of Bachelor of Arts. About this time, also, he was promoted to a first lieutenancy, the first official recognition for his many long months of work. Then he was sent back to the field again, to join the Tenth Cavalry at Fort Assiniboine, Montana.

Next came a welcome command to take the position of Assistant Instructor of Tactics, at West Point. It was almost like getting back home, to see these loved hills, the mighty river, and the familiar barracks again.

But after a few months here, the Spanish War broke out. Eager to get into the action, he resigned his position at the Military Academy, and was transferred to his former regiment, the Tenth Cavalry. This regiment was sent immediately to Santiago, and took part in the short but spirited fighting at El Caney and San Juan hill—where a certain Colonel of the Rough Riders was in evidence. Side by side these two crack regiments charged up the slope, dominated by the Spanish fort, and here Roosevelt and Pershing first met.

We would like to fancy these two intrepid soldiers as recognizing each other here in the din of battle. But the truth is sometimes more prosaic than fiction; and the truth compels us to reprint this little anecdote from The World's Work.

Five years after the Spanish War, when Roosevelt was President and Pershing was a mere Captain, he was invited to luncheon at the White House.

"Captain Pershing," said the President, when the party was seated at the table, "did I ever meet you in the Santiago campaign?"

"Yes, Mr. President, just once."

"When was that? What did I say?"

"Since there are ladies here, I can't repeat just what you said, Mr. President."

There was a general laugh in which Roosevelt joined.

"Tell me the circumstances, then."

"Why, I had gone back with a mule team to Siboney, to get supplies for the men. The night was pitch black and it was raining torrents. The road was a streak of mud. On the way back to the front, I heard noise and confusion ahead. I knew it was a mired mule team. An officer in the uniform of a Rough Rider was trying to get the mules out of the mud, and his remarks, as I said a moment ago, should not be quoted before the ladies. I suggested that the best thing to do, was to take my mules and pull your wagon out, and then get your mules out. This was done, and we saluted and parted."

"Well," said Roosevelt, "if there ever was a time when a man would be justified in using bad language, it would be in the middle of a rainy night, with his mules down in the mud and his wagon loaded with things soldiers at the front needed.

Pershing, as a result of the Cuban campaign, was twice recommended for brevet commissions, for "personal bravery and untiring energy and faithfulness." General Baldwin said of him: "Pershing is the coolest man under fire I ever saw."

But it was not until 1901 that he became Captain. He had now been transferred at his own request to the Philippines. Whether or not he won promotion through the slow-moving machinery of the war office, his energetic spirit demanded action.

"The soldier's duty is to go wherever there is fighting," he said, and vigorously opposed the idea that he be given a swivel-chair job.

His first term of service in the Philippines was from 1899 to 1903. In the interval between his first and second assignments, the latter being as Governor of the Moros, he returned to America to serve on the General Staff, and also to act as special military observer in the Russo-Japanese War.

His duties during the years, while arduous and often filled with danger, were not of the sort to bring him to public notice. But they were being followed by the authorities at Washington, who have a way of ticketing every man in the service, as to his future value to the army. And Pershing was "making good." He had turned forty, before he was Captain. Out in the Philippines he worked up to a Major. Now advancement was to follow with a startling jump.

It all hinged upon that luncheon with Roosevelt, about which we have already told, and the fact that Roosevelt had a characteristic way of doing things. The step he now took was not a piece of favoritism toward Pershing—it arose from a desire to have the most efficient men at the head of the army.

Pershing was nominated for Brigadier General, and the nomination was confirmed. Of course it created a tremendous sensation in army circles. The President, by his action, had "jumped" the new General eight hundred and sixty-two orders.

On his return to the Philippines, as Governor of the Moro Province, he performed an invaluable service in bringing peace to this troubled district. He accomplished this, partly by force of arms, partly by persuasion. The little brown men found in this big Americano a man with whom they could not trifle, and also one on whose word they could rely.

It was not until 1914 that he was recalled from the Philippines, and then very shortly was sent across the Mexican border in the pursuit of Villa. It would seem as though this strong soldier was to have no rest—that his muscles were to be kept constantly inured to hardship—so that, in the event of a greater call to arms, here would be one commander trained to the minute.

The Fates had indeed been shaping Pershing from boyhood for a supreme task. Each step had been along the path to a definite goal.

The punitive expedition into Mexico was a case in point. It was a thankless job at best, and full of hardship and danger. A day's march of thirty miles across an alkali desert, under a blazing sun, is hardly a pleasure jaunt. And there were many such during those troubled months of 1916.

Then, one day, came a quiet message from Washington, asking General Pershing to report to the President. The results of that interview were momentous. The Great War in Europe was demanding the intervention of America. Our troops were to be sent across the seas to Europe for the first time in history. The Government needed a man upon whom it could absolutely rely to be Commander-in-chief of the Expeditionary Forces. Would General Pershing hold himself in readiness for this supreme task?

The veteran of thirty years of constant campaigning stiffened to attention. The eager look of battle—battle for the right shone in his eye. Every line of his upstanding figure denoted confidence—a confidence that was to inspire all America, and then the world itself, in this choice of leader. He saluted.

"I will do my duty, sir," he said.

Important Dates in Pershings Life

1860. September 13. John Joseph Pershing born.
1881. Entered Highland Military Academy, New York.
1882. Entered U. S. Military Academy, West Point.
1886. Graduated from West Point, senior cadet captain.
1886. Sent to southwest as second-lieutenant, 6th cavalry.
1891. Professor, military tactics, University of Nebraska.
1898. Took part in Spanish-American War.
1901. Captain, 1st Cavalry, Philippines.
1905. Married Frances Warren.
1906. Brigadier-general.
1914. Recalled from Philippines.
1915. Lost his wife and three children in a fire.
1915. Sent to Mexico in pursuit of Villa.
1917. Sent to France as commander-in-chief of American Expeditionary Force.
1919. Appointment of general made permanent.
1924. Retired from active service.