In all of American history, only two generals have held the rank General of the Armies, George Washington and John J. Pershing.*
Pershing was born on September 13 in 1860. He graduated from West Point, 30th in a class of 77, and was stationed at Fort Bayard, New Mexico Territory (near Silver City), serving with General Miles in the last capture of Geronimo. Then he served in the Dakotas at the time of Wounded Knee. Pershing fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and successfully (from the U.S. standpoint) controlled an insurrection while serving in the Philippines.
Still a captain, Pershing was promoted to Brigadier General by order of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. That is, he skipped major, lieutenant colonel and colonel. The fact that Pershing’s father-in-law was a U.S. senator and the president had attended the Pershings’ wedding had no bearing on this, of course.
Pershing’s wife and three daughters were killed in a fire in 1915 at their home at the Presidio in San Francisco while Pershing was commander of the Eighth Brigade there. A son survived.
In 1916-1917 Pershing led 12,000 American troops into Mexico in a failed attempt to capture Pancho Villa after his raid on Columbus, New Mexico.
In 1917, Pershing was named commander of the American Expeditionary Force — ultimately 2-1/2 million men. In his memoirs he wrote that his two biggest problems were keeping the British and French from incorporating the American army into theirs and getting the supplies he needed for such a large force.
Pershing was welcomed home a hero in 1919, became army chief of staff, and retired from active duty in 1924.
He died in 1948.
Pershing was nicknamed “Black Jack” as a result of his time as an officer in the 10th Cavalry, a unit of African-American or “Buffalo” soldiers.
* Pershing was awarded the rank General of the Armies in 1919 while still in the Army. Washington was promoted to the rank in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial. Grant, Sherman and Sheridan were four star generals of the army. Marshall, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Arnold and Bradley were five star generals of the army. Washington wore three stars, but by law is the highest ranking army officer. Pershing is second; he wore four gold stars.