John J. Pershing was born on September 13, 1860, in Missouri. He was the first child born to John Fletcher Pershing and Ann Thompson Pershing. John had eight younger siblings, but only five survived to adulthood: May, Elizabeth, Grace, Ward, and James. His father owned a general store and also served as postmaster of Laclede, Missouri. Later, Mr. Pershing would purchase land and began farming.
In 1873, an economic depression swept across the United States, affecting millions of Americans. John’s father had taken out numerous bank loans to purchase his farmland and was then unable to pay back the loans. The banks foreclosed on all but one of his farms. The Pershings lost almost all of their wealth and John’s father was forced to take a job as a traveling salesman. Fourteen-year-old John was put in charge of the family while his father was on the road. He was expected to make the family farm profitable and attend school at the same time.
John’s family could not afford to send him to college, so he took a job as a school teacher. Once he had saved enough money, John enrolled at Kirksville Normal School (now Truman State University) graduating in 1880 with a teaching degree.
After reading an advertisement announcing an entrance exam for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, John decided to take the test to earn a free education. His sister, Elizabeth, helped him study. Pershing earned the top exam score by a narrow margin and entered West Point in July 1882.
He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1886 and began his military career while serving in the Apache campaign in New Mexico and Arizona. In 1890 and 1891 he served in the Sioux campaign in the Dakotas.
Lieutenant Pershing was appointed as the new military instructor at the University of Nebraska in 1891. While at the University from 1891 to 1895, he had a profound influence on the cadets. He organized the Pershing Rifles, an elite drill team and tactical unit. These units form what is known today as the National Society of Pershing Rifles, organized on the campuses of several universities.
In 1917, he was selected by President Woodrow Wilson to command the General American Expeditionary Forces in France. He was appointed Chief of Staff of the United States Army in 1921 and in this position was instrumental in reconstructing the Army which involved the establishment of the National Guard as a part of the Regular Army forces. He retired from active service in 1924.
Pershing was recipient of innumerable military awards and also received many honorary degrees from universities throughout the nation and the world. He authored two books: the Pulitzer-prize-winning My Experiences in the World War and Final Report of General John J. Pershing, Commander-in-Chief of American Expeditionary Forces. He died on July 15, 1948 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.