John J. Pershing

(1860 - 1948)

General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing graduated from West Point in 1886 (at the age of 26), and started his military career fighting American Indians, including the Apache and the Lakota tribes. When he was 30, he was an officer in the famous Wounded Knee battle in South Dakota, where hundreds of Lakota Indians were massacred by the U.S. military.

Pershing served in various cavalry units, and although many people think that his nickname, Black Jack, was some kind of tribute, it was actually a put-down. Pershing had served with the buffalo soldiers in the famous 10th Cavalry unit, which was comprised of segregated African-American soldiers. He was derided for having "ridden with the blacks," and so was nicknamed Black Jack. He had taught African-American children as a young man, and he remained sympathetic to black Americans his whole life.

General Pershing is best known for his accomplishments during World War I. He was appointed Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces when Frederick Funston, his boss, died unexpectedly. But before his service in World War I, while serving at Fort Bliss (Texas), he invited Mexican generals Álvaro Obregón and Francisco Villa to visit him. These generals were two of Venustiano Carranza's top men in the fight against Victoriano Huerta, whom the Americans opposed. At the time Obregón and Villa were considered friends by the U.S., and at this visit in early 1914, they were well-treated. Little did anyone know that, by the following year, Villa and Obregón would become bitter enemies, and that Villa would soon be pursued across northern Mexico by Pershing himself.

What set Pershing and Villa on opposite sides was a pair of events that happened in 1916. In January of that year, angered by slights by the U.S. toward their leader, bandits associated with Villa attacked a Mexico North-Western train that was transporting American employees of a U.S. mining company to an American-owned mine. Eighteen Americans were killed. Villa denied that he knew about this attack in advance, and President Carranza found someone to blame and had them executed to mollify the Americans.

The second, and more famous incident, also had to do with Villa's anger against the U.S. He attacked the border city of Columbus, New Mexico, early on the morning of March 9, 1916. Although the attack horrified the U.S. and its leaders, actually only 17 Americans were killed, while more than a hundred of Villa's men were pursued and killed as they fled back into Mexican territory.

At the request of the U.S. government, Carranza allowed a contingent from the 13th Cavalry Regiment to enter Mexican territory less than a week later; their goal was to hunt down Villa. This was known as "the Pershing Expedition," or the "Punitive Expedition." Carranza considered this a win-win situation: He also wanted to get rid of Villa, so why not have the Americans do it for him?

But Pershing and his men never found Villa, despite months of trying. Soon, the Pershing Expedition wore out its welcome and Carranza forced them to withdraw from Mexico because the men were getting into skirmishes in Mexican towns and villages. In January, 1917, ten months after they had arrived, Pershing and his men left Mexico, their mission unsuccessful. A month later, General Frederick Funston had a heart attack, and Pershing became the highest profile general in World War I, the War to End All Wars. Pershing died in 1948, shortly after the end of WWII, having seen almost a century of American warfare.