“Black Jack” Of The 10th

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He was a serious-minded young man, whose earliest memory was of a band of Confederate bushwhackers riding into his home town of Laclede, Missouri, and firing on the Pershing home. His father, an ardent Unionist in largely pro-Confederate country, fired back with a shotgun while the family took shelter behind a barricade of furniture. Young Pershing attended West Point only to obtain a better education, for the profession of arms was then widely regarded as a refuge for ruffians, drunkards, and misfits. Pershing had originally wanted to become a teacher or a lawyer, but he stayed in the Army after graduation and served with the 6th Cavalry against the Apaches and the Sioux. In September of 1891 he was assigned as Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. It was a sinecure, but Pershing wasn’t the man for soft spots. He insisted on teaching two classes in mathematics (the future novelists Willa Gather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher were among his students) and also entered the law school. He often discussed his intentions of quitting the Army and hanging out his shingle with a young Lincoln lawyer named Charles G. Dawes, who was to become Vice President in the Coolidge administration. Shortly after obtaining his degree and being admitted to the Nebraska bar, however, Pershing received the appointment to the 10th Cavalry, and from then on marched steadily toward the honored destiny awaiting him as commander of the A.E.F., General of the Armies, and finally Chief of Staff.

Lieutenant Pershing reported to Fort Assiniboine in October, 1895, and was given command of the 10th Cavalry’s Troop H. The regiment had been ordered to round up the Crees as diplomatically and bloodlessly as possible because, as a regimental historian wrote, they had been “stealing and committing minor depredations” since 1877. The Crees, after staging an uprising in Canada instigated by a half-breed named Louis Riel, had fled across the border to Montana Territory. They now numbered about six hundred, and it had taken years of effort by the State Department to obtain Canada’s agreement to repatriate them.

In the spring of 1896, when it was announced that the Crees would be sent back to Canada, most of them were camped near Great Falls. Some talked of resisting the deportation, others of hiring a lawyer to defend them against it. A number of small bands made the 10th’s task more difficult by fleeing across the plains toward Idaho and North Dakota.

While the other troops shepherded the more docile tribesmen toward the border at Coutts Station, Pershing’s men were handed the difficult task of running down these fugitive bands that were hiding out in the coulees that scored the high plains. It took men of superb discipline, endless patience, and endurance to keep their own tempers in check under the blazing prairie sun while attempting to persuade the Crees to surrender without firing a shot. But Troop H did it, after spending sixty-two days in the field and covering six hundred miles. With that performance in mind, Pershing later wrote in a foreword to a regimental history that “several years of my early military life were spent with that organization, and as I look back I can but feel that the associations with the splendid officers and men of the 10th Cavalry were of the greatest value to me.”

Just how much respect he had for his “brunette” soldiers was indicated in the account of a hunting trip, details of which his earliest biographer dug out from other officers of the 10th. One Christmas at Fort Assiniboine, Pershing, two other officers, and several enlisted men volunteered to go out and bring in the wild game for the holiday feast. The general practice on such trips, in white as well as Negro regiments, was to use the enlisted men as camp servants and beaters. When they set out along the Yellowstone River, however, Lieutenant Pershing insisted that officers and men alike would share the wood-chopping and other camp chores. Furthermore, he decreed that the officers would act as beaters in the thickets along the river bottoms, working under the direction of the enlisted men, who knew the country better and were more experienced hunters. The result was a bag of twenty-six deer and many prairie chickens—enough to put meat on the table for the entire post; it was also, perhaps, a small blow struck for the promotion of Negroes to commissioned rank, which would come in a few years, and the eventual integration of the armed forces.

One of the hunting trips Pershing took in Montana was with Major General Nelson A. Miles, then general in chief of the Army. General Miles was so pleased with Pershing’s performance as a guide that he obtained the young lieutenant’s transfer to Washington as his aide-de-camp. That was followed by appointment as a tactical officer at West Point, and it was here that Pershing got the nickname that would accompany him into history.