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“Black Jack” Of The 10th
A Negro cavalry regiment was John J. Pershing’s “home” in the service. From it came his nickname, and he never lost his affection for—or failed to champion—the valorous colored troopers he led.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
Company A of the cadet corps, class of ’98, was placed in his charge. The cadets, resenting his close and stern supervision of their activities on and off the parade ground, tried to play the hoary trick of dousing their tactical officer with a bucket of water placed over a door. Pershing spotted the trap, demanded the names of the culprits, and when the names were not forthcoming, saw that the whole company was confined to the barracks area for thirty days. In retaliation his charges hung the sobriquet of “Nigger Jack” on him; after all, he had served with a Negro regiment without any audible professions of distaste. The cadets recorded his disciplinary severity in the 1898 classbook, Howitzer, with a bitter comment: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and 30 days for a water bucket.”
When the Spanish-American War broke out, the 10th Cavalry was among those units earmarked for service in the Cuban invasion. Pershing was desperate at the thought of the regiment’s going into action without him. Rarely has an officer risked his career so recklessly to obtain reassignment. The War Department bureaucrats, under the notably obdurate Adjutant General Henry C. Corbin, had ordained that no member of the Military Academy’s faculty be detached to serve in the field. Pershing began “moving heaven and earth” to get back to the 10th, he wrote a friend. He sent two letters in one day to George D. Meiklejohn, an old friend from his University of Nebraska years who was now First Assistant Secretary of War, pleading for reassignment to the 10th. Two days later, on April 19, 1898, he was successful in obtaining General Miles’ endorsement. He went to Washington and, over Adjutant General Corbin’s head, pleaded his case before Secretary of War Russell A. Alger, himself a cavalry veteran of the Civil War. On April 30, Colonel Guy V. Henry, now commanding the 10th, requested Pershing as regimental quartermaster, the only post vacant. On May 2, Secretary of War Alger finally yielded to this remarkable pressure from a mere first lieutenant—and his highly placed collaborators—and ordered Pershing to duty with the 10th. That it was the regiment itself, as well as a professional soldier’s yearning for combat duty, that spurred on his efforts is indicated by the fact that he might have obtained a better commission with one of the Volunteer regiments (notably the Rough Riders, of which Theodore Roosevelt, also a friend of Pershing’s, was second-in-command).
Meanwhile, the 10th had been undergoing intensive retraining at Camp Chickamauga, Georgia, learning how to fight dismounted, infantry style, since there was little prospect of any glorious cavalry charges over the jungled terrain of Cuba. The regiment was now drawing a better-educated type of recruit. Typical of the second or third generation of 10th Cavalry troopers was Sergeant Horace Bivins, born in 1862 to slave parents but himself the possessor of an education superior to that of most professional soldiers, Negro or white. Bivins wrote to a friend about the “flags and flowers” receptions in towns along the way from Montana to Camp Chickamauga; these were fervent in the Middle West, but, as Bivins wryly noted, they dwindled in enthusiasm as the regiment’s trains passed through the former Confederate states. The enthusiasm of the men themselves was undimmed even by the ironic circumstance that both the 9th and the 10th would be fighting under one of the former paladins of the Confederate cavalry, the now frail and white-bearded Major General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, who was commander of the 1st Cavalry Division and had obviously been attached to the expeditionary force to Cuba as a symbol of North-South reconciliation.
Pershing caught up with his regiment just as it was about to embark from Tampa. The landing in Cuba was unopposed, but the American regiments, striking overland toward Santiago, found plenty of resistance from the island itself: the narrow trails through a tropical forest matted with vines and spiked with Spanish bayonet (botanical variety); the endemic diseases; the heat of late June and early July, which laid low most of the elderly senior officers.
During the advance on Las Guásimas, the 10th demonstrated coolness and efficiency under fire by pulling the Rough Riders out of a potentially catastrophic situation. “The 10th Cavalry charged up the hill, scarcely firing a shot,” Pershing said later, “and, being nearest the Rough Riders, opened a disastrous enfilading fire upon the Spanish right, thus relieving the Rough Riders from the volleys that were being poured into them from that part of the Spanish line.” A white soldier whose father had served with Mosby’s Rangers wrote the Washington Post later that “if it had not been for the Negro cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated.”