The Reason General John Pershing Was Called “Black Jack”

February is Black History Month in the United States.  I have never done a specifically black history piece on this site, although I have from time to time suggested, for example, that Anglicans realise that the “Anglican Communion” is now and should be the “African Communion” with the centre of authority appropriately relocated.

But I also have a major interest in World War I, whose centennial is coming up in a couple of years.  Combining the two makes for an interesting discovery: the real reason the main U.S. land commander in that war, General John Pershing, was referred to as “Black Jack.”  Until recently I always thought, for example, that it was his favourite card game (that gives you an idea of the background I come from!) but the truth is different and much more interesting.

Pershing was born and raised in Laclede, MO.  As a young man he taught a group of African-American children.  That experience must have had an impact on him because, in his subsequent duty, much of his command was over black soldiers, who had served in the Union army during the Civil War.

In 1892 he took command of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers,” made up of black soldiers.  He commanded this regiment in Montana, rounding up Cree Indians and deporting them to Canada (that creates a serious politically incorrect problem which is beyond the scope of this post.)  Evidently he was satisfied with his service, but many of his white counterparts were not: as a result of this command, he got the nickname of “N—– Jack,” which was softened to “Black Jack,” probably as his rank rose.

With the Spanish-American War Pershing and the Buffalo Soldiers acquitted themselves with valour on San Juan Hill in Cuba.  In a battle better known for Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the 10th Cavalry took much of the brunt of the fighting.  It’s interesting to think that Roosevelt, who witnessed the Buffalo Soldiers in action, had that in mind when he invited Booker T. Washington to the White House during his presidency.

Pershing and his cavalry parted company, the former serving in the Philippines and latter hunting for Pancho Villa in northern Mexico.  But his most illustrious command was as Commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France.  Pershing would doubtless have been happy to have Buffalo Soldiers (maybe not a cavalry unit, cavalry did poorly in the trenches of Belgium and France) in the AEF.  But President Woodrow Wilson, academic Ivy Leaguer though he was, was still very Southern in his attitude towards black people.  One of Pershing’s standing objectives was to keep American forces together under American command, but in the end black units were peeled off to serve under the French, as had many aviators done already.

And the Europeans had no problem with black soldiers in their military forces.  The French had many who came from their African colonies serving on the front.  And in East Africa, the black troops under German Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck were becoming a military legend that eclipsed the accomplishments of Pershing and the Buffalo Soldiers.  But it would take another war (or two or three) before it became conventional wisdom in the U.S. that all who are willing to take lead for Old Glory deserve their rightful place in the most powerful armed force the world has ever known.

But such are the hard lessons of history.  The nation which can successfully mobilise the God-given talents and abilities of the widest spectrum of its population will achieve its destiny.  In a culture where it’s so easy for one portion of the population to denigrate another, losing sight of that lesson will blunt that goal.  And at this point we cannot afford to throw any portion away, now can we?

2 thoughts on “The Reason General John Pershing Was Called “Black Jack””

  1. I am black and although I appreciate the effort, this piece is not a Black History Month (BHM) contribution. It’s about Black Jack (BJ) who is white with ties to black people. It would’ve been better written for BHM about Buffalo Soldiers (BS) with ties to BJ. The origins of black military units are always intriguing since many black soldiers never had civilian experience in the areas they served while in the military. They trained by the OJT method – on the job training.

    How many BS had civilian horseback riding experiences before joining the 10th Cavalry? How many BS were better educated than white counterparts? How many BS were north/southern citizens?

    1. You’re probably right. But researching this article was an education for me. When I mentioned the Buffalo Soldiers at San Juan Hill to my civil engineering class, my black students smiled.

      Our department head is Kenyan. Two out of the other three full-time CE faculty members are from Africa, one from Cameroon and a woman from Tanzania. Her late husband’s relatives fought with von Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa.

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