Title Reviewed:
Guerrilla Warrior: The Early Life of John J. Pershing

Author Reviewed:
Donald Smythe

J. Garry Clifford


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 69, Issue 1, pp 376-377

Article Type:
Book Review

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Guerrilla Warrior: The Early Life of John J. Pershing. By Donald Smythe. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973. Pp. ix, 370. Illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $10.95.)

This very readable study of General Pershing's career prior to World War I is based on massive scholarship. Donald Smythe has consulted more than eighty manuscript collections (including sixteen separate collections of Pershing papers), interviewed some one hundred persons and corresponded with even more, read newspapers ranging from the BostonGlobe to the Manila Times, and mastered the vast array of literature on the "old Army" before 1917. The result is first rate military biography, and Smythe's Pershing will sit well along side of Edward Coffman's Peyton March, Clayton James' Douglas MacArthur, or Forrest Pogue's George Marshall.

The man chosen to command the American Expeditionary Force to France in 1917 had, ironically, spent his entire military career in command of small units. Smythe's focus is on Pershing as frontier cavalryman—"guerrilla warrior"—chasing Apaches in Arizona and Sioux in the Dakotas, pacifying Moros in the Philippines, and leading the famous Punitive Expendition against Pancho Villa in northern Mexico. During the 1890s Pershing fought in the Spanish American War in the battles around Santiago and also commanded cadets at the University of Nebraska and at West Point. It was at West Point that he earned the nickname "Black Jack" or "Nigger Jack," an uncomplimentary epithet resulting from his excessive concern for discipline. Indeed, the Pershing of those early years was very much a "professional's professional," an ambitious and capable soldier who won jungle campaigns through diplomacy as well as through force and who rose in rank through good connections as well as through good deeds. Smythe proves that Pershing did not owe his rapid promotion to direct political influence; nonetheless, it did not hurt that his father-in-law was chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee. Similarly, Pershing's selection to command the AEF was aided by his proven ability during the Villa campaign to follow political orders without protest—even when he disagreed with those orders. Better than most professionals, especially his chief rival, Leonard Wood, Pershing knew how to be diplomat as well as warrior.

Smythe is also very good at probing Pershing's personality. The man was certainly stiff and forbidding, something of a martinet, respected but unloved by his troops. But the general could loosen up among friends, and his marriage to Frances Warren was supremely happy. The anguish that Pershing suffered in 1915 when his wife and three of their four children perished in a fire must have been devastating, and Smythe demolishes the legend that Pershing, unflinchingly, survived the tragedy with his "iceberg" demeanor intact. Smythe even suggests that Pershing's irritability and willingness to risk war in his pursuit of Villa may have resulted from pent up emotions following the tragedy.

One minor complaint: Smythe rarely criticizes the military milieu in which Pershing lived. He describes the battles, the campaigns, the military values, but he rarely asks why. For example, young Lieutenant Pershing was in South Dakota in the winter of 1890–1891 when the incident at Wounded Knee Creek occurred. The discussion ignores the perspective of the Indians. Smythe does show that Pershing's later campaigns in the Philippines were bloodless in comparison to other efforts at "pacification." But were they justified? On the other hand, he does give a full view of the Mexican side in his chapters on the Punitive Expedition.

Volume two is eagerly awaited.

University of Connecticut, Storrs J. Garry Clifford

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.