I've backed off nearly daily entries from 1917 here, now that we no longer have the Punitive Expedition to follow, and returned more of the traditional pace and focus of the blog, but there are exceptions and today is one.
On this day, in 1917, John J. Pershing, recently promoted to Major General, was informed by Secretary of War Newton Baker that he was to lead the American expeditionary force in France.
This now seems all rather anticlimactic, as if the appointment of Pershing was inevitable, and perhaps it was, but he was not the only possible choice and his selection involved some drama, to some extent. Pershing was then 56 years old, an age that would have put him in the upper age bracket for a senior office during World War Two, but not at this time in the context of World War One. Indeed, his rise to Major General had been somewhat unusual in its history and course, as he had earlier been advanced over more senior officers in an era when that was rare, and it is often noted that his marriage to Helen Warren, the daughter of powerful Wyoming Senator Francis E. Warren, certainly did not hurt his career. Often regarded as having reached the pinnacle of his Army career due to "leading" the Army during the Punitive Expedition, he was in fact technically second in command during that event as the commander of the department he was in was Frederick Funston.
Funston is already familiar to readers here as we covered his death back in February. Not really in the best of health in his later years, but still a good five years younger than Pershing, Funston died suddenly only shortly after the Punitive Expedition concluded leaving Pershing his logical successor and the only Army officer then in the public eye to that extent. Indeed, as the United States was progressing towards entering the war it was Funston, a hero of the Spanish American War, who was being considered by the Wilson Administration as the likely leader of a US contingent to Europe. His sudden death meant that his junior, Pershing, took pride of place.
But not without some rivals. Principal among them was Gen. Leonard Wood, a hero of the later stages of the Indian Wars and the Spanish American War who was a protégée of Theodore Roosevelt. Almost the exact same age as Pershing, Wood was backed by Republicans in Congress for the position of commander of the AEF. Not too surprisingly, however, given his close association with Roosevelt, he was not offered the command. Indeed, it was this same week when it became plain that Roosevelt was also not to receive a combat command in the Army, or any role in the Army, for the Great War, to his immense disappointment.
Pershing went on, of course, to command the AEF and to even rise in rank to the second highest, behind only George Washington, rank in the U.S. Army. That alone shows that he was an enormous hero in his era. He lived through World War Two and in fact was frequently visited by generals of that war, many of them having a close military association with him from World War One. His personality dramatically impacted the Army during the Great War, so much so that it was sometimes commented upon to the effect that American troops were all carbon copies of Pershing. Still highly regarded by most (although some have questioned in recent years his view of his black troops) he is far from the household name he once was for the simple reason that World War Two has overshadowed everything associated with World War One.