Many posts on this blog will be dealing in the years to come with the involvement of America in World War I and the events leading up to it. One of the key figures will be John J. Pershing. In a military career that exhibited a dedication to hard work rather than brilliance, Pershing at 38 was still a First Lieutenant. His opportunity came during the Spanish-American War when he had the good fortune to command black troops of the 10th Cavalry at the Battle of San Juan Hill and came to the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who he knew slightly prior to the War. In 1905 Roosevelt promoted Pershing from Captain to Brigadier General, over the heads of 900 officers senior to him, an almost unheard of move in the peacetime Army where promotion was almost entirely a result of seniority.
As Pershing’s professional career was taking off so did his personal life. In 1905 the 45 year old bachelor married the 25 year old Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of powerful Senator Francis Warren of Wyoming, who would serve in the Senate from 1895 until his death in 1929. A veteran of the Union Army, and a Medal of Honor recipient, he would be the last Civil War veteran to serve in the Senate. Pershing now had a firm advocate in the Senate, but it was love rather than calculation that lay behind his marriage as indicated by their rapidly growing family of three girls and a boy.
In 1913 Pershing was assigned to command a brigade at the Presidio in San Francisco. With tensions running high with Mexico, the brigade was deployed to Fort Bliss in 1914, Pershing deciding to keep his family safe and comfortable at their house at the Presidio rather than having them at Fort Bliss, a decision he would come to bitterly regret. In 1915, no fighting with Mexico having ensued, Pershing was making arrangements to have his family join him at Fort Bliss. Just before his family was to move, Pershing received a telegram on the morning of August 27, 1915 informing him that his wife and three daughters, Mary, age 3, Anne, age 7, and Helen, age 8, had died in a house fire. Only his 6 year old son Francis Warren survived, rescued by Pershing’s long time black orderly.
Rushing to San Francisco, Pershing first prayed over the bodies of his wife and daughters. Visiting the site of the fire Pershing could only say, “They had no chance.” Picking up his son from the hospital, Pershing was holding him in his lap when the car they were in passed by the fair grounds, Pershing asking his son if he had been to the fair. When the boy responded “Oh yes, Mommy takes us there all the time!”, Pershing began to tremble so badly that he handed the boy to another passenger. Pershing brought his son to Fort Bliss after the funerals, his sister May accompanying them. She would raise Francis Warren while Pershing threw himself into his work, the only relief he could find from the soul shattering grief that beset him. Many of his friends said that Pershing never got over that grief, and anyone who has experienced the loss of a child or a spouse can understand.
Always an introverted man, Pershing became more so, doing his best to keep his grief private, but it was now a permanent feature of his life. In 1935 a friend noticed that Pershing was looking sad. When a friend inquired about this, Pershing responded that it was one of his daughter’s birthday.