So why did the most famous commanding general of the US military in the First World War have the nickname “Blackjack”?

Tempting fate has never been a hobby we at Blackjack Champ recommend. Certainly we’re big fans of the occasional outrageous gamble, knowing precisely when to push your luck can be an extremely useful skill at the tables, however day-to-day it’s probably best to avoid making rude gestures at the mystical powers that be. Thus I should have known better than to mention John Joseph “Blackjack” Pershing the highest ranked military general ever in US history in a recent article about gambling in the trenches of World War One.

I should really have foreseen that I was likely to be approached by several people at Blackjack Champ HQ asking why General Pershing had the nickname “Blackjack” in the first place, and that simple evasion tactics weren’t going to work. General Pershing was all about the full frontal assault and apparently so are my colleagues. The final straw came when a fresh young face asked, with no trace of irony whatsoever, if he was so named because it was his favorite card game.

The Only Real Five Star US General In History

• Nicknamed “Blackjack” after service with 10th Cavalry

• Cadets felt blackjack rules too harsh

• Good soldier with good connections

My answer, lest it be said, was somewhat peevish. Partly because I’m not entirely sure a general with a reputation such that he might be nicknamed “Blackjack” after his gambling habits would be the sort of man soldiers would willingly obey under fire in combat, but mostly because if he had been named after the card game Blackjack I would almost certainly have already written an article about him for Blackjack Champ.

Since I haven’t, as yet, written such an article we can deduce that there probably isn’t all that much connection between the nickname of the only 5 star general in US history and the history of blackjack the card game. However since there seems to be some confusion, and it is the centenary of the start of hostilities in 1914, a conflict into which the United States would be inexorably drawn some years later under his command, I suppose a short explanation might not be entirely out of place.

Buffalo Soldiers Of The 10th Cavalry

The first thing to make clear is that John Joseph Pershing was a good soldier, a very good soldier. As a marksman alone he ranked second in the entire US military for accuracy with a pistol and fifth with a rifle and had been cited for bravery in some of his earliest military campaigns as a young officer with the 6th Cavalry against Indian opposition, particularly against the Apache. He also played some small role in the suppression of the last Sioux Indian uprisings in 1891.

Perhaps tellingly during his military career he also attended law school graduating in 1893 despite already having been promoted to first Lieutenant and being given command of a troop in the 10th Cavalry regiment, Buffalo soldiers as they were termed, that consisted of white officers leading black troops. Stationed at Fort Assinniboine he commanded an expedition using the smart strategies he’d advocated whilst Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska.

The expedition, that ranged across Montana, was responsible for the deportation of a large number of Cree Indians into Canada and deemed a success but Pershing would be recalled to his place of graduation, West Point, as an instructor which is an honor of some note in the ranks of the US military’s officer corps. He was assigned to Cadet Company A and pretty much from the get go the cadets that were tutored under him came to an almost universal opinion of him. They hated his guts.

Far from being a term of endearment, or reference to his card playing recreations, the nickname “Blackjack” was actually applied to John J. Pershing by his cadets at West Point who felt his strictness and rigidity of attitude were worthy of a derogatory title. Not that this was their first choice, oh no. No, these were soldiers in the late 19th century, and knowing that their new hard-ass training instructor had previously served with the 10th Cavalry, a regiment of black troops, they called him N*gg*r Jack.

General ”Blackjack” Pershing

Over his time at the academy this was toned down to merely “blackjack”, although apparently the reference and intent behind it was still hostile, and that particular incarnation stuck with him for the rest of his life. His tour up at the academy he returned to the 10th where he took part in the Cuban campaign being once again cited for bravery. He then also took part in the Philippine war which is perhaps where his abilities were noticed by President Roosevelt.

Roosevelt liked Pershing and wanted him promoted but the military had other ideas, and instead it was agreed he would become the military attache in Tokyo which would help his career nearly as much as marrying the daughter of a rather influential republican senator who just happened to be chairman of the US Military Appropriations Committee. The fact that upon his return to the US Roosevelt used his presidential powers to promote him to Brigadier General, a mere coincidence.

He’d skipped three ranks, over 835 other more senior officers and divided opinion within the military. There were some who said his rise was entirely due to his political connections, whilst others pointed to his distinguished service leading men in combat. Whichever it may be, and likely as not a bit of both, he was of sufficient rank in 1913 to command the so called “Punitive” mission into Mexico and again three years later to try and capture Pancho Villa.

When the war in Europe broke out in 1914 America’s slide into participation was all but a foregone conclusion. Pershing’s role in World War One is a matter of record and that he was the only general ever promoted to “General Of The Armies” says much for his service, and his connections. He did much to modernize the US military in light of the conditions in France but it did seem that full frontal attacks were the only tactic in the blackjack strategy book, his victories only matched by his losses.

So, now you know why General John Joseph “Blackjack” Pershing was so nicknamed. Satisfied now?