General John J. Pershing’s Nebraska connection

Today, WWI General John J. Pershing’s name is recognized by few Americans, even in Nebraska where an important part of Pershing’s life unfolded.

In 1891, Pershing arrived at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln where he led the cadet training program while attending law school until 1895.

McNeeseTimYorkCollege
York College history associate professor Tim McNeese says John Pershing had the challenge of rebuilding a failing cadet corps when he arrived at the University of Nebraska in 1891.

York College history professor Tim McNeese  has written a book about Pershing’s life. McNeese said  when Pershing arrived at the University of Nebraska he found a cadet training program that was a mess.

By Nebraska state law, the university was required to have a cadet training program. But the university’s cadet program struggled- It had less than 100 members. Few of the cadets regularly attended cadet training sessions or drills.

“But it was just such an underrated, secondhand, nobody gave two hoots about the program. Students didn’t take it seriously, faculty couldn’t care less,” McNeese said.

Under Pershing’s command, McNeese said that changed. Pershing brought discipline to the cadets and helped turn the program around. “We’re going to take it seriously.” He starts getting the discipline required, “You better button up that coat. Why are your shoes not polished?,” said McNeese. “And all these farm boys were kind of, “Wait, wait, wait. Who’s this guy and what?” But they take to it, and they take to him.”

Within a year, 350 students joined Pershing’s UNL’s cadet corps. And in June of 1892, Pershing’s cadets were put to the test at a national drill competition in Omaha. The packed parade crowd included governors from several states, including Nebraska.

 

Pershing 1892 Great Photo at UNL with staff
First Lieutenant John Pershing with officers of the University of Nebraska Cadet Corps in 1892. Photo courtesy of Lincoln Journal Star Archives

When it was announced Pershing’s UNL cadets had won their maiden division and national competition, hundreds of UNL students and faculty charged the field to celebrate, and they were led by University of Nebraska Chancellor James Canfield.

Pershing UNL Commander
An 1892 photo of John Pershing when he commanded the Cadet Corps at the University of Nebraska. Photo: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Library Archives

In 1895, Pershing’s time at UNL came to an end. Fueled by the friendships he formed in Lincoln, Pershing re-committed himself to the military. In honor of their recently departed Lieutenant, UNL’s elite drill team renamed itself “Pershing’s Rifles.”  Today 50 co-ed Pershing Rifles units exist across the United States and are known as the National Society of Pershing Rifles.

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