General Pershing's Nebraska Connection

Dec. 12, 2015, 8:35 a.m. ·

1917 photo shows the World War I recruits from Lincoln and across the state due in part to John Pershing's strong association with the University of Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Lincoln Journal Star Archives)

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Many Nebraskans have been to Pershing Auditorium in Lincoln for sporting events and concerts. The building is named after John J. Pershing who commanded U.S. troops in World War One. He spent four years in Lincoln where he went to law school and commanded an elite cadet drill team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Before General Pershing took over U.S. command in Europe during World War I, fighting had claimed 16 million lives and injured 20 million more.In 18 months, Pershing helped to transform 220,000 peacetime U.S. troops into a fighting force of four million. Pershing wasn't simply a general. He was the only living six-star general in American history.


(Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration)

Today, Pershing’s name is recognized by few Americans, even in Nebraska where an important part of Pershing’s life unfolded. In 1891, Pershing began a 4 year stay at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he led the cadet training program while attending law school. York College history professor Tim McNeese, who has written a book on Pershing, said that when Pershing arrived at UNL he found a cadet training program that was a mess. 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.


(Photo courtesy of Lincoln Journal Star Archives)

When it was announced that 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 Chancellor James Canfield.

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 units like them across the country are known as the National Society of Pershing Rifles.

A video companion to this story will be on NET Television’s “Nebraska Stories” series. The new season premiers January 7, 2016.