Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Pershing Family Tragedy at the San Francisco Presidio

On Thursday 27 August 2015 there will be a Centennial Pershing Family Remembrance held at 2 p.m. at Pershing Square and the former Officers Club at the San Francisco Presidio.  Here is story of what will be remembered:

At about 4 a.m. on 27 August 1915, while Brigadier General John J. Pershing was deployed in Texas with his command, the 8th Infantry Brigade, the upper story of his quarters at the San Francisco Presidio suffered a severe fire set off by a coal-fired stove. In the fire, Mrs. Pershing (Frances) and three daughters, Mary, (6), Anne, (7), and Helen, (8) all perished. Pershing's son Warren (5), was on a lower floor and escaped with the help of a soldier returning to barracks. This was the great tragedy of Pershing's life.

The Fire Scene, 1915; Pershing Square Today
General and Frances Pershing with Three of the Children in the Philippines

All of the other seven persons sleeping at the residence that night escaped from the fire. Later it was established that the four had been killed by suffocation. Nearly all the rest suffered from shock and minor injuries. An investigation disclosed that the fire was caused by live coals dropping from an open grate upon the floor. It fell upon Pershing friend Major James Harbord, who was on the post commanding a ceremonial cavalry detachment supporting the nearby World's Fair, to notify Pershing of the terrible event. Thinking perhaps to save the general some shock, Harbord addressed the telegram to Pershing's aide. The aide, however, was absent, and the El Paso operator read the telegram to Pershing himself. The general had been expecting his family to visit El Paso only a few days later. 

Pershing rushed to San Francisco, arriving Sunday 29 August. Mrs. Pershing's parents, U.S. Senator and Mrs. Francis E. Warren, arrived that same day. Pershing first visited the funeral home, then went to the burned-out residence and finally to see his son who had been taken to Letterman General Hospital. Twenty-four Presidio sergeants accompanied the cortege to the train that afternoon and the mourners departed for Cheyenne, Wyoming.
From: Defender of the Gate: The Presidio of San Francisco, 1846 to 1995

More on the Coming Event:

On 27 August 2015 the World War One Historical Association will remember the Pershing family tragedy with a public wreath laying at Pershing Square in the Presidio of San Francisco at 2 p.m. A public program in the Presidio Officers’ Club follows at 2:15 p.m. Roads to the Great War editor/publisher Michael Hanlon and National Park Service Historian Stephen Haller will present an overview of Brigadier General John Pershing’s career, the events of the Pershing house fire, and highlights of World War One and the Presidio of San Francisco. Major General Alfred Valenzuela, United States Army, Ret., World War One Centennial Commission, will discuss the lives of military families.


  1. Readers, please spread the word to friends and associates who may be able to attend. Wreath laying and honor guard followed by indoor presentations. Join us for drinks and discussion afterwards at the Presidio Officers' Club.

  2. Mike-wish I could come but I don't think it's gonna work out. We're super busy at work, and I probably can't get away for the drive from Los Angeles.

  3. Why in the world was there a fire in the stove on the 27th of August ? Isn't that the hottest time of year ?

    1. Not in San Francisco in the summertime when the fog comes rushing through the Golden Gate (where the Pershing residence was situated). It gets cold very fast.

      MH (San Francisco Native)

  4. Screening dates and booking a screening of “Black Jack Pershing: Love and War” -