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

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Original Pershing Rifles of the University of Nebraska Followed Their Instructor to Cuba and the Western Front

On 25 September 1891, General Pershing, then a second lieutenant in the Sixth Cavalry, became Professor of Military Science and Tactics at the University of Nebraska. Lieutenant Pershing, a graduate of West Point, demanded excellence in his cadets and embarked on a program of discipline and serious military training. He used the manual of arms and drill as the means of instilling a new sense of professionalism and structure with his cadets. He established a system of cadet promotions that recognized students who displayed leadership and skill in military drill and tactics.  Enrollment in military courses dramatically increased as students were drawn to the program by Pershing’s positive leadership example.  Cadets took pride in themselves and in their corps. Over the next four years Pershing inspired an enthusiasm for drill which few leaders have equaled.

In March 1892, Lieutenant Pershing reorganized Company A of the university’s Military Department, as a select company in preparation for the National Competitive Drills in Omaha, Nebraska. As a result of intensive training, Company A had become so proficient in drill that by early June it won the University’s inter-company competitive drills, better known as the “Compet.”

The long awaited national drill competition in Omaha began on 13 June 1892,  Company A, which had trained for only four monthsn faced veteran companies from all over the Nation.  In the “Maiden Prize” competition the company was so exacting in its movements that it completed its prescribed maneuvers in just 23 minutes, well under the 45-minute time limit imposed by the competition.  As a result, Company A won the Maiden Prize of $1,500 and the Citizens of Omaha presented them with a large silver cup, the “Omaha Cup.”

2nd Lt. John J. Pershing and His Senior Cadets

Although there was a strong desire amongst the university chancellor and cadets to form a permanent “crack company,” it wasn’t until 1894 that that a student organization with this goal was established. Three of the original Company A members, meeting casually during the summer of 1894, were responsible for the idea of founding the “Varsity Rifles” based on the outstanding drill and leadership example of their mentor Lt. Pershing.

His personality and strength of character dominated us. We loved him devotedly.  

George L. Sheldon, Varsity Rifles Company Commander

On Tuesday evening, 2 October 1894, 39 picked cadets and alumni met in the armory to hold their first meeting, Lieutenant Pershing consented to act as temporary drillmaster for the organization.  It is this year, 1894, that we recognize as our official founding.

Pershing was as severe a disciplinarian as a kindly man can be. He was always just. He had no pets. Punishments came no swifter than rewards.

William Hayward, Varsity Rifles

When Lieutenant Pershing left the University of Nebraska in 1895 he, at the request of a committee representing Varsity Rifles, gave the unit a pair of his cavalry breeches. The breeches were cut into small pieces and were worn on the uniform as a sign of membership.  These “ribbons” were thought to be the first service ribbons worn in the United States.

Pershing Memorial at the University of Nebraska

We met in his room one night to organize and ‘The Lieut,’ as we familiarly called the Instructor - he was a second lieutenant then - asked what colors we wanted on our badges. Yellow and blue - cavalry colors. I have the very thing, he responded, and went to a chiffonier from which he took a brand-new pair of cavalry trousers. With shears he ruthlessly cut them across, making fifty badges, each with a strip of blue and the yellow leg stripe.

William Green, 1918

On 1 June 1895, the Varsity Rifles, in honor of the recently departed Lieutenant Pershing, changed its name to the “Pershing Rifles.” In February 1898, Lieutenant Pershing, now an instructor at West Point, gave a flag to the Pershing Rifles which was presented by the University Chancellor. Also for the first time the Pershing Rifles wore on their collars a distinctive pair of crossed rifles with the initials “P.R.”

During the Spanish-American War, 30 members of the now powerful Pershing Rifles enlisted in the First Nebraska Volunteers.  Every one of the 30 distinguished himself in the ensuing battles.  

Over two decades after his departure from the University of Nebraska,  several of his original "Rifles" had risen to senior position in the Army.  A number of them distinguished themselves during the Great War under the former 2nd lieutenant who was now commander of the AEF.

Sources: Pershing Rifles Website;  Lt. Col. (and P.R.) Kevin Upton; Univ. of Nebraska Archives

1 comment:

  1. Pershing Rifles, Company Q8, Hofstra University, 1968.
    Jim Cameron