Secret to the self-discipline of journaling daily

The (short) history of the journals of John J. Pershing

The secret to the self-discipline of journaling daily

Personal, first-hand accounts of history’s biggest moments provide a texture to history that humanizes it. A perspective of a leader often helps us understand why decisions were made. It brings context and reveals exquisite details about what was going on in that person’s life as history unfolded. The notes also provide lessons for us in how we may lead our own lives. The self-discipline of John J. Pershing provides a terrific example of a journaling habit.


General John J. Pershing 1917 photo credit Library of Congress

Self-discipline as a Cadet

General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing (1860-1948) was a U.S. Army officer and commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War I. It was through Pershing’s leadership that changed the course of the war. In reviewing his diaries, notebooks, and address books, I found that the discipline of his journal practices fascinating. I’ve written about how many leaders did so such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and others. You can read the article How George Washington read to accomplish his goals or how Benjamin Franklin strived for virtue in the article Stories of virtue: How they can inspire us.

General Pershing initiated the self-discipline of journaling when he began as a cadet at West Point in 1882. He continued the practice through his 42 years of military service in exquisite detail. The notes in these journals are candid and revealing. Some entries are simple and dreary while others or highly informative. He shares the backdrop of war and diplomacy and the challenges he faced. Pershing captures experiences of some of the pivotal events that helped form the U.S. what it is today. His first notebook is dated 1882 and describes Pershing’s first year at the United States Military Academy. It is filled with notes and musings of cadet life. There are more notebooks covering the rest of his time at West Point, 1883-1884, and the year in which he graduated in 1886.


John J. Pershing notebook (1897-1898) photo credit Library of Congress

Career of Notebooks

Many of Pershing’s notes are diary-like accounts of military assignments. A notebook dated 1897-1898 documents his service during the Spanish-American War as commander of Company A, with the 10th Calvary. The 10th Cavalry consisted of all African-American troops led by white officers. Pershing’s service with the 10th Cavalry 1895 that earned him the moniker “Black Jack.”

Notebooks from 1902-1903 describe his experiences in the Philippines, such as the Lake Lanao campaign. In one of the Lake Lanao notebooks, notes include agreements with Muslim leaders written in Arabic. Other notebooks document his tour of duty as a military attaché in Tokyo and as an observer in the field during the Russo-Japanese War. Later ones relate to his expedition in Mexico against Pancho Villa just before the American participation in World War I.


John J. Pershing notebook 1906, photo credit Library of Congress

World War I diary

Typed diaries describe Pershing’s command of the AEF in France during World War I and his postwar service as army chief of staff until 1925. His diaries describe in detail the mundane duties of war as any senior officer would have in the modern day. At the same time, it offers vivid insight into the thoughts and behaviors of political and military leaders of the day. Pershing was responsible for the organization, training and equipping an Army from about 27,000 soldiers to over 2 million soldiers once America committed to the cause. It was American involvement in the war that hastened its end. The beginning of the end started at the first American offensive in WW1 at Saint-Mihiel, east of Verdun, France.


General Pershing’s Diary September 13, 1918, photo credit Library of Congress

Battle of Saint-Mihiel

General Pershing launched the first major offensive for the American Army during World War I in September 1918. The AEF provided vital support to the fatigued French forces at Belleau Wood in June 1918 and in the Second Battle of the Marne in July that year. Pershing and Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch decided that the AEF was to establish its presence in the Saint-Mihiel sector. Pershing prepared a front facing the Saint-Mihiel salient which consisted of a section of land between Verdun and Nancy, in northeastern France, that was occupied by the Germans since the fall of 1914. The Germans heavily fortified the area blocking all rail transport between Paris and the Eastern Front. The AEF was given the task of leading an attack on the salient; it would be its first independent operation of the war.

The attack began on September 12, 1918, with the advance of Allied tanks crossing the trenches at Saint-Mihiel. AEF infantry troops followed behind the tanks. Poor weather hampered the offensive as much as it did for the enemy troops. Many trenches filled with water while the fields turned to muck, bogging down many of the tanks. The AEF attack was successful despite the conditions. As a result, the German command decided to abandon the salient. The success of the day lifted the confidence of the AEF.

Pershing’s notes following Saint-Mihiel

Pershing’s diary entry for September 13, 1918, the day following the attack, is quite long in describing the events of the day. Pershing visited with subordinate units and met Marshall Foch and the people from the liberated village of Saint Mihiel. What struck me as interesting, is one line in the entry. He noted, “To-day [sic] was my birthday and that occasion, coupled with the victory, has caused a terrible deluge of telegrams.” I can’t help but imagine how that day could not have been better for General Pershing.

By September 16, 1918, the region of Saint-Mihiel was free of German occupation. The campaign was wildly successful with the capture of over 15,000 German troops. AEF shifted to a new offensive near the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River. It was here where they combined with British and French forces to compel the Germans to retire bring an end to the war in a few short months.

Journal Habit

I can appreciate the breadth of self-discipline demonstrated by General Pershing over his career. I maintained my habit of journals and notes recording my experiences during my service. While my collection is nowhere near the 42 years of notebooks and diary entries, it does offer some insights on what I saw and learned along the way in my 28 years of service. It provides a reminder of lessons learned and pitfalls to avoid.


General Pershing’s self-discipline in recording his thoughts each day is not unique. It is just one example of the practice. The ancient philosopher Plato divided the soul into three parts: reason, passion, and appetite. He suggested that one’s behavior results from a harmony of these elements. It takes self-discipline to control the balance. We learn to control the balance through practice. In much the same way we learn any new skill, play a game or learn a sport. It is through the self-discipline of practice that we become better thinkers, writers, and better humans. A journal habit helps us by allowing us to pause and reflect on the events of the day and process its meaning.

In 1932, the Pulitzer in the history category was awarded to General John “Black Jack” Pershing for his two-volume memoirs spanning his time in command of the AEF in World War One. The award of a Pulitzer the literary arena outside of his army career is a just testament to his multi-faceted and outstanding talents.

You can read his account of the war “My Experiences In The World War” by John Joseph Pershing.

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