York College History Professor Dr. Tim McNeese’s new book includes something old and something new. Titled Time in the Wilderness: The Formative Years of John “Black Jack” Pershing in the American West, the biography was released in December through the University of Nebraska Press’s Potomac Books imprint. It is not McNeese’s first time writing about the U.S. army general who led American forces during World War I.
       “Back in the early 2000s, I wrote a short biography of Pershing for younger readers,” explains McNeese, now in his thirtieth year of teaching at York College. “Then, in 2015, I was included as an on-screen historian for a film documentary on Pershing produced by Professor Barney McCoy at UNL. That relit my interest in returning to a fuller study of Pershing’s life a few years later, which resulted in this new book.”
The book covers the first full-length biography of General Pershing’s life published in more than forty years, but with one purposeful limitation. McNeese focuses on Pershing’s military service, not in the European theater during the Great War, but rather on the thirty years he spent as a cavalry officer prior to the war, years the history professor considers crucial in forming Pershing into the commander he would one day need to become to lead two million men in European combat, the largest number of U.S. servicemen in uniform to that date.      

“I cut off my study short of Pershing’s World War I experiences for a reason,” says McNeese. “There are dozens of books that focus on Pershing during the war. That is a base completely covered. But there are few books that deal with the years he spent as a young cavalry officer in the American West, and I believe those years represent a crucial cauldron of preparation for Pershing.”      

McNeese first presented the concept for his book to the UNL Press editors nearly three years ago.       
“It was actually my wife, Bev, who suggested I approach the university press with the idea,” says McNeese.       

After months of contact with the Nebraska publisher, McNeese finally received the green light for the project. He says he wrote the book largely during the first six months of 2020, “just about the time Covid hit.” Work on the manuscript continued through the summer as McNeese gained access to research archives that were initially closed to him due to Covid. By the fall of 2020, the work went into production and was released finally in December of last year.
“Publishing something of this length and level can take a long time to turn around” says McNeese. “If you’re an impatient person, writing and publishing may not be for you.”      

The result is a 400+ page book, the longest McNeese has written, one spanning Pershing’s life from his birth through his leadership of the Punitive Expedition against the Mexican pistolero Pancho Villa in 1916.      

The story of Pershing forms a sort of American western. Born in northern Missouri in 1860, Pershing had childhood memories of the Civil War, including a guerrilla raid on his home town of Laclede. He graduated from West Point in 1886 and was then assigned to the first of many posts out west at a time with the frontier was not yet completely closed. Over the next several years, he was a cavalry officer in New Mexico, South Dakota, and Montana, dealing with Native Americans from the Apache to the Lakota. In the midst of those years he also came to Nebraska where he served as commandant of the cadet program—think today’s ROTC—at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.       

“Pershing came to identify himself as a Nebraska man over time,” says McNeese. “He served at the university from 1891 through 1895 and managed to turn around a lackluster program on campus. The cadet program gained national recognition through Pershing’s efforts. And through those years, he was the darling of the university. His family moved to Lincoln in time, and he eventually bought a house in the Nebraska capital for his two grown sisters who lived there for many years. Pershing visited Lincoln on many occasions through the decades. A part of his story is a Nebraska story.” Today, Pershing is a member of the Nebraska Hall of Fame, along with Buffalo Bill Cody and Willa Cather, both of whom Pershing knew.  
Pershing’s western experiences continued following his service in the Spanish-American War and several prolonged assignments in the Philippines, an American acquisition following the defeat of the Spanish. McNeese considers these activities yet another extension of his “western” service, as the Philippines became a new frontier for Americans.      

“Whether serving in the American West or the Philippines, Pershing dealt with many different indigenous peoples,” says McNeese. “And his experiences with American Indians helped set his strategies for working with the native peoples of the Philippines.”      

During these decades of military service, Pershing managed to find love, marry, and have four children. Tragically, his wife and three daughters died in a fire at the Presidio in San Francisco in 1915 while Pershing was stationed in Texas guarding the U.S. border against raiders.      

“When Pershing was chasing Villa across northern Mexico on the Punitive Expedition,” says McNeese, “he was struggling with the recent loss of four members of his family. Only his young son survived the fire out in California. It represented a personal tragedy from which he never fully recovered.”      

McNeese says his study of Pershing provided him many new insights into this historical figure whom many know so little about.       

“His relationship with his wife, Frankie, who was twenty years younger, is a passionate story in itself,” the YC historian notes.      

McNeese’s new book can be found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites as well as through the Potomac Books website. He has written many other previous books over the years and appeared on television programs on the History Channel, the American Heroes Channel, and Discovery’s CuriosityStream.      

The YC professor has already completed his next book which is now in process of publication. This work is being published by Two Dot Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield and focuses on another American figure whose story is largely unknown. Titled William Henry Jackson’s Lens: How Yellowstone’s Famous Photographer Captured the American West, the book is a biography of the nineteenth century photographer who took the first photos of several places in the American West, including Yellowstone, the Tetons, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross. The book is slated for publication in late 2022 or early 2023.