Nebraska Historical Marker: Pershing Rifles

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813-857 N 14th St, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska

View this marker's location 40.821154, -96.70148

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Marker Text

General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces to Europe in World War I, was Professor of Military Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln between September 1891 and June 1895. Upon his arrival in Lincoln, which was to become his family's home, Pershing found the morale of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at low ebb. To infuse life into the corps, Pershing built an elite drill team which eventually became known as the Society of Pershing Rifles. The organization served its purpose well, and from 1900-1911 it carried prestige not only in military circles but in the social life of the University as well. Many of its young officer-graduates were on active duty in the Spanish-American War and in World War I. After Pershing was transferred to another post, interest in the Rifles waned and in 1917 it was disbanded. Interest returned in the 1920s, and in 1925 a chapter was installed at Ohio State University. Today Pershing Rifle Societies are found in over 100 universities. Pershing was elected to the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1964, and his bust placed in the Nebraska State Capitol in 1965.

Further Information

UNL Pershing Rifles, unknown date. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

In 1891, John J. Pershing became the military instructor at the University of Nebraska. Thirty-one years old at the time, Pershing had served in several frontier posts in the west but had family in Lincoln. He thought that he would be able to have a great impact on the University as its military instructor, but was unable to get the position until his brother aided the Secretary of State of Nebraska’s election in 1890. The cadets at Nebraska had no tradition of discipline; a previous commandant of cadets at the university became deeply unpopular with the cadets when he required them to wear their uniforms to training. Fortunately for Pershing, the chancellor of the university, James H. Canfield, was a supportive mentor during this period.

Pershing was a “strict disciplinarian” who demanded exactness and neatness from his cadets. The cadets did not rebel against him, however; instead, they were impressed by his poise, dignity, fairness and intellect, and tried their best to imitate him. He reorganized the corps to reflect West Point training, and he relegated some duties to upperclassmen officers. Under Pershing’s leadership, the military program at Nebraska grew in size and popularity. In 1892, a group of cadets competed in a drill competition in Omaha and won first prize. After that, a group of cadets was inspired to form the “Varsity Rifles” and continue their military training. In 1895, that group was renamed the “Pershing Rifles.” Several chapters of the Pershing Rifles now exist on college campuses across the country. While at the University, Pershing also attained a law degree and taught math.

Bayonet drill in UNL armory. (Nebraska State Historical Society)
Female honorary colonel, c. 1920. (Nebraska State Historical Society)
UNL Cadets, Co. D. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Pershing Photos

Portrait of John J. Pershing, unknown date. (Nebraska State Historical Society)
Portrait of John J. Pershing, April 27, 1931. (Nebraska State Historical Society)
General Pershing wearing elaborate military uniform. Image from a painting. (Nebraska State Historical Society)
General Pershing inspecting an honor guard in London, August 8, 1919. (Nebraska State Historical Society)


Smythe, S.J., Donald. “John J. Pershing at the University of Nebraska, 1891-1895.” Nebraska History. September 1962: 169-196.

Marker program

See Nebraska Historical Marker Program for more information.