It is about time we stopped using Victorian-era euphemisms and told the real story of how Gen. John Jacob Pershing came to be called “Blackjack” (item 41 in John A. Garraty’s article) and who gave him the nickname. It had nothing whatever to do with cadets at the U.S. Military Academy.
Second Lieutenant Pershing was first commissioned into the 10th United States Cavalry. The 10th was perhaps the fightingest outfit on the frontier, but because the rank and file were entirely black, it was also one of the two least desirable regiments (the other being the all-black 9th) for a white officer from every career point of view.
Eventually Captain Pershing was posted to the even-then-legendary 7th Cavalry—the Custer Regiment—but he was not overly impressed with his new outfit. He was also not a man to keep his opinions to himself, and he tended, at times, to express them in a loud voice and in no uncertain terms to the men he commanded. He considered the 7th inferior in training, discipline, and esprit de corps to the 10th, and he said so—colorfully. Needless to say, his comments did not endear him to the extremely racially prejudiced white troopers of the 7th.
Pershing’s first nickname with the 7th was “Captain Niggerlover” or “Niggerlover Jack.” As time passed and the captain proved that he was probably the best company officer in the 7th and that he demanded no more of his men than of himself, the nickname was somewhat modified—he became “Nigger Jack.”
When Major and then Colonel Pershing began to come to the attention of the newspapers, newsmen found the nickname “Nigger Jack” unacceptable, so the name was sanitized for publication to “Black Jack,” and “Black Jack Pershing” is what he has been known as to this day. For the record, Pershing was not overly fond of the nickname. He felt it was more suited to an outlaw than an Army officer; it was, after all, known in the Southwest as the nickname of Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum, hanged for train robbery in New Mexico in 1901.