Pershing’s Short, Yet “Epochal” Visit to Philadelphia

Philadelphia lavished patriotic honors on General John J. Pershing, one year ago. The commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front in World War I carved out only two-and-a-half hours for celebration in the City of Brotherly Love. No matter. Everyone seemed to make the most of what was touted as an”epochal visit.”

“Pershing’s long, long, trail, blazed with the everlasting glory of victory, crossed Philadelphia,” glowed the Inquirer the following morning. “The city that cradled the Nation swept America’s military idol from his feet in the tumult and ecstasy of a welcome which veteran generals from overseas declared shamed those other historic moments of Paris, London and New York.”

“This demonstration to honor the man whose leadership and genius had wrought a final triumph, destined to live eternally in the pages of history, was majestically superb and gloriously epic. Business and industry went A.W.O.L. for hours in order that the city where American liberty and freedom first were translated into government might lay its tribute at the feet of a man who directed the might of America in crushing autocracy and tyranny in Europe.

“One half million throats roared acclaim to the splendid figure who rode in an auto at the head of the line, a figure who visualized to the cheering multitude the spirit of fighting, victorious America. A million eyes followed this military leader, alight with love, affection and idolatrous worship that the fires of renewed patriotism had kindled and kept aglow.

“Previous celebrations and fetes, hitherto apocryphal in the city, were overshadowed by this welcome. . . . Streets became living canyons, throbbing and pulsating to the emotional greeting of a people stirred to the depths by the man and all that he meant to those who had kept the home fires burning. Forests of flags nodded and waived and danced in the breeze, obedient to the chubby fist of childhood as well as the palsied hand of age.

“Women in their ecstatic jubilation pelted the Commander, home from the wars, with roses and other flowers. From the skies and windows of the great office buildings of the city came showers of confetti raining down upon him.  And behind all adulation, all this wealth of affectionate greeting and stupendous welcome, were the ceremonials which the city and State had arranged to give a stately touch to this riotous ovation that extended over three miles of march, and never once died down…

“Recent history holds no parallel to yesterday’s demonstration for enthusiasm. . . . From the moment that he stepped from his car . . .  he found his pathway figuratively carpeted with the hearts of his countrymen here. All along the stretch of this turn in the long, long trail, too, he found adulation and affection bloom and blossoming in his path.

“Deeply affected and immeasurably delighted, Pershing found that the charm and the splendor of this welcome rested largely in its spontaneity. His eyes greedily drank in their fill of the entrancing sight, and shone with the keenest appreciation and gratitude which found their outward expression when he spoke at the Union League. He told his hearers that the reception surpassed anything in his experience.”

General Pershing Speaking from Union League Balcony, September 12, 1919 (PhillyHistory.org)

“You have every reason to be proud of your patriotism because you inherited it from your forefathers and because of the way in which you have defended the principles for which they stood,” said Pershing at the Union League, overlooking Broad Street. “I wish I had more time to say what I feel in my heart, on being in this historic city of Philadelphia, I only hope that I many again come to drink from this fountain of patriotism.”

General John J. Pershing, Governor William C. Sproul and Mayor Thomas B. Smith at Independence Square, September 12, 1919 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Mayor Smith and Governor Sproul were among the prominent personages of the city and State on hand to meet the General, as spick and span and smart as any subaltern fresh from West point . . . Flanked by the Governor and Mayor General Pershing strode . . . . Here he found the real guard of honor drawn up to greet him. Two dozen or more boys who had won the Distinguished Service Cross for their valorous deeds in the armies which the distinguished guest had commanded. The moment that Pershing’s eyes fell upon these heroes he deserted his civilian hosts and became the soldier and the commander instantly, and unaffectedly.”

“Goddess of Liberty” at Reception to General Pershing, Independence Hall, (PhillyHistory.org)

“His eyes roved over the men, rested for a moment or two on the decorations that embellish their tunics, and questions several of them as to the deeds which brought this distinguished recognition. As he walked away, he turned to the little knot of civilians in his wake and said musingly: ‘These are the real men: the real fellows who did the work. Real men, every one of them; don’t forget that.'”

Flags of Allied Nations at Independence Hall, September 12, 1919 (PhillyHistory.org)

“His short visit—all too short for the big welcoming host of Philadelphia—will never be forgotten,” wrote John Wanamaker. “General Pershing must come back and give us more time, when we will see that Philadelphia, big as it is can give him a bigger welcome and more courtesies than could be crowded into the brief visit of yesterday.”

Really? How could another visit have possibly topped this one?

[Source: “General Acclaimed By Thousands Here in Epochal Visit,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 13, 1919; [Advertisement letter by John Wanamaker] “General Pershing, the Great American Soldier and Commander of Our Victorious Armies,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 13, 1919.]

See more on Pershing’s patriotic encounter with the Liberty Bell.

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