Just over fifty percent of the United States’ presidents have served in the military–in war, peacetime, or both. For the most part, this has been a positive for their election hopes and their relationship with the military brass.
At other times, such as during the Vietnam War, the military past of a president has been downplayed. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were all U.S. Navy veterans, but at a time when many Americans were leery of the “Establishment,” especially the military establishment, the military pasts of these men remained in the background.
Other presidents’ public relations campaigns before and after elections positively crowed about the military experience of their man. The last presidential candidate to truly make his military experience part of his campaign was John F. Kennedy, the hero of the PT-109 story, though the senior George Bush’s ads did point out that he was a decorated combat pilot during WWII.
Here is a list of the twenty-six U.S. presidents that served in the military, and a bit about their time in the service:
Guess! Of course, George Washington was the first U.S. president, and catapulted to national leadership based on his commanding the Continental Army during the American Revolution. What many forget is that Washington came to the attention of the Continental Congress based on his prior, although not that illustrious, service in the Virginia Militia during the French and Indian War.
James Monroe, Founding Father and fifth U.S. president, served as an officer in the Continental Army and was severely wounded in the famous Battle of Trenton. In the well-known painting by famed painter John Trumbull that depicts the capture of the Hessians at the battle, Monroe is pictured next to Washington.
Andrew Jackson was the seventh president, and became famous before his election by leading troops against the British at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. He also went on to carry out campaigns against both the Seminole and Cherokee Native American tribes before becoming president in 1829.
William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison was Governor of the Indiana Territory in 1811 when war broke out between the Shawnee tribe and their allies, led by the great chief Tecumseh, and the expanding American government and settlers. At the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers, Harrison, now acting as commander of a 1,000 man force, was initially surprised by and then eventually defeated a force of some 700 native warriors.
His success at the Battle of Tippecanoe, which became his nickname, was a springboard to greater political aspirations. Along with his running mate John Tyler, Harrison ran with the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!”
John Tyler became the tenth U.S. president after the death of Harrison only one month into his term. The Virginian Tyler organized his own volunteer force, the “Charles City Rifles,” to defend Richmond during the War of 1812, but saw no action.
Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president, was perhaps the most accomplished military man to become president before Ulysses S. Grant after the Civil War. Taylor became an Army officer in 1808, fought with distinction in the War of 1812, and again in the Indian Wars of the 1830’s.
By 1845, just before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, Taylor was a general, and during that conflict he became the architect of many American victories, including Palo Alto, Resaca, Monterrey and Buena Vista. He only served as president for sixteen months, however, before dying in the White House of complications from a type of dysentery.
Franklin Pierce had been a Congressman and Senator before becoming a general during the Mexican-American War. Pierce ably led his troops in combat, but was plagued by injury and sickness, seeing the end of the war from a hospital tent. He became the fourteenth president in the 1852 election, but only served one term.
Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth commander-in-chief, and played an integral role in the Union victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War, but prior to that, Lincoln had seen brief service in the Illinois Militia in 1832 during the Black Hawk War. Highly popular, Lincoln was elected captain of his militia company, but never saw action.
Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s second vice president and staunch Union man from Tennessee, was given the rank of general when Lincoln appointed him as the military governor of that state in 1862.
Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant, who was elected president in 1870 on the basis of his military leadership of the Union Army during the Civil War, had attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and served with distinction during the Mexican-American War. He served until 1854, when he was dismissed for drunkenness, but was called up as a colonel for a training regiment when the Civil War began.
However, by 1862, a combination of skill and political favoritism had won him a command. He captured Fort Donelson that same year and led the successful Mississippi Campaign shortly thereafter. He was named Union Army commander in 1864, and fought the war to a successful conclusion.
Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes was a lawyer and influential local politician in Ohio before entering the service during the Civil War. A man of undoubted bravery, Hayes saw action many times throughout the war, and more often than not was on the winning side of the battle.
He fought all over Virginia, taking part in battles both large and small, and came to the attention of General Grant who called him a gallant and daring officer. Hayes became the nineteenth president in 1876.
James A. Garfield
James A. Garfield became the twentieth president in the election of 1880. He was the second president to die by an assassin’s bullet, dying after only six months in office. During the Civil War, Garfield commanded the 42nd Ohio Regiment and led them victoriously in the Battle of Middle Creek in 1862.
After this, Garfield did not see any more combat. He filled a number of roles, including as General William Rosecrans’ Chief of Staff, before being mustered out of the army due to illness and resuming a political career.
Chester A. Arthur
Chester A. Arthur was vice president when Garfield was killed. He served in the Civil War with the rank of general, but never saw combat, because he served in the Quartermaster Corps.
Benjamin Harrison was the one-term twenty-third president. A politically appointed colonel, Harrison nonetheless was an able regimental commander, first commanding reconnaissance and guard duty units, and then front line infantry in Sherman’s March to the Sea. He was then transferred westward and took part in the Battle of Nashville.
William McKinley, the twenty-fifth president who was assassinated in 1901, was also the last president to have served in the Civil War. He served with Ohio volunteers as a sergeant, initially under the command of Rutherford B. Hayes. He took part in early battles in West Virginia, the Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, and the Union Shenandoah Campaign of 1863-64. He received a number of battlefield promotions and ended the war as a major on a staff of assorted Union generals.
Theodore Roosevelt famously led the “Rough Riders” during the Spanish-American War. A sickly child, Roosevelt constantly pushed himself throughout his life to more and more “manly” pursuits. An influential politician from a wealthy family before the war, Roosevelt organized and outfitted the Rough Riders along with Colonel Leonard Wood, and personally led them to victory in the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba.
He was president from 1901-1908. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001, the only U.S. president ever given the honor. Roosevelt’s son, also named Theodore, won the Medal of Honor in WWII.
Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman became president after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. In August 1918, Truman, a captain of artillery, saw action in the Argonne Forest, ably leading his men and gaining their respect despite his bookish, bespectacled looks. Like others would later, his troops learned that Truman’s looks belied a man of iron.
Dwight David Eisenhower
Dwight David Eisenhower, the thirty-fourth president, famously led the Allied Forces in Europe during WWII. A career officer after graduating from West Point in 1915, Eisenhower never saw combat himself, but was recognized as a supreme planner and organizer of men, and served for a time as General Douglas MacArthur’s Chief of Staff in the inter-war years.
Eisenhower’s military career and success in leading the Allied armies against Hitler propelled him into the presidency in 1952.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy may be the last U.S. president to successfully parlay his military career into the presidency. A young one-term Senator, Kennedy became president with little political experience. However, he came from an influential family and had served with distinction in World War II.
As the commander of PT-109 in the Pacific, he famously saved his men after their boat had been rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. The crew was left stranded on a deserted island, so Kennedy swam the shark-infested waters, reached another nearby island, and arranged for its native inhabitants to rescue his men. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart.
Lyndon Johnson, the thirty-sixth president, was a Congressman from Texas when WWII broke out. He was appointed as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve and had a variety of administrative jobs until ordered back to Congress by executive order of President Roosevelt in mid-1942. He remained a naval reserve officer until 1948.
Richard Nixon, the only president to ever resign, was a Quaker whose ancestral beliefs entailed a refusal to engage in violence. Nevertheless, prompted by the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nixon joined the Navy, where he served as an officer in a variety of administrative jobs for the duration of WWII.
Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, also served in the Navy during WWII. Ford was assigned to the escort carrier USS Monterey, and took part in action across the Pacific.
Jimmy Carter, the thirty-ninth president, attended the United States Naval Academy and graduated in 1946. He served in the Navy until 1953, attaining the rank of lieutenant and serving in the submarine force. At one time he served on the staff of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “Father of the Nuclear Navy.”
Ronald Reagan, president number 40, joined the Army Reserve in 1937. Four months after WWII began, Reagan was called to active duty, but his eyesight was so poor that he barely managed to stay in the service, and was forbidden to take a job overseas. As a well-known actor, Reagan was in the First Motion Picture Unit, which made public relations films to encourage the public to support the war effort.
George H.W. Bush
George H.W. Bush was a Navy pilot in the Pacific during WWII. He enlisted six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which happened immediately after his 18th birthday. He entered flight training school and for a time, at 19 years old, was the youngest naval aviator in U.S. history.
He was assigned to the escort carrier USS San Jacinto as a torpedo bomber pilot flying TBM Avengers. Bush was shot down after dropping bombs on Japanese positions on Chichijima Island. He and the two other members of his crew bailed out, but only Bush and one other made it – the third man’s parachute did not deploy.
He was rescued after four hours at sea, and took part himself in other rescue operations afterward, as well as other combat operations. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and other citations for his bravery during the war.
To date, the last U.S. president to see military service was George W. Bush, the forty-third president, who served for a time with the Texas Air National Guard.