November 5, 2020
The U.S. Presidents Who Served in Our Military
The first veterans of the United States served under Commander George Washington of the Continental Army. Malnourished and untrained, this rag-tag group of soldiers fought fiercely against the imposing British Army. And even though they lost more battles than they won, George Washington’s Continental Army eventually prevailed. Their personal sacrifice ensured the preservation of our freedoms and led to the birth of our nation.
Since then, America has engaged in 10 major wars and fought in hundreds of battles around the world. Today, the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, National Guard, Navy, Marines, and Space Force make up the 7 branches of the United States military. These are the men and women who proudly wear our country’s uniform to protect our freedoms. While their courage has always been recognized, there wasn’t always a day to honor our veterans.
The Great War, or World War I, ended on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918. The next morning, Germany signed the “armistice agreement” treaty with the Allies to finally end the war.
In 1919, on the one-year anniversary of the armistice, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed “Armistice Day” as a holiday dedicated to the “cause of world peace”, and to honor the veterans of the Great War. Early celebrations included parades, public meetings and a brief suspension of business at 11:00 a.m. Armistice Day was celebrated by Allied countries Great Britain and France between World Wars. In 1938, Armistice Day was formally recognized by congress as a federal holiday to honor World War I veterans.
After mobilizing the largest group of soldiers in U.S. history for World War II, veteran organizations urged congress to expand the Act of 1938 to include all veterans. And in 1954, Congress swapped out Armistice Day and replaced it with Veterans Day. The newly-named holiday would honor U.S. Veterans of all wars.
Veterans Day is a federal holiday to celebrate all veterans - living and deceased. However, Veterans Day is largely intended to honor living veterans.
Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11th. It's a day to thank the people in your community for their service and acknowledge their time spent in the military. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau in 2018, there were 18 million living veterans in the United States. Of those, about 500,000 served in World War II and around 600,000 served in the Vietnam War.
Many people confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a holiday that honors those who died while in military service who died while in battle, while Veterans Day is a celebration of both living AND deceased veterans.
As the commander-in-chief, the President of the United States (POTUS) has full control of the nation’s military. And although a military background is not a prerequisite to take office, 29 out of the 45 presidents have served in some capacity.
From D-day to the Battle of Thames, U.S. presidents fought in many of America’s most pivotal battles and wars. In honor of Veterans Day, we’re ranking the U.S. presidents by their former military officer rank. From the lowest rank of private, all the way to six-star general, and everything in between. These are the presidents who served in our armed forces.
Before we get started, here’s a primer on enlisted and officer paygrade ranks. Newly enlisted service members start in paygrades E-1 through E-3 while in basic training or their initial assignment. Commissioned officers, O-1 through O-10, are the highest ranks in the military. These officers hold presidential commissions and are confirmed at their ranks by the Senate. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps officers are called company grade officers in the paygrades of O-1 to O-3, field grade officers in paygrades O-4 to O-6 and general officers in paygrades O-7 and higher. During times of war, the president may appoint a general to the rank of 5-star general with the paygrade of O-11.
James Buchanan (E-2)
James Buchanan served in the Pennsylvania State Militia as a private. He was called to arms during the War of 1812, but his unit did not see combat. James is the only president with military service to not serve as an officer.
George W. Bush (O-2)
After graduating Yale University, George W. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard and served as a F-102 fighter pilot before transferring to the Air Force.
George H. W. Bush (O-2)
Like many of his era, George H.W. Bush volunteered for service after the Attack on Pearl Harbor shocked the U.S.. He immediately deferred his admission to Yale and enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday. As a Navy bomber pilot, Bush saw significant combat in the Pacific, flying over 50 missions and even survived an emergency water landing. George H.W. Bush is the last American president to face combat.
Jimmy Carter (O-3)
After graduating from the Naval Academy, James Earl Carter, Jr. was appointed as an officer aboard the Naval Submarine, USS Pomfret. Carter’s next assignment was with the Navy’s fledgling nuclear submarine program, led by legendary officer Hyman Rickover. Here, Carter assisted in the design and development of nuclear propulsion plants for naval vessels, before retiring from the Navy to save his family farm.
John F. Kennedy (O-3)
Despite having a bad back, John F. Kennedy quickly enlisted in the Navy after the surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor. As an officer, Kennedy commanded a PT boat that conducted nightly torpedo attacks on Japanese supply vessels. During a night mission with zero stars and no moon for visibility, Kennedy’s boat collided with a Japanese destroyer. His boat was cut in half and flung sailors into the ocean. A champion swimmer at Harvard, Kennedy swam and rescued each of his surviving crew members to a nearby island. For his heroism, he earned the Purple Heart and Marine Corps Medal. He is the only president to earn either of these medals.
Ronald Reagan (O-3)
Due to his poor eyesight, Reagan would never see combat during World War II. Instead, he served as the public relations officer of the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit. There, he helped narrate and star in promotional war films to help sell bonds and drive enlistment.
Abraham Lincoln (O-3)
Abraham Lincoln volunteered for the Illinois State Militia in 1832 and was elected captain of his company during the Black Hawk War. Although he did not see combat during his service, Lincoln helped bury the militia’s dead after battle.
John Tyler (O-3)
After Great Britain blocked U.S. trade and invaded several U.S. cities, the War of 1812 began. Like many of his day, John Tyler was staunchly anti-British and voted in favor of military action. After Hampton, Virginia was invaded by the British in 1813. Tyler organized a militia and was commissioned captain to defend Richmond. However, the militia would not see action and was disbanded two months later.
Gerald Ford (O-4)
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Gerald Ford eagerly enlisted for service in the Navy. A former coach and trainer, Ford was the perfect candidate for the Navy’s instructor school. At the Navy’s Aviation school, he taught elementary seamanship, ordnance, gunnery, first aid, and military drill. He would later apply for sea duty on the USS Monterey.
William McKinley (O-4)
Barely old enough to fight, an 18-year old William McKinley fought for the Union cause during the American Civil War. He ended his distinguished military career as a Brevet Major. His Union officer’s sword would later hang over his desk while at the White House when he served as president.
Millard Fillmore (O-4)
Eight years after serving as U.S. president, Millard Fillmore commanded the Union Continentals from New York during the Civil War. This home guard of males 45 and over were trained to defend Buffalo should the Confederates choose to attack. Although the militia did not see action, Fillmore would remain an active member until his death.
Richard Nixon (O-5)
Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Nixon enlisted in the Navy and served as a lieutenant commander in the Pacific.
Lyndon B. Johnson (O-5)
As a lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II, Lyndon B. Johnson acted as an observer on several bomber missions in the Pacific. The intelligence information he collected and gallantry he displayed earned him the Army Silver Star Medal. Johnson would later resign from active duty after President Roosevelt ordered members of congress to return home. His resignation from the Naval Reserve was accepted by the Secretary of the Navy effective January 18, 1964.
Harry S. Truman (O-6)
Too old for the draft, Truman volunteered for the army at the age of 33 and would later serve as the commander of a Field Artillery battery in France. He is the only United States president to see combat in World War I.
Theodore Roosevelt (O-6)
When the Spanish-American War began, Theodore Roosevelt had a comfortable job as the assistant secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt resigned and volunteered as commander of the “Rough Riders”, an enthusiastic cavalry unit consisting of Native Americans, Ivy Leaguers, Texas Rangers and outdoorsmen. The Rough Riders would engage in several battles in Cuba, including the Battle of San Juan Hill. They later returned to the States as war heroes.
James K. Polk (O-6)
James K. Polk served in the Tennessee Militia as a captain in the cavalry regiment of the 5th Brigade. He would later attain the rank of colonel, a title that would become his nickname afterwards.
James Monroe (O-6)
James Monroe studied law at William & Mary University leading up to the Revolutionary War. His education earned him commission as an officer in the Continental Army. Monroe fought in several important battles, including the Battle of Trenton, during which George Washington’s men rowed across the icy Delaware River on Christmas Day to attack the British. During this battle, Monroe was injured badly while charging towards enemy cannon fire. By the end of his service, Monroe had attained the rank of major.
Benjamin Harrison (O-7)
Benjamin Harrison served as a brigadier general for the Union army and achieved several strategic victories, including the Battle of Chaplin Hills, one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. Benjamin Harrison was the last Civil War general to serve as president.
Andrew Johnson (O-7)
As Tennessee left the Union and Southern senators began vacating their seats in the U.S. Senate, Andrew Johnson remained behind. Johnson was staunchly against secession and stayed in Washington as the Civil War began. Johnson was praised by Northern press for risking everything to side with the Union. After several Union military victories in Tennessee, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Johnson as military governor, with the rank of brigadier general. As governor, Johnson attempted to reestablish Union control of Tennessee, often ruling with a heavy hand. He arrested Confederate sympathizers and critics of the federal government, closed Confederate newspapers, and oversaw military operations in the state.
Chester A. Arthur (O-7)
As the Civil War broke out, Chester A. Arthur joined the New York Volunteers and served as the militia’s quartermaster general. In this role, Arthur was responsible for feeding and housing the Union’s thousands of soldiers. Arthur was known for efficiency and later obtained the rank of brigadier general.
Franklin Pierce (O-7)
Born into a military family, Franklin Pierce always dreamed of active military service. After congress declared war against Mexico in May 1846, Pierce saw an opportunity and volunteered to join. Through his political connections, he convinced President James Polk to commission him as an officer. Now a brigadier general, Pierce commanded over two thousand men of the 9th Infantry Regiment, as they sailed to Veracruz, Mexico. During the Battle of Contreras, Pierce’s horse stumbled and fell, crushing his knee in the process. The pain was so intense it caused Pierce to pass out. To others in the battle, this injury appeared as if Pierce “fainted”, and led to the nickname “Fainting Frank.”
James Garfield (O-8)
James Garfield strongly believed in the abolition of slavery, and as states began to secede from the Union, he urged the U.S. government to take forceful action. Although he initially lacked military experience, he would quickly rise to the rank of major general during the Civil War. James Garfield was the last U.S. president to be born in a log cabin.
Rutherford B. Hayes (O-8)
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Hayes enlisted in the Union army. In his first battle, he caught the attention of superior officers for his gallantry under heavy enemy fire. Hayes would later rise through ranks to become major general. During his service, Hayes was wounded 4 times and had several horses shot from under him. He was the only president, other than James Monroe, to be wounded in combat.
Zachary Taylor (O-8)
Known as “Old Rough and Ready” for fighting alongside his men, Zachary Taylor served in four different wars prior to becoming president. He became well-known for his numerous engagements with the Sauks and Seminoles. Taylor sympathized for the Native American tribes and believed in coexistence with one another, often protecting Native land from invading white settlers. However, much of Taylor’s fame came from his experience in the Mexican-American War. Fighting against superior numbers, Taylor’s troops easily defeated Santa Anna’s Mexican Army. After Mexico surrendered, the press compared him to legendary war heroes George Washington and Andrew Jackson.
William Henry Harrison (O-8)
A newly commissioned officer, William Henry Harrison searched the Philadelphia streets for men ready to enlist and fight in the Northwest Indian War. Harrison would soon be assigned to Fort Washington, where he fought in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. His bravery in combat earned him a promotion, and after his superior passed, command of the fort. Years later, major general William Harrison commanded troops at the Battle of Thames. His decisive victory against the British and Native Americans was one of the most pivotal victories of the War of 1812.
Andrew Jackson (O-8)
Nicknamed “Old Hickory” for his toughness and determination, Andrew Jackson fought in four major U.S. wars prior to becoming president. General Jackson achieved lasting fame for defending New Orleans from British forces at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson’s troops consisted of U.S. soldiers, state volunteer militias, freed slaves and actual pirates. A translator was on hand to address his troops since so many only spoke French. Despite being outnumbered, Jackson’s forces successfully halted the British advance and forced them to withdraw from Louisiana. His victory helped elevate his status to national war hero.
Ulysses S. Grant (O-10)
Ulysses S. Grant graduated West Point Military Academy in 1843. Grant’s first call to arms was with the Mexican-American War, where he served with honor and distinction. His valor displayed on the battlefield earned him commission as first lieutenant. Grant would soon resign from the army as captain, to work at his family’s leather store. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant recruited and trained a volunteer militia. Grant’s victories at the Battle of Fort Donelson, Battle of Shiloh, Battle of Chattanooga and Siege of Vicksburg, helped him quickly rise to the rank of Major General. In 1864, Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as Lieutenant General and granted him control of all the Union Armies. The bloodiest war in U.S. history ended on April 9, 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in Virginia.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (O-11)
Dwight D. Eisenhower graduated from West Point military academy in 1915, in a class that would later produce 59 military generals. After leading the Allies in the European Theatre, Dwight D. Eisenhower achieved the rank of 5-star General, the highest attainable rank in the military.
George Washington (O-11)
Two decades prior to the American Revolution, George Washington served British America in their war against the French. His experience during the French and Indian War would later prepare him for the conflict with Great Britain. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Army was formed and Washington was unanimously elected as commander. Washington would fight the British army for the next eight years, until they surrendered after the Battle of Yorktown. Afterwards, Washington relinquished his command and retired as a civilian, an inconceivable act at the time.
During the Whiskey Rebellion, President George Washington personally led 13,000 troops to squash the rebellion. He is the only president to have lead troops in battle while serving as president.
While all of the honorable men and women who have fought for our freedom come from different backgrounds and carry on diverse careers beyond their time in the military, we can’t help but wonder if one of our future presidents is serving our country today.