The 31 Presidents Who Served in the Military

Which Presidents Served in the Military?

When a person becomes president of the United States, he takes on the role of Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States and of the Militia of the several States when called into the actual Service of the United States. This is according to Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which now extends to all the branches of the military and not just the Army and Navy.

Yet, one would think that if the president has the authority to control and deploy military personnel, wouldn’t it be a good thing for the president to have served as a member of the United States Military? So which presidents of the United States have served in the military?

George Washington was the first president to serve in the U.S. Military, followed by 30 other presidents. However, Thomas Jefferson was never in battle, and Millard Fillmore did not join the Military until after his presidential term had ended. 

Let’s take a look at which presidents served and what role they played in protecting the United States.

31 Presidents Who Served in the Military

Presidents Who Served in the 1700s

1. George Washington

George Washington

General and Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Continental Army

Interesting Fact

When George Washington was just 23, he commandeered all the Virginia troops. During the Revolutionary War, he was appointed as Major General and Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783.

One brilliant career move Washington made as Commander of the army was to have all of his soldiers secretly inoculated against smallpox. At the time, death from smallpox was the greatest killer of soldiers in all armies.

When Washington made this bold move, which would cause the soldiers to be incapacitated for some time, the death by smallpox reports stated that they dropped from 17% to as low as 1% of all reported deaths.

Some people consider this decision by Washinton as ranking as high as other important decisions he made during the war.

2. Thomas Jefferson

Colonel, Virginia Militia

Interesting Fact

Though Jefferson was a Colonel in the Virginia Militia and moved up to Commander of the Albemarle County Militia at the start of the Revolutionary War, he never actually served in battle. The most warfare he saw was sending the Navy to pursue Barbary pirates that were harassing American merchant ships who were doing business overseas.

3. James Madison

Colonel, Virginia Militia

Interesting Fact

James Madison, who suffered poor health most of his life, got caught up in the tensions between the colonists and British authorities. He was elected to the Orange County Committee of Safety in 1774 and joined the Virginia militia as a colonel. However, he never saw battle due to his chronic illness. This steered him in a more political direction.

Yet, the one time he did get to experience battle to a lesser degree was during his presidency. In 1814 James Madison galloped straight into the Battle of Bladensburg with his entourage trailing behind.

That same morning a civilian, William Simmons, had been out checking the enemy’s progress and saw the British approaching. Realizing the danger, Simmons crossed over to the American side of the river and ran right into President Madison and his party and warned them of the approaching army.

Though the British Army and Royal Marines outnumbered U.S. troops, the sitting American president ventured onto a battlefield under fire.

4. James Monroe

Major, Continental Army

Interesting Fact

James Monroe began his military career as a teen who, with some friends, looted the Royal Governor Dunmore’s home after he fled in fear for the lives of himself and his family. Monroe and some classmates looted an arsenal from the Governor’s Palace and donated their findings, 200 muskets, and 300 swords, to the Virginia militia.

By the winter of 1776, Monroe joined the Virginia infantry and became an officer in the Continental Army, joining General George Washington’s army in New York.

Presidents Who Served in the 1800s

5. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Major General, U.S. Army

Interesting Fact

Andrew Jackson was just eight years old when the American Revolution began. When he was 13, he and his brother Robert joined the local militia but were captured in 1781 by British soldiers. Jackson was the only U.S. president to be a prisoner of war.

During captivity, he and his brother refused to clean a British officer’s boots, and they were both slashed with a saber (a backsword with a curved blade) as punishment. They were then marched 40 miles to a prison where they contracted smallpox.

His mother was able to negotiate his release and nurse him and his brother, but his brother died shortly afterward.

6. William Henry Harrison

Major General, Kentucky Militia

7. John Tyler

Captian, Virginia Militia

8. James K. Polk

Colonel, Tennessee Militia

9. Zachary Taylor

Major General, U.S. Army

10. Millard Fillmore

Major, Union Continentals

Interesting Fact

Millard Filmore did serve in the Military, but this was after his presidential term had ended. Fillmore commanded the Union Continentals, a corps of home guards consisting of men 45 and older from the upstate New York area. They were trained to defend the Buffalo, NY area in case of a Confederate attack. The Union Continentals guarded Lincoln’s funeral train in Buffalo.

11. Franklin Pierce

Brigadier General, New Hampshire Militia

Interesting Fact

Franklin Pierce’s military career was short-lived. A lawyer at the time, he appealed to President James K. Polk to let him be an officer during the Mexican-American War. He was allotted the rank of Brigadier General, despite never having served in the Military. As he led a group of volunteers at the Battle of Contreras, he fell from his horse and was injured. He did, however, help capture Mexico City at a later time.

12. James Buchanan

Private, Pennsylvania Militia

13. Abraham Lincoln

Captain, Illinois Militia

14. Andrew Johnson

Brigadier General, U.S. Army

15. Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

General, U.S. Army

Interesting Fact

As successful as Grant was in leading the Union Armies to victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War, Grant never wanted to be a soldier. He actually had no desire for a military career and was surprised when his father told him that West Point had accepted his application.

When he completed West Point, he only planned on serving four years in the Military and then retiring but ended up staying on in order to support his family.

16. Rutherford B. Hayes

Major General, U.S. Army

17. James A. Garfield

Major General, U.S. Army

18. Chester A. Arthur

Brigadier General, New York Militia

19. Benjamin Harrison

Brevet Brigadier General, U.S. Army

20. William McKinley

Brevet Major, U.S. Army

Interesting Fact

McKinley is well known for the bravery and compassion he showed to soldiers during the Battle of Antietam during the American Civil War.

In 1862, McKinley was promoted to the rank of commissary sergeant and was in charge of the regiment’s supplies. In September, his unit joined up with other Union forces along the Antietam Creek, pursuing the Confederate forces. On September 17th, the two armies collided, and by the end of the day, nearly 23,000 soldiers had been killed. The Battle of Antietam was the deadliest one-day battle in American history.

During this time, McKinley took on the initiative to race back to their supply tents and loaded up a wagon filled with enough cooked food to strengthen his depleted soldiers. He drove the wagon through the battlefield under heavy fire. For his bravery, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

21. Theodore Roosevelt

Colonel, U.S. Army

Interesting Fact

When the Spanish-American War erupted in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy and formed his own all-volunteer cavalry regiment called the Rough Riders. It was the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry.

Leading the Rough Riders, Colonel Roosevelt won victories in the battles of Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill.

Presidents Who Served 1900-2021

22. Harry S. Truman

Colonel, Army Officer Reserve Corp

23. Dwight D. Eisenhower

General of the Army, U.S. Army

24. John F. Kennedy

Lieutenant, U.S. Naval Reserve

Interesting Fact

John F. Kenedy was awarded the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his bravery during World War II. When a Japanese destroyer crashed into his boat and cut it in half, it started to sink. In the process, Kennedy badly injured his back.

Yet, though badly in pain, he proceeded to rescue several men, leading them and towing a badly burned crew member to a nearby island. He had placed the burned man in a life jacket and clenched the strap between his teeth, dragging him to safety.

25. Lyndon B. Johnson

Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

Interesting Fact

Lyndon B. Johnson’s life was nearly cut short during World War II. It was a sudden trip to the bathroom that saved him.

While still a Congressman, Johnson entered the Naval Reserves. When on his one and only bombing run, he entered a plane called the Wabash Cannonball that was on its way to the South Pacific on a mission. In a moment, he had to use the restroom and exited the plane, which had taken off without him. So he boarded another plane on its way to the South Pacific. He later discovered that Japanese forces had shot down the Wabash Cannonball, and there were no survivors in the crash.

This and his experiences on the plane he boarded after using the restroom served to boost his political career as he became known as a candidate who’d seen combat and done his duty in war.

26. Richard M. Nixon

Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

27. Gerald R. Ford, Jr.

Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

28. Jimmy Carter

Lieutenant U.S. Navy

29. Ronald Reagan

Captain, U.S. Army

30. George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush

First Lieutenant, Texas Air National Guard

Interesting Fact

On his 18th Birthday, George H.W. Bush became the youngest aviator in Navy history. He then went to the front lines of World War II.

While fighting the Japanese, Bush’s plane was attacked and crashed into the ocean. His fellow crew members died, but Bush was able to parachute out of the plane and land in the water. He floated there for several hours, avoiding being gunned down by the Japanese but sustaining several stings from jellyfish before he was rescued by an American submarine.

Because of his heroic efforts, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross Citation.

31. George W. Bush

First Lieutenant, Texas Air National Guard

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