From the Battlefield to the Oval Office: Presidents Who Were Veterans

Today’s blog post comes from Paige Weaver in the National Archives History Office.

From George Washington to the present day, 44 different men have been elected President of the United States. The men who compose this exclusive list are diverse and unique in many ways, but 26 of them shared a significant common experience: service in the U.S. military.

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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower is photographed giving the order of the day to a group of paratroopers in England as they prepared to board planes that would play a vital role in the planned D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944. Eisenhower reportedly told his men, “full victory, nothing less.” (National Archives Identifier 12003938)

Although it is not a constitutional requirement, these men helped defend the country through their military service. Before these men became the Commander-in-Chief of all United States Armed Forces, they served as soldiers, sailors, and airmen. On November 11, we honor, remember, and celebrate all of the brave men and women who have served in the United States Armed Forces, which includes the men whose unique military experiences helped them attain the title of Commander-in-Chief.

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Midshipman Jimmy Carter of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. (Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, National Archives)

Of the Presidents who served in the Armed Forces, only a small number were professional military men. Six were soldiers by occupation, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, while Jimmy Carter had a career in the Navy before becoming President. The rest were civilian soldiers, sailors, and airmen who put their private lives on hold to enlist in military service.

Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower rose through the ranks and became the highest-ranking generals, while James Buchanan remained a private for the duration of his military service.

The length that these men served in the military varied, ranging from the 40 years that Taylor dedicated to the Army, to the months that Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Buchanan, and John Tyler spent serving.

Future Presidents had been engaged in many different wars, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars that lasted from 1817 until 1840, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam.

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In this letter, dated December 20, 1783, Gen. George Washington informs Congress that he is officially resigning his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. (National Archives Identifier 5757421)

As the first President of the United States, George Washington set many important precedents for future leaders of our country. One of his most significant early actions was entering the executive office as a private citizen rather than retaining his position as a military general.

After leading the Continental Army to victory over the British, Washington gained incredible popularity among the public and politicians alike. He is the only President to be unanimously elected by the Electoral College, and he used the skills and leadership abilities that he cultivated in the military to successfully guide the country through its first years under the new Constitution.

Although William Henry Harrison is often remembered as being the President who served the shortest term, dying just 31 days after taking the oath of office, his military history was an asset to his election.

Harrison gained widespread national fame after leading United States forces to victory over Native Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. This military triumph earned him the nickname “Old Tippecanoe,” which would later be used as a catchphrase in his Presidential campaign. During the War of 1812 he served as a major general and commanded the group of American soldiers who triumphed over the British and Native Americans in the decisive Battle of the Thames.

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President Abraham Lincoln’s nomination of Ulysses S. Grant for the position of lieutenant general of the Army of the United States, February 29, 1864. (National Archives Identifier 306310)

Like Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant capitalized on his wartime experiences and the national popularity that he earned on the battlefield to propel him into the executive office. He attended West Point, the United States Military Academy, where he initially protested his enrollment and had no desire to pursue a military career. Eventually, however, he came to enjoy his time at the academy, developing a fondness for horses and becoming an expert cavalryman.

After graduating from West Point, Grant gained experience on the battlefield fighting in the Mexican-American War. It was his military service and leadership during the Civil War, however, that bolstered his fame.

Having demonstrated his military aptitude in battles such as Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, Grant rose through the ranks of command. After Lincoln nominated Grant for the position of lieutenant general of the United States Army, a position previously only held by George Washington (and Winfield Scott by brevet), he led the Union to victory and helped end the bloody war.

This Veteran’s Day we thank all veterans for their service to our country.   

Visit the National Archives website to learn more about our resources and events related to Veterans Day. And learn more about the Vietnam War in our exhibit “Remembering Vietnam,” which runs in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building until January 6, 2019.

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Thomas J. McDonough, the National Commander of American Veterans (AMVETS), is shown presenting the Gold Helmet Award to President Gerald Ford in the Rose Garden at the White House. Ford enlisted in the United States Navy Reserves in 1942 after the attack on Pearl Harbor and left as a lieutenant commander in 1946. Part of the inscription on the award reads, “AMVETs proudly recognizes our life member and a son of Michigan who has given total dedication to his country in time of war and in time of peace.” (National Archives Identifier 27575838)

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