Presidents who served – Part I

Future and former presidents in the military

The Rough Riders in Cuba after the Battle of San Juan, with Colonel and future President Theodore Roosevelt in the center
(Photo: William Dimwiddle)

This two-part article, the first half of which is published a few days before President’s Day, will look past our usual topic of World War II and honor the extraordinary men who served in the U.S. military before or after also serving as president of the United States. You might be surprised to learn that out of the 45 men who have held the office of the president so far, 31 had military experience. Read on for a brief recap on what each of them did while they served – as well as a few notes on people who had no service record but we felt deserved a mention nevertheless.
George Washington, obviously, led the Continental Army during the American Revolution, but we’d like to recount another, lesser-known military exploit of his. In 1754, British and French colonists (and their Native American allies) were headed for conflict over control of the Ohio River valley. The first act of violence occurred on May 28, 1754, when a force led by a 22-year-old Washington ambushed a French patrol. According to an eyewitness, Washington not only gave the order to fire, but was also the first person to actually discharge his gun. The ambush sparked a conflict known today as the French and Indian War, which in turn formed part of the Seven Years War, a global conflict between the British and French Empires and their allies. The British Empire emerged victorious, but deep in debt. Ironically, the steps the empire took to recover at least some of its financial losses and to prevent another war in North America ended up causing resentment in the Thirteen Colonies, and eventually led to the Revolution and the independence of the United States.

Washington depicted as he looked like in the French and Indian War. The painting was made 12 years later.
(Painting: Charles Wilson Peale)

John Adams never served in the military, but we feel he should be mentioned here. In early 1778, the same winter Washington and his men spent at Valley Force, Congress asked Adams to serve as a diplomat to France. Crossing the Atlantic to his new post, Adams came extremely close to seeing, and quite possibly dying, in military action. The frigate he was travelling on, the Boston, was first pursued by a British warship for several days, then captured a weakly defended British merchant ship. Adams himself grabbed a musket and helped secure the prize. Even later, the frigate passed two superior British men-of-war at night, with the great ships miraculously deciding to let the smaller vessel sail past.

1793 portrait of John Adams
(Painting: John Trumbull)

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison both served in the Virginia Militia, for 9 and 6 years, respectively. Neither of them was very constitutionally suited for soldiering, and neither saw battle, aiding the revolutionary cause with their political work instead.

Left: Jefferson with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, reviewing a draft of the Declaration of Independence. Right: Portrait of James Madison at the age of 32
(Images: Virginia Historical Society and Charles Wilson Peale)

Unlike the previous two, James Monroe actually fought in the war. He participated in a surprise attack on a Hessian encampment during the Battle of Trenton in 1776, and almost died after a musket shot severed an artery in his shoulder. Once he recovered, he returned to Virginia to raise his own company. He later became close friends with the famous Marquis de Lafayette, and spent the bitter winter of 1777-78 at Valley Force.

1794 portrait of Monroe
(Image: Louis Semé)

Andrew Jackson fought in the Revolutionary War. He was captured alongside his brother outside of battle, when they refused to polish the boots of a British officer who occupied the home of a relative of their mother’s. Jackson returned to soldiering as an officer, and eventually a general, during the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War. He caused an international incident during the latter by executing two British subjects working with the Seminoles, and also got in trouble with then-President Monroe after invading Florida, a Spanish territory at the time, despite the U.S. not being at war with Spain.

Lithograph depicting the incident which got Jackson captured during the Revolutionary War
(Image: Currier and Ives)

William Henry Harrison might have died a mere 31 days after his presidential inauguration, but he still counts. He fought in the War of 1812 and in Tecumseh’s War, the latter against the eponymous Shawnee leader. His victory over Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813 is considered to be the event that secured U.S. control of the Great Lakes area. Harrison was later awarded a custom-made gold coin in recognition of his success.

Portrait of William Henry Harrison, originally depicting him in civilian clothes but changed to a uniform after 1812
(Painting: Rembrandt Peale)

John Tyler organized a militia company, the Charles City Rifles, to defend Richmond against an expected British attack during the War of 1812. The company was disbanded after two months, as the attack never manifested.

Engraving of John Tyler from the mid-1820s
(Image: unknown artist)

James K. Polk spent a year as a colonel in the Tennessee Militia. He is better known for the U.S. military successes that occurred under his presidency, but it’s been suggested that his experience informed his decisions as president during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, which ended with Mexico recognizing U.S. sovereignty over Texas.

James K. Polk as president
(Image: National Portrait Gallery)

Zachary Taylor’s presidency was too short-lived and indecisive to leave much of a mark, but the career soldier was considered a war hero in his time. He commanded men in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and the Mexican-American War, in which he managed to “lose” an entire cemetery of fallen American soldiers by not marking its location on his map. (Read our earlier article) Despite this last hiccup, he was considered a war hero, and described by a subordinate officer, future Civil War general and President Ulysses S. Grant, by these words: “No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage. General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue. In dress he was possibly too plain, rarely wearing anything in the field to indicate his rank, or even that he was an officer; but he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.”

Daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor
(Photo: public domain)

Millard Filmore was unusual in that his presidency (1850-53) preceded, rather than followed, his military service. Once the Civil War broke out, he commanded the Union Continentals, a militia unit of men 45 years old or older, in upstate New York. Filmore remained with the militia after the war, almost all the way until his death in 1873.

Filmore as a major of the Union Continentals
(Image: unknown artist)

Franklin Pierce, like all New Hampshire men, was a member of the state militia, and later reached the rank of brigadier general during the Mexican-American War, where he missed the major victory outside Mexico City because he was thrown from his horse and injured shortly before. He also worked to revitalize state militias, which had seen a decline since the War of 1812.

Engraving of Pierce during the Mexican-American War
(Image: Library of Congress)

James Buchanan was the last involved in the War 1812, and is unique among U.S. presidents in that he served as a private, rather than an officer. While he was not a member of the state militia, he joined a group of young men who stole horses for the U.S. Army during the British attack on Baltimore.

1832 portrait of James Buchanan
(Painting: Jacob Eichholtz)

Abraham Lincoln served with the Illinois Militia for three months during the Black Hawk War (1832), where he was elected captain of his first company. He never saw combat, but helped bury the dead after two battles. After mustering out of his first company, he re-enlisted with another one as a private, only for the entire company to be mustered out soon after.

Lithograph of Abraham Lincoln, made in 1860, 28 years after his militia service
(Lithograph: Library of Congress)

Andrew Johnson enrolled in the Tennessee Militia in 1835, attaining the rank of colonel and being fined for an unknown offense. Decades later, in 1862, he was appointed military governor of Tennessee by Lincoln, controlling the Union-occupied parts of the seceded state.

“Andy” Johnson as military governor of Tennessee
(Image: Library of Congress)

Our article will continue next week with Ulysses S. Grant, and all the military veteran presidents who served after him.

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The 64-year-old President Washington during his final year in office
(Painting: Gilbert Stuart)
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