These Are the Presidents Who Served in the Military (and How Donald Trump Compares)
The Constitution makes the president the commander in chief of the United States military. So it’s fitting that many presidents have served in various branches of the military prior to running for office. In fact, 26 out of our 45 presidents served in the military, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs . Until World War II, a majority of presidents had served in the Army. Since then, most have served in the Navy.
While many presidents served in the military, some had particularly distinguished records. Below, learn about the presidents with the most interesting military careers. And on page 20, see how Donald Trump compares.
1. George Washington was still in the Army when he died
- 1st president of the United States
The Department of Veteran Affairs reports that George Washington “set an important precedent by entering the Presidency as a civilian, rather than as a commanding general with military forces at his disposal.” Washington voluntarily resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army in December 1783.
But as the Constitution Center reports, Washington “came out of retirement after he left the White House, in case the United States went to war with France in 1798. He held the rank of senior officer of the Army when he died in 1799.”
Next: This future president served under George Washington.
2. James Monroe served in Washington’s army
- 5th president of the United States
Mental Floss reports that at the age of 17, James Monroe took a break from his studies at the College of William and Mary to assist with a raid on the governor’s palace in Virginia. The raid yielded hundreds of muskets and swords that the militia would use in the Revolutionary War. Monroe dropped out of school to join the Continental Army.
The Constitution Center reports that he was a young officer in George Washington’s army when it crossed the Delaware and attacked Trenton in 1776. He sustained serious wounds “leading an assault on an artillery position but survived.”
Next: This president began his military career at age 13.
3. Andrew Jackson served in the Revolutionary War at age 13
- 7th president of the United States
The Constitution Center reports that Andrew Jackson served in the Revolutionary War even though he was just 13 years old at the time. He served as a messenger, and actually ended up captured by the British. Jackson went on to lead army and militia forces in three wars. And his 1815 victory over the British at New Orleans “made him a national hero,” according to the Constitution Center.
As History puts it, Jackson’s leadership in the Revolutionary War earned him “national fame as a military hero, and he would become America’s most influential — and polarizing — political figure during the 1820s and 1830s.”
Next: This president’s fame rested o the Battle of Tippecanoe.
4. William Henry Harrison was the second-biggest hero of the War of 1812
- 9th president of the United States
The Department of Veteran Affairs reports that William Henry Harrison began his military career at age 18. At the time, he enlisted 80 men off the streets of Philadelphia to serve in the Northwest Territory. Harrison rose through the ranks and according to the department, “distinguished himself in battle during the Indian campaigns in what is now the Midwest.”
Mental Floss characterizes Harrison as “the prime antagonist of Tecumseh’s Native American confederacy,” notable for leading 1,000 men in the Battle of Tippecanoe and “indirectly contributing to the War of 1812.” Plus, the Constitution Center refers to Harrison as “the second biggest hero of the War of 1812, next to Jackson.”
Next: This president achieved an impressive rank despite his lack of experience.
5. Franklin Pierce rose up the ranks despite having no experience
- 14th president of the United States
Mental Floss reports that when the Mexican-American War began in 1846, Franklin Pierce successfully appealed to President James Polk for an officer’s commission. By 1847, he had attained the rank of brigadier general “despite a complete lack of military experience,” the publication notes.
“He took sail for Veracruz with several thousand men under his command. Things went swimmingly until he fell off his horse at the Battle of Contreras, which effectively ended his military career.”
Next: This president served in the military for only three months.
6. Abraham Lincoln served in the military for just 3 months
- 16th president of the United States
The Constitution Center reports that Abraham Lincoln, despite leading the United States through the Civil War, actually only served in the military for about three months. He volunteered to fight in the Black Hawk War of 1832. And he got elected captain of his militia unit. Though Lincoln didn’t see active fighting, he did bury the war dead. And the Constitution Center reports that that experience “deeply influenced the future president.”
As the Smithsonian Magazine reports, Lincoln later “faced a steep learning curve as commander in chief” when he called state militia into federal service in 1861. However, ” his experience as a largely self-taught lawyer with a keen analytical mind who had mastered Euclidean geometry for mental exercise enabled him to learn quickly on the job.”
Next: This president was the first commander in chief to be educated at West Point.
7. Ulysses S. Grant became the first president from West Point
- 18th president of the United States
Many Americans know that Civil War veteran Ulysses S. Grant gained national recognition for his military service. As the Department of Veteran Affairs explains, Grant graduated from West Point — the first president to do so — and then fought in the Mexican-American War.
During that war, Grant served under another future president, Zachary Taylor, and learned important leadership skills from Taylor. Grant’s calm command of Union troops during the Civil War earned the respect of Abraham Lincoln, according to the department. And later, as president, Grant ran the government in much the same way that he had run the Army.
Next: This president served with another future commander in chief.
8. Rutherford B. Hayes served alongside another future president
- 19th president of the United States
Mental Floss reports that Rutherford B. Hayes served alongside another future president, William McKinley, in the 23rd Ohio Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. The publication characterizes Hayes as “a middle-aged lawyer who received an officer’s commission and eventually rose to brevet major general.”
Hayes actually commanded McKinley, and eventually promoted him. Hayes got shot in the arm and left the unit to recuperate, parting ways with McKinley, who went on to serve “in the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. history at Antietam,” according to Mental Floss.
Next: This president was the last occupant of the Oval Office who had served in the Civil War.
9. William McKinley was the last president who had served in the Civil War
- 25th president of the United States
The Constitution Center reports that seven future presidents “served in the military, in some capacity, during the Civil War.” When William McKinley became the 25th president of the United States, he also became the last president who was also a Civil War veteran.
According to the Constitution Center, McKinley “fought bravely during his time in the Army and had his horse shot out from under him in one skirmish.” Mental Floss reports that by the end of the war, McKinley achieved the rank of brevet major.
Next: This president commanded the Rough Riders.
10. Theodore Roosevelt loved his time commanding the Rough Riders
- 26th president of the United States
The Department of Veteran Affairs characterizes Spanish-American War veteran Theodore Roosevelt as “a man of action both in war and in peace.” The Miller Center reports that at the outset of the Spanish-American War, “Roosevelt resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy and volunteered for service as commander [of] the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, a united known as the Rough Riders — an elite company comprised of Ivy League gentlemen, western cowboys, sheriffs, prospectors, police officers, and Native Americans.”
The unit returned from Cuba as war heroes, and Roosevelt “personally reveled in his time in the military,” according to the Miller Center.
Next: This president was the only commander in chief who fought overseas in World War I.
11. Harry S. Truman is the only president who fought overseas in World War I
- 33rd president of the United States
Mental Floss reports that Harry S. Truman reportedly overcame his very poor eyesight by memorizing the eye exam chart when he entered the Missouri National Guard. He served from 1905 to 1911, and then re-enlisted at the outbreak of World War I.
The Constitution Center notes that Truman, in fact, was the only president to serve on the battlefield during World War I. While Eisenhower served stateside during the war, Truman commanded an artillery unit in France and saw battle. His unit even provided support for George Patton’s tank brigade in the Hundred Days Offensive.
Next: This president is famous for D-Day.
12. Dwight D. Eisenhower commanded Allied forces on D-Day
- 34th president of the United States
The Department of Veteran Affairs reports that Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower both “exemplified the strengths of military training by proving themselves to be diplomatic, dynamic leaders in an unstable world.”
Biography notes that Eisenhower went to the Army’s prestigious graduate school, the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. And on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Eisenhower commanded Allied forces in the Normandy invasion.
Next: This president desperately wanted to serve in the Navy.
13. John F. Kennedy became a war hero in World War II
- 35th president of the United States
The Constitution Center characterizes John F. Kennedy as a World War II war hero, noting a well-known occasion on which Kennedy’s patrol boat was cut in half by a Japanese ship in the Solomon Islands. History reports that as a boy, Kennedy “had desperately wanted to go into the Navy but was originally rejected because of chronic health problems, particularly a back injury he had sustained playing football while attending Harvard.”
Nonetheless, his father used his influence to get Kennedy into the service, and Kennedy volunteered for motorized torpedo boat duty in the Pacific.
Next: This president didn’t get to serve in combat.
14. Lyndon B. Johnson was denied combat duties
- 36th president of the United States
Mental Floss reports that when Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lyndon B. Johnson “was a sitting Congressman for Texas’s 10th district.” Johnson quickly became an officer in the Naval Reserve. He sought combat duties, but was denied.
Mental Floss reports that in 1942, Johnson “took part in a three-man review of the South Pacific theater at President Roosevelt’s request. The Silver Star he was awarded by General MacArthur has been criticized as a political move by many, who noted his lack of active combat experience.”
Next: This president could have been exempted from service during World War II, but took a commission anyway.
15. Richard Nixon could have been exempted from service
- 37th president of the United States
According to Mental Floss, Richard Nixon could have been exempted from military service because he was a Quaker. Nonetheless, he left his job in the Office of Price Administration for a commission in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
He took his first post at a Naval Air Station based in Iowa, then later got a transfer to the Pacific Theater. There, he handled logistics operations. Nixon returned to the United States without seeing combat and resigned his commission in 1946.
Next: This president served in the nuclear submarine program.
16. Jimmy Carter served in the nuclear submarine program
- 39th president of the United States
Jimmy Carter left his home state of Georgia to attend the Naval Academy in 1943. Mental Floss reports that after Carter graduated, he “served under Admiral Hyman Rickover in the nascent nuclear submarine program.”
In 1952, he participated in the cleanup of radioactive materials from an overheated reactor in Chalk River, an experience that reportedly influenced his views on nuclear energy. Carter resigned his commission not long after, in 1953, to take over the family business after his father died.
Next: This president made movies for the military.
17. Ronald Reagan worked on promotional films for the military
- 40th president of the United States
Mental Floss reports that Ronald Reagan had the same problem as Harry Truman when he went to serve in the military: poor vision. When he was called to active duty in 1942, he was limited to domestic service. He served in the Los Angeles area and in New York City. In fact, “For most of the war, he was part of the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), an Army Air Force unit made up entirely of cinema personnel.”
The unit produced promotional films for the U.S. military. And according to Mental Floss, “Projects Reagan worked on ranged from the tasteless (Target Tokyo) to the inspiring (Wings for This Man, one of the first movies to portray the Tuskeegee Airmen).”
Next: This president had several near-death experiences in the military.
18. George H.W. Bush had several close calls during his time in the military
- 41st president of the United States
The Constitution Center characterizes George H.W. Bush as another World War II war hero whose record is pretty well-known. “Bush was shot down in the Pacific, survived, and flew a total of 58 combat missions,” the group notes.
History reports that Bush had several “close call[s] with death” during his time in the military. After flying 58 combat missions, he was reassigned to Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. There, he trained new pilots. And he received an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1945 after the Japanese surrender.
Next: This president’s suspension caused controversy later.
19. George W. Bush’s military record sparked controversy when he ran for president
- 43rd president of the United States
The most recent veteran president is George W. Bush, who served with the Texas Air National Guard. But as Politico reports, Bush ended up permanently suspended from flying with the Texas Air National Guard because he missed an annual medical exam.
Records of the incident sparked a political controversy years later, in 2000 and 2004, with reporters asking “why Bush had lost his flight status but also how he came to be a member of the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War and whether he had in fact fulfilled the requirements of his military service contract.” Some thought that he had strategically avoided to the draft for the Vietnam War.
Next: Donald Trump didn’t serve in the military. Here’s why.
20. Donald Trump did not serve in the military
- 45th president of the United States
Donald Trump never served in the military (and in fact, isn’t the first president who didn’t serve in the military). As The New York Times reports, Trump received five deferments exempting him from service during the Vietnam War, one a 1-Y medical deferment for bone spurs in his heels and the others for education.
As the Times explains, “The medical deferment meant that Mr. Trump, who had just completed the undergraduate real estate program at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, could follow his father into the development business, which he was eager to do.”
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