Surprising Facts about Presidents Who Served in the Military

When the framers of the Constitution began to construct the nation's most important document, the lessons of the War for Independence were fresh in their minds. Loath to repeat the European model of governance in which a monarch or dictator controlled a country's forces, they laid out a clear separation of power, placing the military squarely under civilian control. George Washington, who had resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army four years before his election in 1789, later personified this doctrine. He remains the only president to personally oversee a battle while in office, when he organized a force of 13,000 militiamen to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.

In all, a majority of U.S. presidents have served in the military, in theaters ranging from Valley Forge to the Pacific, and chalked up quite a few firsts along the way.

Andrew Jackson, for instance, is the only president to have killed a man in a duel. In 1806, rival plantation owner Charles Dickinson accused Old Hickory of cheating in a horse race and insulted his wife Rachel. Jackson, by all accounts a scrappy, short-tempered man, challenged Dickinson to a duel, which took place May 30. Although wounded himself, the future president managed to slay his opponent and add another footnote to presidential history.

Jackson began as an Indian fighter during the Creek War but is better known for winning the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. The skirmish resulted in 2,000 British casualties, while Jackson's forces lost just 70 men. He defeated John Quincy Adams in the presidential election of 1828 and, in 1833, became the first president to be assaulted in office when he was punched by a disgruntled ex-Navy veteran. Jackson also was the first to endure an assassination attempt, when an attacker tried to shoot him in 1835. Both pistols misfired, however, and the 67-year-old Jackson beat the stuffing out of the assailant with his cane.

Ulysses S. Grant got his start fighting Mexican forces but is more well-known for his role in the War Between the States. Although his background was humble, Grant earned a scholarship at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in return for a stint in the Army after graduation, a decision that changed the course of history. After graduating 21st in his class in 1843 and serving in the Mexican-American war, a series of setbacks threw him into depression, and he began to drink heavily. In 1854, by every measure an abject failure, he resigned his commission.

Grant fared no better in civilian life, but when the South seceded from the Union in 1860, his future course was set. As Commanding General of the United States Army, he led the Union to victory over the Confederacy, becoming a war hero in the process. Grant won the presidential election in 1868, the first to take place after the Civil War.

Theodore Roosevelt is known as the leader of the hard-charging Rough Riders who charged up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. Less well-known is that he grew up a sickly child, his spindly frame wracked with asthma and other frailties. To assuage his father's disappointment in him, Roosevelt embarked on a strenuous athletic regimen, hiking in the mountains and working out in his family's gym. By the time he entered Harvard in 1876, he was a strapping, formidable young man with an indomitable spirit, which would serve him well in the years to come.

After his mother and wife died within hours of each other in 1884, Roosevelt moved west to the Dakota Badlands, becoming a frontiersman and living off the land. He returned to the East Coast two years later to marry his childhood sweetheart, worked his way up the political ladder, and in 1897 was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy by President William McKinley. He volunteered to serve in the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry - the Rough Riders - in 1898, and his war exploits helped him win the governorship of New York, followed by the vice presidency in 1900. When an assassin's bullet felled McKinley the following year, Roosevelt became, at age 42, the youngest president in U.S. history until that time.

Dwight D. Eisenhower followed in Washington's footsteps, first serving as a military commander before attaining the presidency. Having just missed out on combat in World War I, Eisenhower became one of the most famous general officers in history during World War II, after being named Supreme Allied Commander Europe by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943. The following year, he led Operation Overlord, the invasion of the European continent that would mark the beginning of the end of Hitler's Third Reich. With more than 5,000 ships, 11,000 aircraft, and 150,000 troops, it remains the largest air, land and sea operation ever undertaken, before or since. Eisenhower won the 1952 presidential election in a landslide, serving two terms.

John F. Kennedy, like Roosevelt, also fought many illnesses and disabilities as a child, including back problems that kept him out of the Army's Officer Candidate School, where he applied in 1940. His well-placed father, Joe, however, was able to get him into the Navy Reserve and, eventually, the Navy's Officer Training School in 1942. He was drawn to Patrol Torpedo (PT) boat service thanks to his years growing up by the ocean and, after the outbreak of World War II, was assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Two in the Solomon Islands.

One night in August 1943, the young lieutenant junior grade was at the helm of PT-109 when it was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, which tore the boat in half and killed two of the crew members. After being stranded in the ocean for a day, Kennedy led his men to a small island 3 miles away, pulling one of his wounded men in a life preserver by a rope held in his teeth. After several days, they swam to a larger island, which had food in the form of coconuts. Kennedy and one of his crew members then swam several miles to an inhabited island where they were rescued. In 1960, he became the youngest man, and first Roman Catholic, to become president of the U.S.

George H.W. Bush is the most recent combat veteran to attain the office, elected in 1988. He enlisted in the Navy June 12, 1943, his birthday. A pilot and Seaman 2nd Class, Bush was assigned to Torpedo Squadron VT-51, serving aboard the light aircraft carrier USSSan Jacinto. While flying his Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber against Japanese targets in the Bonin Islands in September 1944, Bush's plane was hit by flak and caught fire, but he still managed to release his bombs before heading out to sea. He bailed out of the stricken aircraft and floated in a life raft for four hours before being rescued by a Navy submarine. Bush earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals for his actions.

Perhaps his greatest honor came in January 2009, with the christening of USSGeorge H.W. Bush (CVN-77), the last Nimitz-class supercarrier to roll off the line.

Can you list all the U.S. presidents who served in the military?

  • George Washington: Revolutionary War (Continental Army)
  • James Monroe: Revolutionary War (Continental Army)
  • Andrew Jackson: War of 1812 (Army)
  • William Henry Harrison: Indian campaigns (Army)
  • John Tyler: War of 1812 (Army)
  • Zachary Taylor: War of 1812, Black Hawk War, Second Seminole War, Mexican-American War (Army)
  • Franklin Pierce: Mexican War (Army)
  • Abraham Lincoln: Black Hawk War (Indian Wars) (Army)
  • Andrew Johnson: Civil War (Army)
  • Ulysses S. Grant: Mexican War and Civil War (Army)
  • Rutherford B. Hayes: Civil War (Army)
  • James A. Garfield: Civil War (Army)
  • Chester A. Arthur: Civil War (Army)
  • Benjamin Harrison: Civil War (Army)
  • William McKinley: Civil War (Army)
  • Theodore Roosevelt: Spanish American War (Army)
  • Harry Truman: World War I (Army)
  • Dwight Eisenhower: World War I and World War II (Army)
  • John F. Kennedy: World War II (Navy)
  • Lyndon B. Johnson: World War II (Navy)
  • Richard Nixon: World War II (Navy)
  • Gerald Ford: World War II (Navy)
  • Jimmy Carter: Cold War era (Navy)
  • Ronald Reagan: World War II (Air Force)
  • George H.W. Bush: World War II (Navy)
  • George W. Bush: Vietnam War era (Air Force Reserve)