7 Facts About American Presidents Who Served in the Military

By Danielle DeSimone

For many of our nation’s presidents, the call to serve the American people came not only from the Oval Office, but also from the battlefield. According to the U.S. Veterans Administration, 31 of the 45 U.S. presidents throughout history have served in the military in some capacity (there have been 46 presidencies but only 45 presidents, as Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms). From the Revolutionary War to World War II, these presidents understood what it meant to truly be willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of duty to this country. Here are seven facts about American presidents who served in the military:

George Washington, painted by Charles Willson Peale, while in uniform as the Commander of the Continental Army. | Photo credit Charles Willson Peale/Brooklyn Museum

1. George Washington: Army Soldier, Founding Father and Currently the Highest-Ranking General in the U.S. Military

America’s first president, George Washington, led the charge both on the battlefield and as a statesman in the founding of this country. In addition to being one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a talented military general – he is also the U.S.’ only six-star general. On July 4, 1976, a joint resolution was passed to posthumously promote Washington to the title of “General of the Armies of the United States,” effectively ensuring that no other member of the military can ever outrank him.

2. Wars That Called Presidents to Serve

Two conflicts in American history have particularly inspired several U.S. presidents to serve: the American Civil War and World War II. Although some of these presidents served in other conflicts as well, seven presidents fought in the American Civil War:

  • William McKinley

  • Benjamin Harrison

  • Chester A. Arthur

  • James Garfield

  • Rutherford B. Hayes

  • Ulysses S. Grant

  • Andrew Johnson

And eight American presidents served in World War II:

  • George H.W. Bush

  • Ronald Reagan

  • Jimmy Carter

  • Gerald Ford

  • Richard Nixon

  • Lyndon B. Johnson

  • John F. Kennedy

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower

3. A Family Legacy of Service

George H.W. Bush seated in a Grumman TBM Avenger aircraft in 1944. | Photo credit U.S. Navy

President George H.W. Bush enlisted as a naval aviator on his 18th birthday, becoming one of the youngest aviators in Navy history, and was soon sent to the front lines of World War II. During a bombing run on the Japanese island of Chichi Jima, Bush’s plane came under enemy fire, but Bush and his crew pressed on, still managing to hit their target. Unfortunately, Bush’s plane was badly damaged and it plummeted into the ocean. Both of his fellow crew members were killed, but Bush managed to parachute out of the plane and land in the water, injured but alive. He floated there for several hours, avoiding further Japanese gunfire, swallowing saltwater and suffering from jellyfish stings before being rescued by an American submarine. He would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross Citation for his efforts.

His son, George W. Bush, would go on to serve in the Texas Air National Guard and would later also become president of the United States.

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Commanding Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864. | Photo credit National Park Service

4. A Disdain for Tradition

Military uniforms may be a source of pride and tradition for many service members, but famed Civil War general and American president Ulysses S. Grant hated them. He received multiple demerits while at West Point for having unkempt uniforms. Later, as a general in the Union army, he refused to wear a general’s uniform and instead wore a private’s uniform, with a single star stitched onto each shoulder as the only indication of his rank.

5. Presidential Pets Served Too

Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt was not a veteran, he led the nation through World War II from the Oval Office, during which two of his many notable contributions to the military included the founding of the USO and the enlistment of an Army private.

Photo credit Library of Congress

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called for the founding of the USO, is pictured here beside his faithful and beloved dog, Fala, who was made an honorary Army private during World War II.

Yes, although he stood on all four paws, Fala – FDR’s beloved and famous Scottish terrier – served as an honorary Army private during World War II.

6. Presidential Ranks of All Kinds

While President James Buchanan is the only president who served and never became an officer, President Dwight D. Eisenhower is the only president, besides Washington, to have become a five-star general. Eisenhower led the Allied forces to victory in World War II.

7. Presidents Who Went Above and Beyond While Serving

Some presidents were recognized for their commendable actions during service. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, for example, is the only U.S. president to have received the Medal of Honor. He was awarded the medal posthumously in 2001, in recognition of his charge up San Juan Heights, alongside his Rough Riders, in Cuba. His actions helped turn the tide of the 1898 Spanish-American War in favor of the U.S., and it was this war that eventually liberated Cuba from Spanish rule.

Photo credit U.S. Army

Col. Theodore Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders” are shown after the Battle of San Juan, in the Spanish-American War.

Several decades later, John F. Kennedy, then just a lieutenant in the Navy, was awarded the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal – the highest noncombat decoration awarded for heroism – for his brave and selfless actions during World War II. After his boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, cut in half and began to sink, Kennedy – with an injured back – rescued several men and then proceeded to lead his surviving sailors to a nearby island. Kennedy refused to let his back injury from the collision stop him from towing a badly burned crew member to safety. He placed the man in a life jacket and then swam with the life jacket strap clenched between his teeth, dragging his crew member behind him for three miles.

Photo credit Naval History and Heritage Command

Lt. John F. Kennedy (pictured far right) with the crew of the USS PT-109, the patrol torpedo boat he commanded, in 1943.

William McKinley was only 18 years old in 1861 when he enlisted as a private in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He would later become the United States’ 25th president. | Photo credit McKinley Memorial Library

Other presidents have been recognized for smaller acts of bravery, but heroic all the same. President William McKinley, then an Army private in the American Civil War, braved enemy fire during the Battle of Antietam to deliver essential food and hot coffee to 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Union troops in the middle of battle.

Former Education Director of the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum Christopher Kenney even suggested that McKinley may have gone against orders to set up a front-line food camp in support of his fellow soldiers so they could continue the fight at full strength. McKinley’s actions that day earned him the nickname “Coffee Bill.”

Throughout the United States’ nearly 250-year history, many American presidents have proudly served in our Armed Forces, showing that they are not only willing to lead this country, but lay their lives on the line for it as well.

-This story was originally published on USO.org in 2021. It has been updated in 2022.

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