The title “Command in Chief” isn’t an honorary one for the President of the United States. The Constitution actually states, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” Since the National Security Act of 1947, this has also been understood to mean all United States Armed Forces – however, the exact degree of the authority that the Constitution grants POTUS has been the subject of debate.
What is important to note, however, is that the president need not have actually served in any branch of the military, yet still is considered the Commander in Chief. Despite this fact, 29 presidents did serve in the military – a tradition that goes back to George Washington.
The Founding Fathers
Every school child knows that Washington was the first president, and most probably know, too, that Washington led the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolution. Washington was called upon by his service in the Virginia Militia during the French and Indian War.
As a young officer Washington’s career could hardly be called illustrious – he was forced to surrender to the French at Fort Necessity. He redeemed himself at the Battle of Monongahela and helped save the British Major General Edward Braddock’s column of 2,100 British and 500 colonial militiamen from defeat. Washington later led the Virginia Regiment in the efforts to capture the French-held Fort Duquesne. However, throughout the campaign Washington was unable to secure a more prestigious a royal commission in the British Army, and at one point became an unpaid, volunteer aide-de-camp to Braddcock rather than assume a militia rank, which was looked down upon by British officers.
Surprisingly Washington was just one of two “Founding Fathers” to go on to be president who actually saw service in the American Revolution – the other being James Monroe. The fifth U.S. President served as an officer in the Continental Army and reached the rank of major. Monroe was severely wounded at the battle of Trenton – and he notably appears in John Trumbull’s painting that depicts the capture of the Hessians at the battle with Monroe, fittingly pictured next to his friend George Washington.
Officers and Gentlemen
Nearly all of the 29 presidents who served in the military were officers – the exception being James Buchanan, who served as a private in Henry Shippen’s Company, 1st Brigade, 4th Division of the Pennsylvania Militia. He participated in the defense of Baltimore during the War of 1812.
A full dozen presidents were general officers. These included Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower was the only president to reach the rank of five star general. However, Grant was promoted to the rank of general of the Army at the close of the Civil War. At the time it was a four star rank, but when it was created again during the Second World War it was as a five star rank, while today’s four star general is known simply as general.
Soldiers in Wartime
Five future presidents saw service during the War of 1812 including W.H. Harrison, Tyler, Taylor and Buchanan – but that war of course is forever linked to Jackson, who lead American forces to victory at the Battle of New Orleans. At the age of 13 Jackson served as a messenger for a militia unit during the American Revolution, and later during a very colorful life fought a total of 103 duels – killing only man however.
At the Battle of New Orleans Jackson successfully defeated a larger professional British Army. The battle was actually fought before news of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent could reach America, it ensured American control of the Mississippi River.
Seven future presidents served in the military during the American Civil War, as well as former President Millard Fillmore, who commanded the Union Continentals, a corps of home guards in upstate New York. The unit, which was made up of men over the age of 45, trained to defend the Buffalo area in the (unlikely) event of a Confederate attack. The unit did perform military drill and ceremonial functions at parades and funerals for soldiers killed in battle. The Union Continentals also guarded President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train in Buffalo. The unit continued to serve in a ceremonial role after the war and Fillmore remained active with the Continentals almost until his death in 1874.
World War II saw eight future Presidents in uniform – including Eisenhower, as well as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Pierce saw service in the Mexican-War, while Lincoln was a captain in the Illinois State Militia during the Black Hawk War. Harry S. Truman was an artillery captain during the First World War and saw action in the Argonne Forest.
George W. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War; while James Polk, who served as a colonel in the Tennessee State Militia, did not see war service.
To date, only one President to date has been awarded the Medal of Honor (albeit posthumously). That was Theodore Roosevelt, who famously led the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry – famously nicknamed the “Rough Riders” – at the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt, who resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, formed the unit and was determined to see battle.
On January 16, 2001, more than 103 years after the charge up Kettle Hill, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to Teddy Roosevelt’s great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt.
While no president since G.W. Bush has served in the military, a 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 50% of Americans would be more likely to vote for a candidate with military experience.