Since its inception, the United States has been led by 31 men who have served in the U.S. military on active duty, in the reserve or National Guard, in war and during peacetime. Of the 31 men who served as the commander in chief, 12 made it to the general officer ranks before they held the highest position in the U.S. military and served as president of the United States.
Here’s our list of presidents who were generals.
Presidents Who Were Generals in the Revolutionary War
In June 1775, George Washington was selected to lead the nascent Continental Army in the War of Independence. He was commissioned in the rank of major general. Although he wasn’t a great military mind, Washington knew how to lead and he led his underequipped Army to victory.
After the war, Washington retired to his plantation in Virginia, but not long after he was called to duty once again when he was unanimously voted into the presidency. He served two terms before returning to Mount Vernon.
Presidents Who Were Generals in the War of 1812
Andrew Jackson was tied to the U.S. military from an early age. During the Revolutionary War, he was a teenage courier. In 1781, he and his brother were captured by the British. During his captivity, Jackson was ordered to shine the boots of a British officer. Jackson refused and in retaliation for the insubordination, the British officer cut Jackson’s hand to the bone and slashed his head, scarring him permanently. The captivity would cost Jackson’s brother his life.
Jackson was definitely a guy that loved a good fight. During his life he was in several public brawls and duels, but it was his service during the War of 1812 that gave him the most notoriety. Then a major general, he led an assault against the British at the Battle of New Orleans that would earn him the nom de guerre, “Hero of New Orleans.”
His military service, especially his wartime performance would no doubt pave the way to the White House 14 years later.
William Henry Harrison’s family had deep American roots. His father, Benjamin Harrison V, signed the Declaration of Independence. It came as no surprise that a son of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence would want to etch his name into the history books. During the War of 1812, Harrison did just that fighting against British and Native American forces. In the war, Harrison was given command of the Army in the Northwest with the rank of brigadier general. At the Battle of the Thames, north of Lake Erie, in 1813, he defeated the combined British and Indian forces, and killed Tecumseh.
In 1836, Harrison was nominated as a presidential candidate for the newly-formed Whig party, but he lost that election to Martin Van Buren. In 1840, Harrison returned to defeat Van Buren. Not long after Inauguration Day, Harrison fell ill and died about a month after becoming president.
Presidents Who Were Generals in the Mexican American War
Zachary Taylor was commissioned as an officer in 1808 and he fought in nearly every American conflict until he became president. He spent approximately four decades wearing an Army uniform.
Taylor was a major in the War of 1812, a colonel in the Black Hawk War in 1832, and a brigadier general in the Seminole War from 1836 to 1837. It was his success as a general in the Mexican-American War that made him a national hero and made him an unlikely presidential candidate.
Taylor defeated another former general, Lewis Cass, in the election. Like Harrison, Taylor did not serve as president for very long. He passed away a little more than a year after becoming president.
Franklin Pierce, like Harrison, had deep American roots in his family. His father was a militia leader in the American Revolution and that service helped him become governor of New Hampshire. Following in his father’s footsteps, Pierce entered politics and became a U.S. representative in 1833 and a U.S. senator in 1837.
When the Mexican-American War erupted in Texas, Pierce joined the army as private in 1846. Then, in what is undoubtedly the fastest ascension in rank known to the U.S. military, about a year later Pierce was commissioned as a brigadier general mostly due to his connections with President James K. Polk and other politicians.
As a brigadier general in combat, Pierce didn’t do much in war. At the Battle of Contreras, Pierce was seriously injured in the leg after falling from his frightened horse. As a president, Pierce once again did not achieve too much. Historians have ranked Pierce as one of the worst presidents ever.
Presidents Who Were Generals in the Civil War
Not surprisingly, the Civil War produced six presidents who were formerly general officers. The problem is that in many cases, some of these “generals” commanded volunteer militias, so some might argue that technically, they were not commissioned officers in federal service.
For example, Andrew Johnson was a U.S. senator at the onset of the Civil War. Although he was pro-slavery, he was against secession and he remained in office during the war. This political move made him popular in the north, but branded him a traitor in the south.
In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln appointed him Military Governor of Tennessee (brigadier general). In 1864, he became vice president and later rose to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination.
Ulysses S. Grant was the Civil War’s greatest military hero and his military leadership as the Union general in command of all Union forces during the Civil War launched his political career.
Grant’s combat experience began in the Mexican-American War and he served in various assignments as an Army officer, steadily working his way up the ranks. However, it was his success as the general of all Union forces and his defeat of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that cemented his political appeal for Americans.
Grant served two terms as president. After serving as commander in chief, Grant was financially broke and turned to writing to earn a living. He completed his memoirs and died in 1885, providing financial security for his family thanks to the success of his books.
Rutherford B. Hayes enlisted as a volunteer in Ohio when the Civil War broke out despite being nearly 40 years old and being a Harvard-trained lawyer. Like others, his political connections paid off and he eventually rose to the rank of brevet major general.
While serving, he was wounded four times and much like the other men of his time who served with distinction, military service propelled Hayes and he was elected as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and he later served as the governor of Ohio.
In 1876 Hayes defeated Samuel J. Tilden in a highly disputed presidential election. He oversaw the end of reconstruction and served one term.
Another Ohioan, James A. Garfield, would also hear the call to duty during the Civil War. Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859 as a Republican. In 1862, when Union military victories had been few, he successfully led a brigade at Middle Creek, Kentucky, against Confederate troops. At 31, Garfield became a brigadier general, two years later a major general of volunteers. He fought bravely in battles such as Shiloh, Middle Creek, and Chickamauga.
Meanwhile, Ohioans elected him to the U.S. Congress. President Lincoln persuaded him to resign his commission and he repeatedly won reelection for 18 years. Garfield was elected as the 20th President in 1881, after nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. His Presidency was impactful, but cut short after 200 days when he was assassinated.
Chester A. Arthur was appointed by the New York governor and served as the Quartermaster General of the State of New York during the Civil War. In this position, Arthur was responsible for supplying and housing New York’s troops, the state’s militia. After a few years of military service, without having seen any combat, Arthur retired from the Army and returned to his lawyer practice.
Politically connected, like many former general presidents before him, Arthur was Garfield’s vice president and upon Garfield’s assassination, Arthur succeeded him as president. Arthur died just two years after leaving office. His presidency is often overlooked.
Benjamin Harrison is the only president who is a grandson of another president. Earlier we mentioned William Henry Harrison, well, Benjamin Harrison, like others in his family before him, entered military service and later entered the political arena.
During the Civil War, Harrison rose through the ranks to become a brigadier general by 1865.
Like so many others before him, after his service in the military and in the Civil War, Harrison entered politics to continue his service. He ran unsuccessfully for governor of Indiana in 1876, but he won a U.S. Senate seat in 1880.
In 1888, Harrison was nominated as a presidential candidate and despite losing the nation’s popular vote, Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland. In 1892, Cleveland would return and beat Harrison.
Presidents Who Were Generals in the World Wars
Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of three career military men to become president (Taylor and Grant). Like Grant who had helped preserve the union, Eisenhower helped save the world by leading allied forces in Europe during World War II. It would be hard to overlook a guy who helped free the world of tyranny.
Eisenhower was a West Point grad and got commissioned in 1916. He is the only man to earn his officer commission and not have it bestowed on him because of political connections or popularity.
Eisenhower is the last on our list of presidents who were generals.