The 46 men that have held the office of president have simultaneously been commander-in-chief of the United States’ Armed Forces. Some presidents ascended to this position with little to no experience in military affairs. However, about two-thirds of U.S. presidents are veterans of the U.S. military, shaping their rise to the nation’s highest executive office.
Article II of the U.S. Constitution states that the president is “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.”
This title and explanation now extends to all branches of the U.S. military. The tremendous amount of authority thereby allows presidents to control and deploy military personnel, launch military operations and participate in forming military policy.
Even though military service is not a prerequisite to becoming president, members of the military develop significant leadership expertise during the time they train and serve. Besides learning tactical skills, they learn how to work as part of a team and experience the importance of self-sacrifice. Military service helps teach service members how to perform under tremendous pressure and flexibility in any situation that comes their way.
From militia leaders, to colonels, to generals and more, here are 31 presidents that served in the military before they rose to lead it as commander-in-chief.
1. George Washington (1789 – 1797)
As a young colonist, this future U.S. president had natural leadership skills that allowed him to rise through the ranks of the Virginia militia. At the age of 23, Washington was commander of all Virginia troops. When the Revolutionary War started, he was appointed as Major General and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783. When the war was over, he returned home only to be unanimously elected as the country’s first president in 1789.
2. Thomas Jefferson (1801 – 1809)
Though he is perhaps most famous for drafting the Declaration of Independence, roughly nine years of Thomas Jefferson’s pre-presidential life was spent serving in the military. He was a colonel in the Virginia Militia at the start of the Revolutionary War, serving from 1770 to 1779. In 1775, he moved up to commander of the Albemarle County Militia, near what later would be his home at Monticello.
3. James Madison (1809 – 1817)
Like his predecessor, Madison also served as a colonel in the Virginia Militia from 1775 to 1781. Madison’s poor health never allowed him to see battle during the American Revolution, but his role as a leader during propelled him to political success in his home state of Virginia and allowed him to win the presidency later.
4. James Monroe (1817 – 1825)
This Founding Father served in the Continental Army from 1775 to 1178 as a major. James Monroe nearly died in the Battle of Trenton in 1776 after suffering a severed artery, but he survived, and his bravery earned him the promotion to captain by future president, George Washington. After recovering, Monroe gathered his own company of soldiers in Virginia, where he was later commissioned as a lieutenant colonel.
5. Andrew Jackson (1829 – 1837)
Not only did the seventh president serve in both houses of the U.S. Congress, he also was a major general in the U.S. Army, the U.S. Volunteer Army and the Tennessee Militia. Jackson was appointed as a major general of the Tennessee militia in 1802, despite not having formal military experience. The height of his service was during the War of 1812, where he was promoted to major general. He received the nickname “Old Hickory” from his troops for being tough on the battlefield, spurring him to political popularity after the war.
6. William Henry Harrison (1841)
Though William Henry Harrison is best remembered as being the shortest-serving president after dying just nine days into his term, he also had military service under his belt from 1812 to 1814. After a short stint as major general for the Kentucky Militia during the War of 1812, he commanded the Army of the Northwest. Harrison resigned from the Army in 1814 and later was awarded a gold medal for his victories in the War of 1812.
7. John Tyler (1841 – 1845)
Before being vice president for nine days and then becoming president, John Tyler was the captain of his own Virginia-based militia company called the Charles City Rifles in the summer of 1813. He dissolved the company after two months when the militia didn’t face combat against the British soldiers in Richmond. With the help of his father, the governor of Virginia, he entered politics at the age of 21.
8. James K. Polk (1845 – 1849)
Much of James K. Polk’s military success came as a part of his presidency, but he did spend a year as colonel in the Tennessee Militia in 1821. His brief stint in the militia shaped his best known accomplishment of extending U.S. territory into the west during the Mexican-American War
9. Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850)
Zachary Taylor aspired to a military career from a young age. He served in the U.S. Army from 1808 to 1849, rising through the ranks and fighting in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War and the Second Seminole War. Under the leadership of the previous Commander-in-Chief, Taylor rose to become major general in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. Once the war was over, the country hailed him as a national hero and elected him president.
10. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Assuming the presidency after Taylor’s death, Millard Fillmore brought experience from his time in the House of Representatives as a congressman from Buffalo, New York. Most of his military experience came after his presidency when he served as a major in the Union Continentals, a home guard of adult males over 45 years old from Upstate New York.
11. Franklin Pierce (1853 – 1857)
Like some of his predecessors, Pierce served in the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848. He entered as a private who recruited men for the New Hampshire Militia. In 1847, he became a brigadier general, winning victories in Mexico City. After being thrown from his horse, an injury caused him to miss the Army’s final victory at the Battle of Chapultepec, and Pierce returned to his home in New Hampshire.
12. James Buchanan (1857 – 1861)
Buchanan is the last president that served in the War of 1812 and the only U.S. president with military experience who was not an officer. He served as a private in the Pennsylvania Militia in 1814 during a British invasion of Maryland.
13. Abraham Lincoln (1861 – 1865)
Though Lincoln is known for his leadership of the Union during the Civil War and for signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he spent part of 1832 serving as a militia captain in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War.
14. Andrew Johnson (1865 – 1869)
Though Johnson continues to rank as one of the worst presidents in American history for his opposition to the Reconstruction, he was appointed to the role of military governor for Tennessee by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. He served as a brigadier general in the U.S. Army until 1865.
15. Ulysses S. Grant (1869 – 1877)
As a West Point graduate, Grant was the first of three presidents to attend a U.S. Service academy. He did not excel at the school and planned to leave the military after serving four years of compulsory duty. Ultimately, he changed his mind after serving in the Mexican-American War. Grant would go on to become one of the most influential military figures in the Civil War, and serve as a general in the U.S. Army from 1866 to 1869.
16. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877 – 1881)
Like Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes fought in the Union Army during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 and rose to the rank of major general. While on active duty during the war, he was elected to Congress despite refusing to campaign.
17. James A. Garfield (1881)
Garfield entered the U.S. Army in 1861 as a lieutenant colonel for the Union during the Civil War. By 1863, he was made a major general, the youngest officer to hold this position at the time. He resigned in December of that year to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which he won despite never having campaigned.
18. Chester A. Arthur (1881 – 1885)
Arthur’s military service spans from 1858 to 1863, and he eventually reached the rank of brigadier general. During the Civil War, he served in New York Militia but never fought in a battlefield position, having had familial ties with members of the Confederacy.
19. Benjamin Harrison (1889 – 1893)
Grandson of William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by serving in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. He fought for the Union from 1862 to 1865 and recruited Army volunteers in Indiana. Abraham Lincoln nominated Harrison to the rank of brevet brigadier general of volunteers in 1865.
20. William McKinley (1897 – 1901)
McKinley enlisted into the Union Army in 1861 and served until 1865. He reached the rank of brevet major just before the end of the war and resigned from the Army at its end.
21. Theodore Roosevelt (1901 – 1909)
As the youngest person in U.S. history elected to the presidency, Teddy Roosevelt had a a keen interest in military strategy, particularly naval theory, which he brought the Oval Office. He briefly left politics in 1898 to organize a volunteer cavalry, known as the Rough Riders, to fight in the Spanish-American War where he was promoted to colonel. In 2001, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his army service while fighting Cuba.
22. Harry S. Truman (1945 – 1953)
After a nearly 40-year gap between presidents that served in the military, Truman was elected president after serving in the U.S. Army from 1919 to 1945. Even though he later rose to the rank of colonel for the Army Officer Reserve Corps, Truman was originally denied a place at West Point due to his incredibly poor eyesight. He enlisted in the Missouri National Guard after memorizing the eyesight test. When World War I started, he recruited new soldiers for his unit and was eventually promoted to captain of Battery D in France, where he reorganized the unit.
23. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953 – 1961)
In his early years at West Point, Eisenhower was a football star and commissioned as second lieutenant upon graduation. From 1915 to 1948, his military skill in the two World Wars brought him numerous promotions and appointments. He is one of only a few soldiers to achieve 5-star rank of General of the Army in 1944. Eisenhower also briefly served as first Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from 1951 to 1952, before retiring from active duty to run for president.
24. John F. Kennedy (1961 – 1963)
Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy upon graduation from Harvard. After an attack from a Japanese warship during WWII, he safely brought survivors to a nearby island and earned himself a Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart. He served from 1941 to 1945, reaching the rank of lieutenant before separating due to physical disability.
25. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963 – 1969)
Like his predecessor, Johnson also served in the Navy. He was on active duty from 1941 to 1942 as lieutenant commander beginning three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was released from active duty and was part of the Navy Reserve as commander until 1964.
26. Richard M. Nixon (1969 – 1974)
Continuing a presidential trend of serving in the Navy, Nixon applied to the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942, even though he could have claimed exemption for his government work and for being a Quaker. He spent time on active duty in the South Pacific and, upon release, continued to serve as a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve until 1966.
27. Gerald R. Ford, Jr. (1974 – 1977)
Right after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Ford enlisted in the Navy. He was part of strikes and landings in the Pacific Theater during WWII. When his ship was damaged by a typhoon, he was transferred to the Athletic Department of the Navy Pre-Flight School at St. Mary’s College in California, a role that suited his previous experience as part of the University of Michigan’s football team. He left the Navy Reserve in 1946 as lieutenant commander.
28. Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981)
Like other presidents, Carter entered the military during WWII, enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1946. After serving on surface ship duty for two years, he applied to the submarine service where he eventually became a lieutenant. Here, he worked on the creation of nuclear powered submarines until 1953, when he resigned after his father’s death.
29. Ronald Reagan (1981 – 1989)
Not only were Reagan’s early years spent acting as a service member in movies, the 40th president also spent time in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945. He was called to active duty during WWII though his eyesight prevented him from seeing combat. Instead, he spent most of his time in the Army Air Corps First Motion Picture Unit. He recorded training videos, appeared in patriotic films and was promoted to the rank of captain during this time.
30. George H. W. Bush (1989 – 1993)
Bush Sr. enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday and became the Navy’s youngest pilot at the time. He flew 58 combat missions during WWII between 1942 and 1945 and was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade). While flying to bomb an enemy radio site in 1944, his plane was gunned down by Japanese fire in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism under fire.
31. George W. Bush (2001 – 2009)
Bush followed in his father’s footsteps with military service in his role as first lieutenant of the Texas Air National Guard. He served from 1968 to 1973 while the U.S. was at war in Vietnam. His political opponents criticized him for not seeing overseas duty during the war and believed it was the result of political favoritism.