Today is Presidents’ Day and we here at SOFREP thought it might be interesting to recount to you some of the military exploits of our past presidents. Of the 46 U.S. presidents, 35 were in the military at some point in their life. Most saw service in the Army, National Guard, or in volunteer militias raised during wartime. After WWII, presidents who had served in the Navy overtook those who had served in the Army. Probably because of the vast expansion of the Navy that occurred in the 1940s with over four million Americans serving at sea in WWII.
Twelve U.S. presidents held “Flag Rank” meaning they ranked brigadier general or higher. George Washington held the rank (posthumously) of general of the armies of the United States, a distinction even more exclusive than being elected president of the United States. The only other American ever ranked that high was General John Pershing who was honorarily given the rank after WWI. Given that the rank would have carried six stars, general of the Armies would make them the most senior officers in all the military branches.
Here are some noteworthy stories of U.S. presidents who had served in the military.
President Abraham Lincoln
When the Civil War began in 1861, the respective leaders of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and Abraham Lincoln were very badly mismatched. Davis was a born soldier, a West Point graduate, a brigade commander during the Mexican-American War, and had served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce. Lincoln, by contrast, had only had about six months of military service in an Illinois militia regiment as an elected captain during the Blackhawk War. Lincoln’s regiment never saw action. Lincoln himself mocked his own military service, saying in a political speech in 1848, “Did you know I am a military hero?” “I fought, bled and came away” after “charges upon the wild onions” and “a good many bloody struggles with the Musquetoes [sic].”
Anyone placing bets on who would win the Civil War based on military expertise would be smart to put their money on Jefferson Davis to better lead a country at war. But Lincoln proved to be an able and adept military strategist capable of looking at the big picture. He not only read but appeared to understand the text of contemporary books on military sciences in a way his own generals didn’t. He also understood the political aspects of the war he was fighting, the factionalism, the ethnicism, and the way Americans tended to see themselves as belonging to their home state as opposed to their country. This was something his own generals failed to see as they wrote self-congratulatory reports to Lincoln about repelling Confederate “invaders” from Union territory. After General Meade defeated Lee at Gettysburg — but failed to cut off, surround, and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia before it could escape across the Potomac — Meade congratulated himself at driving the Southern invader from Union soil, in seeming acceptance that the Confederacy was itself a country. “Great God!” Lincoln wrote, “Will our Generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil.”
Initially, Lincoln deferred to the military experience of generals like Winfield Scott, George McClellan, Henry Halleck, and George Meade, to conduct military operations in the war. But as he studied and learned about military campaigns he grew aware that these generals lacked dash and aggressiveness. They seemed to view war as a thing in and of itself rather than as a means of pursuing a political objective. Lincoln’s generals seemed elated at the idea of taking a town or city while letting the enemy army escape to fight again in another week or month. On the other hand, Lincoln wanted the enemy armies destroyed, so they could not ever fight again, and thus achieving a quicker end to the war. Soon, Lincoln found himself forced to fire almost all of the aforementioned generals and replace them with lower-ranking officers, among them Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, whose desire to close in with the enemy and destroy him was proven. Ulysses S. Grant began the Civil War as a civilian who had left the army with the rank of captain. In less than five years he was wearing four gold stars on his general’s uniform. Lincoln would eventually find in these men officers who were of the same mind he was: Meet the enemy, hold him in place while you flank him to cut off his retreat, and then destroy him utterly.
In 1862, Lincoln went even further by taking a personal hand in the execution of a military campaign unlike any president before or since.
It was May of that year and General McClellan had been laying siege to Yorktown, Virginia, for a month without any effect. President Lincoln, along with Secretary of War Stanton and Treasury Secretary Chase sailed down from the Capitol to Fortress Monroe, which sits on the northern opening of Chesapeake bay across from Hampton Roads and Norfolk, to see what was going on. Lincoln was incensed to discover that the Southern forces had managed to evacuate Yorktown before McClellan could even get his siege guns in place and firing. McClellan had been laying siege for a month to a city without an enemy force even trying to hold it.
Looking across the bay, Lincoln noted that Norfolk was still guarded and in enemy hands. He wanted to drive a fleet of gunboats across the James River to seize the city and deprive the Confederacy of its largest seaport. President Lincoln ordered General John Wool, who had commanded at Ft. Monroe in Virginia, to land his troops on the South Bank of Hampton Rhodes to both seize Norfolk and cut off the retreat of any enemy forces trapped in the city. Lincoln faced objections from his generals about even taking Norfolk since the Confederate Ironclad CSS Virginia was sitting in Hampton Roads. CSS Virginia had already handed the Union Navy one galling defeat already at the Battle of Hampton Roads. A stalemate had since been created whereby the Confederacy could not break the blockade of Chesapeake Bay by sailing out of Hampton Roads, but the Union Navy could not get past that “Rebel Monster” the CSS Virginia and up the James River to attack Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital.
But Lincoln believed the stalemate could be broken by attacking down the James River and taking Norfolk and Hampton Roads by land. And to ensure there would be no excuses for not getting it done, Lincoln took his steamer from Yorktown down the James River (and behind enemy lines) to personally map and select the landing areas for the troops that would be following. When the Confederates later detected the Union gunboats laden with troops coming down the river they instantly evacuated Norfolk. And unable to escape, the crew of the CSS Virginia blew her up at the pier. The stalemate was now broken, and the Union navy and army were in possession of the largest seaport in the South and could threaten Richmond with a riverine attack and landing on the banks of the upper James. All in about a week’s time.
Not bad for a guy who had only served in his local militia for a few months.
President Richard Nixon
Many recall the Richard Nixon presidency for the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. But as a young naval officer, Nixon served on Guadalcanal and during the Solomons Campaign as an aviation supply and logistics officer. He also became a card sharp and having mastered the game of poker came home with a sum of money that in today’s dollars would be about $100,000. He used that money to finance his first run for office as a congressman. Nixon left the Navy Reserves in 1966 as a commander.
President Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter was a farm boy in Plains, Georgia, who dreamed of going to sea. During WWII, he was accepted to the Naval Academy and graduated under an accelerated program to produce ensigns to fill the swelling ranks of a wartime navy of over 100 aircraft carriers and four million personnel. His assignments stateside were gunnery training and education billets on the battleships Wyoming and Mississippi. When the Mississippi was decommissioned Carter put in for submarine duty and after serving on one submarine was reassigned and became a plank owner on the K-1, the Barracuda which became SSK-1. This experimental testbed submarine was the precursor to nuclear submarines. Carter worked on developing sonars, weapons, and engineering systems that would go into later subs.
Captain Hyman Rickover, called the Father of the Nuclear Navy, interviewed and selected Carter for the developmental Nuclear Propulsion Program in 1951. Carter was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Reactor Development in Schenectady, New York. Young Lt. Carter trained to become one of the first engineering officers of a nuclear-powered submarine. Carter was then assigned to the new (SSN 575) USS Seawolf as an engineering officer and was training his enlisted men in the operations of the reactor when he received word that his father had died back home. Carter left the Navy on a hardship basis to return to the family farm and run it, giving up a likely future as commander of his own nuclear submarine and a career in the Navy.
President George H.W. Bush
President George Herbert Walker Bush joined the navy during WWII on his 18th birthday and became one of the youngest commissioned officers and naval aviators by the time he was 19. Assigned to the Escort Carrier USS San Jacinto, Bush’s squadron was part of Task Force 58 which fought in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and its gigantic air engagements called, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot where more than 1,700 U.S. and Japanese aircraft were engaged.
Bush nursed a crippled TMB Avenger back to the carrier and ditched it in the sea. He and his crew were recovered by an escorting destroyer. A few months later, Bush’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire again during an attack on the Bonin Islands. Bush cooly continued his bombing attack, while his engine and cowling were on fire, hitting the target and then heading out over the sea again. With one of his three-man crew already dead, Bush and the other crewmember bailed out of the burning plane several miles from the islands. Only Bush’s parachute opened.
Unknown to him he also escaped another peril: The Japanese soldiers in the Bonin islands were seething in rage and had decided to eat any captured Americans they could get their hands on. Nine airmen were forced to bail out of their stricken craft that day, eight were captured, murdered, and eaten in an atrocious war crime. Bush would have been the ninth, but he was not captured. He spent the next four hours paddling away from the islands with navy hellcats overhead giving him cover until the submarine USS Finback surfaced and recovered him. And I say “recovered” rather than “rescued” here because Lt. Bush was in serviceable watercraft and he was underway on his own power. Had the Finback not surfaced, I’m quite sure Bush would have paddled that raft all the way back to Pearl Harbor.
These are just some of the stories about the military service of U.S. presidents. If you have any favorites among presidents who have also served in uniform, we invite you to share them below for the benefit of your fellow members.
And from all of us here at SOFREP, Happy Presidents’ Day!