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.

Presidents Day
President Abraham Lincoln (Getty Images)

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.