Of the 43 men who have served as President of the United States, a total of 31—or 72%--served in the military before becoming President and commander-in-chief of our Armed Forces.1
Six had been professional soldiers: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. James E. (Jimmy) Carter Jr. graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served seven years on active duty before returning to civilian life.
The other 24 were citizen soldiers, sailors and airmen who interrupted their civilian lives to serve: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald W. Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
(The 12 Presidents who did not serve in the military are: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, William H. Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert C. Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, William J. Clinton and Barack H. Obama. These men appear not to have sought military service, except for F.D. Roosevelt, who served as a civilian Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920 and during World War I sought to join the Navy as an officer, only to have his appeal rejected by President Wilson. Two—Cleveland, during the Civil War, and Clinton, during the Vietnam War—received draft notices but took action that allowed them to avoid serving.)
Branch of Service
Of the 31 who served, 24 joined a militia or the Army. Six served in the Navy, including Kennedy, L.B. Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and G.H.W. Bush. G.W. Bush served with the Air National Guard, including on active duty.
Length of Service
The length of military service varies greatly, from over 40 years to just months. Taylor served over 40 years, Eisenhower about 34 years plus four years at West Point, Jackson about 20 years, Grant some 18 years plus four years at West Point, Washington about 14 years in the militia and Continental Army, W.H. Harrison about 10 years, and Carter 10-11 years counting his time at Annapolis. Serving only for months were T. Roosevelt, Lincoln, Buchanan, and Tyler.
Ranks of these future Presidents ranged from private to general. Most appear to have received promotions during their service. Jackson, at age 13, served initially as a militia mounted orderly or messenger. Grant, Eisenhower, and Carter were service academy cadets. During at least part of their service, five were privates--Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, McKinley, Truman, and Reagan—and G. H.W. Bush was a seaman; only Buchanan remained a private.
Twelve were general officers. Top-ranked generals were Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower. Major generals included Jackson, W.H. Harrison, Taylor, Hayes, and Garfield. Brigadier generals included Pierce, A. Johnson, Arthur, and B. Harrison (Brevet BG).
Colonels included Jefferson, Madison, Polk, T. Roosevelt, and Truman. Monroe, Fillmore and McKinley (brevet) were majors. In the Navy, L.B. Johnson and Nixon were commanders, Ford was a lieutenant commander, Kennedy and Carter were lieutenants, and G.H.W. Bush was a lieutenant junior grade. Militia or Army captains included Tyler, Lincoln, and Reagan. G.W. Bush was a first lieutenant.
Wars in Which They Served
• Revolutionary War: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson.
• War of 1812: Jackson, W.H. Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, and Buchanan.
• Indian Wars from 1817 to 1840: Jackson, Taylor, and Lincoln.
• Mexican War: Taylor, Pierce, and Grant.
• Civil War: Fillmore, A. Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, B. Harrison, and McKinley.
• Spanish-American War: Theodore Roosevelt.
• World War I: Truman and Eisenhower.
• World War II: Eisenhower, Kennedy, L.B. Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and G.H.W. Bush.
• Korean and Vietnam Eras: L.B. Johnson and Nixon remained in the Naval Reserve until 1964 and 1966, respectively. Carter, a Naval Academy midshipman during World War II, served on active duty during the Korean War era, but not in the Korean area. G.W. Bush served during the Vietnam War era, but not in Vietnam. No President has served in the military since the Vietnam War era.
Combat Service and Injuries
At least 16 future Presidents were involved in direct combat, including Washington, Monroe, Jackson, W.H. Harrison, Taylor, Pierce, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, B. Harrison, McKinley, T. Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Ford, and G.H.W. Bush. Eisenhower, as a high-level commander, was involved in general combat operations.
At least six were injured: Monroe, Jackson, Taylor, Hayes (who fought in some fifty engagements during the Civil War, was wounded several times, once seriously, and had his horse shot out from under him on four occasions), Kennedy (injured when a Japanese ship ran over his patrol boat), and G.H.W. Bush (injured when bailing out of his plane when it was shot down by Japanese forces).
At least 10 were in areas fired upon but were not injured: Washington, W.H. Harrison, Grant, Garfield, B. Harrison, McKinley, T. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Ford. Three others had very limited exposure, each generally involving single incidents of enemy fire: L.B. Johnson, Nixon, and Carter.
Areas of Deployment
The majority of those who served spent all or most of their time in what is now the continental United States, but fourteen served outside U.S. territory as well. Jackson fought in Spanish Florida. W.H. Harrison fought in southern Ontario. Taylor, Pierce, and Grant fought in Mexico. T. Roosevelt fought in Cuba. Truman fought in Europe. Eisenhower served in Panama, the Philippines, Africa, and Europe. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and G.H.W. Bush served in the Pacific theater. Carter served on ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific.
In the future, with our smaller, all-volunteer Armed Forces, the percentage of Presidents with prior military service is likely to decline.
Footnote 1: President Obama is the 43rd man to serve but is called the 44th president because Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms, is counted twice.
Background on the author:
James W. Morrison, an Army veteran and member of American Legion Post 54 in Bedford, Va., is retired from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he was a civilian member of the Senior Executive Service and helped direct international security policy. He is the author of two books on international affairs and history: "Bedford Goes to War: The Heroic Story of a Small Virginia Community in World War II" and the WWII historical novel "Class of 1940."