Presidents who were in the military: some made a good POTUS, others not so much. You don’t have to be a combat veteran to be an effective politician, but it usually looks good on a resume.
The Short List: 4 US Presidents who were combat veterans
This isn’t a comprehensive list of US Presidents who were in the military; it’s just a couple who come to mind.
This article originally ran in early November 2016.
With the presidential election looming, Today being Presidents Day, the powers that be here at Breach-Bang-Clear thought it would be a good time to look at a few presidents who were also professional soldiers. Everyone knows the President also wears the hat of Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Sometimes, the CinC has been good at that particular job, other times, not so much. Sometimes it hasn’t really mattered, though those days seem to be well behind us.
So, in military terms, a CinC is generally someone with long experience and proven aptitude in making the other guy die for his country, preferably while leading our own forces to victory. But in our system of civilian control of the military (something I wholeheartedly support), that usually isn’t the case. Of 44 presidents (so far), 32 have had some kind of military experience, from Abe Lincoln’s service with the militia to Dwight Eisenhower’s time as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Few, however, have been actual professional military men with the chops and time in service to rise to the top.
The meaning of the term “professional” is up for debate, especially in the period before the Mexican War. Here we’ll look briefly, by way of a listicle, at four who seem to fit the description: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, U.S. Grant, and Eisenhower. Obviously, being a professional soldier is not necessarily a prerequisite to being a good CinC. In my personal opinion, our two greatest wartime presidents were Lincoln and FDR, neither of whom were professional soldiers. Onward.
1. George Washington: The Strategist
– Washington’s military career began as an officer in the Virginia Militia, which he eventually commanded. Ironically, his experience with the militia led him to hold it in the highest contempt. Washington scorned the militia’s lack of discipline and unreliability compared to the British Regulars alongside whom he served in the French and Indian War. This attitude toward the militia led to his insistence on the creation of a professional Continental Army to fight the American Revolution. The Continentals would serve as the core of Washington’s command, though he always relied heavily on the militia for support.
– Even though Washington admired professional soldiers from Europe, his experience in the French and Indian War taught him their tactics were not always suited to the vast American interior. From his trip with British General Edward Braddock’s ill-fated expedition to Fort Duquesne, Washington knew those armies were susceptible to unorthodox tactics and would suffer from logistical problems if they strayed far from their supplies.
– Washington had to curb his natural aggressiveness during the first months of his command, during which time he nearly lost his army a handful of times. He came to understand that a so-called “Fabian Strategy” in which an army refuses battle except under the most favorable of circumstances was his best chance to win. Operating at the end of a 3,000-mile line of communications with limited resources, the British could only control coastal enclaves, while Washington controlled all the surrounding countryside. By preserving his force and not losing outright, Washington could, and would, eventually win.
– Washington’s most famous action, crossing the Delaware to attack the Hessians at Trenton, followed by the assault on Princeton, probably saved the Revolution. British General William Howe had chased Washington out of New York and all the way across New Jersey in 1776, and it looked like the Revolution was over. Then Washington rolled the dice and, like great Americans should, crossed an ice-filled river on Christmas and killed a bunch of Germans in their sleep. Howe retreated in confusion back to New York and Washington regained all of New Jersey (because ‘Murica). Washington’s decision to attack when he did was also heavily influenced by the fact that much his army’s enlistments expired at midnight on New Year’s Eve. If he didn’t do something he would lose his experienced troops and, with nothing but defeat in his wake, might not be able to recruit anymore. So there’s that. Good call, George.
– A British sharpshooter, Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) Patrick Ferguson got the drop on Washington and Count Casamir Pulaski on 6 October, 1777, just prior to the Battle of Brandywine Creek. Thinking it dishonorable to shoot enemy officers, Ferguson called for Washington and Pulaski to dismount. Pulaski shouted a warning and Washington whirled his horse, Nelson, and galloped away. Ferguson wrote in his report, “As I was with the distance, at which in the quickest firing, I could have lodged a half dozen balls in or about him before he was out of my reach, I had only to determine, but it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual who was acquitting himself coolly of his duty, and so I let him alone.” Only later did Ferguson find out Washington’s identity, but he maintained that it would have made no difference; an honorable man and good soldier, Patrick Ferguson. He was killed leading his men in a final desperate charge at King’s Mountain in 1779. We should be awfully glad it was he who encountered Washington that day.
– Washington was the first, and still only, sitting president to lead troops in the field, against the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Fortunately, US troops did not have to kill their fellow citizens.
2. Andrew Jackson: The Brawler
– Jackson was a general of Tennessee Militia before he ever had any experience commanding men in combat.
– When the Creek War broke out with the massacre of over 200 Americans at Fort Mims, Alabama in 1813, Jackson was recovering from wounds suffered in a frontier brawl. When he heard the news from Fort Mims, Jackson, on his own initiative and with a bullet lodged near his heart and his arm in a sling, saddled up, led his men south, and won the Battles of Tullushatchee and Talladega. No one can accuse Jackson of being soft. His army’s term of enlistment ran out at the end of the year, so he raised another force and, after being repulsed twice by the Creeks, won the war in 1814 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River.
– In May, 1814 Jackson was commissioned as a major general in the regular Army and tasked with stopping the British advance on New Orleans. After blocking the British overland route by taking Pensacola, he pushed his command to defend the Big Easy itself. Once again, Jackson was unwell. He is described during this period as being “emaciated.” But he was also motivated, and fortified the city against the coming assault.
– The Battle of New Orleans was actually four battles which took place between 23 December, 1814 and 8 January, 1815. The first was a night attack on British positions which devolved into a vicious brawl between American hatchets and British bayonets. The action was sparked when Jackson learned the British had approached undetected to within nine miles of his position and vowed, “By the Eternal, they shall not sleep on our soil!”
– The second, third, and fourth battles, the last being the main action, took place after the treaty ending the war had been signed on Christmas Day, 1814.
– Though most of the British casualties were caused by Jackson’s artillery, reports that American artillerymen substituted unfortunate alligators stuffed with powder and shot for overheated field pieces remain unconfirmed.
– Jackson’s final military campaign was the First Seminole War of 1817-1818, in response to Seminole raids into Georgia from Spanish Florida. Once again, Jackson was a hard-ass, burning towns and villages and deposing the Spanish governor before withdrawing. Their inability to stop Jackson, or even slow him down, contributed directly to the Spanish decision to negotiate control of Florida to the US.
3. Ulysses S. Grant: The Bulldog
– Grant served ably as a lieutenant in the Mexican War and was afterward posted to California. Not being a man of means, he could not afford to move his family with him and turned to alcohol for solace. In 1854 he chose resignation over a court-martial for his drinking. Seven years later, he offered his services to the Union and was commissioned as a colonel. Thanks to the personal interest of his congressman, he quickly rose to the rank of general. Later stories of Grant’s drinking during the Civil War were untrue and were concocted by General Henry Halleck, likely out of jealousy over Grant’s successes at Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee.
– Grant is sometimes referred to as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, an obvious play on his initials. Even though he is famous for the phrase, Grant demanded unconditional surrender exactly once: at Fort Donelson, when he knew the Confederate commander had no other choice.
– Grant was famously steady and calm, traits he exhibited from the beginning of the war. In his first major action, at Belmont, Missouri, Grant’s force was cut off from its river transports by Confederate troops. When one of his brigade commanders suggested surrender, Grant calmly replied that they had cut their way in and they would cut their way out. His troops proceeded to do just that. A few months later, after nearly being pushed into the Tennessee River on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, William T. Sherman said to Grant, “We had the Devil’s own day today.” Grant chewed on his cigar for a moment and replied, “Yeah. Lick ‘em tomorrow though.” And he did.
– Grant is sometimes unfairly cast as a “butcher.” This characterization stems mainly from the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor, where Grant ordered an assault against strong Confederate fortifications. His army suffered terribly and Grant regretted ordering the final costly attack for the rest of his days.
– Grant’s true talent was maneuver. His initial efforts against Belmont and Forts Henry and Donelson were campaigns of maneuver, even though Donelson was briefly besieged. His celebrated Vicksburg Campaign featured maneuver on a grand scale before ending in a siege once the Confederates were forced back into their works. His Overland Campaign of 1864 was based on maneuver, eventually running Robert E. Lee to ground around Petersburg. Finally, his policy of army-sized raids into Confederate territory (think Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas) were the last leap from the occupation of territory to destroying the ability of the South to wage war. Grant later laid out his philosophy of war: “Get at the enemy as quick as you can; hit him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.” Grant did that better than any general of the Civil War. What set Grant apart was his determination to carry on. When the Confederates, especially Lee, bloodied the noses of other Union commanders, they withdrew. Grant just kept coming.
– Grant is often considered one of the first “modern” commanders because he understood and embraced the fact that he was making war on Confederate society, not just its army. More than any other commander of the war, Grant targeted the ability of his enemy to wage war on every level.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: The Intelligent Man of Action
– When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into World War II, Brigadier General Dwight D. Eisenhower, despairing of his chances for advancement, wrote a letter to his old friend General George S. Patton. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that I could have a regiment in your division,” he wrote, “but I think I could do a damn good job of commanding a regiment.”
– Before he could mail that letter, Ike was summoned from Fort Sam Houston to Washington to report to the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall. Ike cursed his luck. He had been stuck in a staff job during World War I and seen no combat. When he received Marshall’s summons, he believed he was going to repeat that experience.
– Marshall had identified Eisenhower as a man who had the smarts to grasp strategy and the ability to lead a multinational alliance while smoothing the inevitable differences between the allies themselves. Ike didn’t know it, but he had just made the short list to be Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. When he got to DC, Marshall asked him to outline his opinion on how the war should be fought, in broad terms. He worked a couple of hours and passed Marshall’s test. From then on Eisenhower took on more and more responsibility, until he was second only to Marshall himself.
– For all his accomplishments, Eisenhower never experienced combat up close and never commanded troops in battle at the tactical or operational levels.
– Though the British, especially General Bernard Montgomery, thought Ike a strategic amateur, he had prepared himself diligently for his task in World War II. During the war his PR people depicted him as liking to relax with a cheap Western novel. He probably encouraged that depiction. In reality he was a serious military intellectual who was well-traveled and well-read. He was once asked in the 1930s why he read so many books on Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. Ike responded that he was learning all he could about where the next big war would be fought. He also read Clausewitz’ On War three times, no mean feat in itself. But even though he was a thinker, he demonstrated an ability to get things done that eluded earlier Allied efforts. He not only knew what he wanted to do, he knew how to get it done. Marshall had identified these traits in Eisenhower early on.
– Ike shared Marshall’s ability to size up commanders and use them where they were best suited. Case in point: George Patton. Marshall came under enormous pressure to push Patton to the background after several embarrassing and well-documented incidents. But Eisenhower knew he would need Patton during and after the breakout from Normandy and he knew it more than a year before the Normandy landings took place. Eisenhower wrote to Marshall that Patton was “admittedly unbalanced but nevertheless aggressive.” In his memoirs, Ike wrote that Patton was “a master of fast and overwhelming pursuit,” and “the finest leader in military pursuit that the United States Army has known.” Patton was a pain in Eisenhower’s butt, but Ike knew he needed Patton to win the war and so kept him despite pressure from on high.
– On the other hand, Eisenhower had little tolerance for failure. Upon his promotion of Patton to corps command in place of the disgraced Lloyd Fredendall, Ike told Patton to “be cold-blooded about removal of inefficient officers. If a man fails, send him back to General Ike and let him worry about it.”
Eisenhower seems to have agreed with Napoleon that “there are no bad soldiers, only bad generals.”
– Eisenhower held himself to that same standard. On the eve of the Normandy operation, he penned two press releases. One talked about the success of the operation and extolled the efforts and valor of the troops. The other, fortunately not necessary, reported the failure of the landings and placed all responsibility on himself. Had the landings failed, there is little doubt Ike would have been relieved or at least forced to resign.
– In the end, Eisenhower was the right guy for the job. He was smart but not arrogant; diplomatic but not pliable; loyal but not blindly so. He always had his eyes on the endgame and positioned himself and his command to achieve it. It is indeed difficult to imagine the war in Europe without Dwight D. Eisenhower at the reins.
So there we have it: short profiles of four presidents who were, or at least can be considered to have been, professional soldiers. Their terms as POTUS met with varying degrees of success, with Washington and Grant ranking near the top and bottom respectively. Depending on your point of view, the administrations of Jackson and Eisenhower were less clear cut and continue to be evaluated. While much of Jackson’s military career has drawn more criticism over time, the command reputations of Washington, Grant, and Eisenhower are seemingly secure. For now anyway.
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