Presidents Who Were Civil War Veterans

Some Late 19th Century Presidents Got a Political Boost From Wartime Service

The Civil War was the defining event of the 19th century, and some presidents got a political boost from their wartime service. Veterans organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic were ostensibly non-political, but there's no denying that wartime exploits translated to the ballot box.

Ulysses S. Grant

Photograph of General Ulysses S. Grant
General Ulysses S. Grant. Library of Congress

The election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 was nearly inevitable thanks to his service as the commander of the Union Army during the Civil War. Grant had been languishing in obscurity before the war, but his determination and skill marked him for promotion. President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant, and it was under his leadership that Robert E. Lee was forced to surrender in 1865, effectively ending the war.

Grant died in the summer of 1885, just 20 years after the end of the war, and his passing seemed to mark the end of an era. An enormous funeral procession held for him in New York City was the largest public event in New York held to that time.

Rutherford B. Hayes

Engraved portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rutherford B. Hayes, who became president following the disputed election of 1876, served with great distinction in the Civil War. At the end of the war he was promoted to the rank of general. He was in combat on many occasions, and was wounded four times.

The second, and most serious, wound sustained by Hayes was at the Battle of South Mountain, on September 14, 1862. After being shot in the left arm, just above the elbow, he continued to direct troops under his command. He recuperated from the wound and was lucky that his arm did not become infected and need to be amputated.

James Garfield

Engraved portrait of President James Garfield
James Garfield. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

James Garfield volunteered and helped raise troops for a volunteer regiment from Ohio. He essentially taught himself military tactics, and participated in fighting in Kentucky and in the very bloody Shiloh campaign.

His military experience propelled him into politics, and he was elected to Congress in 1862. He resigned his military commission in 1863 and served in Congress. He was often involved in decisions regarding military matters and issues pertaining to veterans.

Chester Alan Arthur

Photograph of Chester Alan Arthur
Chester Alan Arthur. Getty Images

Joining the military during the war, Republican activist Chester Alan Arthur was assigned to duty which never took him out of New York State. He served as a quartermaster and was involved in plans to defend New York State against any Confederate or foreign attack.

Arthur was, after the war, often identified as a veteran, and at times his supporters in the Republican Party referred to him as General Arthur. That was sometimes considered controversial as his service had been in New York City, not at the bloody battlefronts.

Arthur's political career was peculiar as he was added to the 1880 ticket with James Garfield as a compromise candidate, and Arthur had never run for elective office before. Arthur unexpectedly became president when Garfield was assassinated. 

Benjamin Harrison

Having joined the young Republican Party in the 1850s in Indiana, Benjamin Harrison felt that he should enlist in the Civil War when it broke out and he helped raise a regiment of volunteers in his native Indiana. Harrison, during the war, rose from being a lieutenant to brigadier general.

At the Battle of Resaca, part of the 1864 Atlanta campaign, Harrison saw combat. After returning to Indiana in the fall of 1864 to participate in election campaigning, he returned to active duty and saw action in Tennessee. At war's end his regiment traveled to Washington and participated in the Grand Review of troops which paraded on Pennsylvania Avenue.

William McKinley

Entering the Civil War as an enlisted man in an Ohio regiment, McKinley served as a quartermaster sergeant. He risked his life under fire at the Battle of Antietam, making sure to bring hot coffee and food to fellow soldiers in the 23rd Ohio. For exposing himself to enemy fire on what was essentially a humanitarian mission, he was considered a hero. And he was rewarded with a battlefield commission as a lieutenant. As a staff officer he served with another future president, Rutherford B. Hayes.

The Antietam Battlefield features a monument to McKinley which was dedicated in 1903, two years after he died from an assassin's bullet.

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McNamara, Robert. "Presidents Who Were Civil War Veterans." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 16). Presidents Who Were Civil War Veterans. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Presidents Who Were Civil War Veterans." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).