9 Presidents Who Were War Heroes

While previous military service is not a requirement for being president, the resumés of 26 of America’s 45 presidents have included service in the U.S. military. Indeed, the very title “commander in chief” conjures up images of Gen. George Washington leading his Continental Army across the snowy Delaware River or Gen. Dwight Eisenhower accepting Germany’s surrender in World War II

While all of the presidents who served in the U.S. military did so with honor and dedication, the service records of a few of them are especially notable. Here, in order of their terms in office, are nine U.S. presidents whose military service might truly be called "heroic." 

George Washington

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Without the military skills and heroism of George Washington, America might still be a British colony. During one of the longest military careers of any president or elected federal official, Washington first fought in the French and Indian Wars of 1754, earning an appointment as commander of the Virginia Regiment.

When the American Revolution began in 1765, Washington returned to military service when he reluctantly accepted a position as General and Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. On the snowy Christmas night of 1776, Washington turned the tide of the war by leading his 5,400 troops across the Delaware River in a successful surprise attack on Hessian forces stationed at their winter quarters in Trenton, New Jersey. On October 19, 1781, Washington, along with French forces, defeated British Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis in the Battle of Yorktown, effectively ending the war and securing American independence.

In 1794, the 62-year-old Washington became the first and only sitting U.S. president to lead troops into battle when he led 12,950 militiamen into Western Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Riding his horse through the Pennsylvania countryside, Washington warned locals not to “abet, aid, or comfort the insurgents aforesaid, as they will answer the contrary at their peril.”

Andrew Jackson

Engraved portrait of Andrew Jackson

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

By the time he was elected president in 1828, Andrew Jackson had served heroically in the U.S. military. He is the only president who served in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. During the War of 1812, he commanded U.S. forces against the Creeks in the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend. In January 1815, Jackson’s troops defeated the British in the decisive Battle of New Orleans. More than 700 British troops were killed in the battle, while Jackson’s forces lost only eight soldiers. The battle not only secured the U.S. victory in the War of 1812, but it also earned Jackson the rank of Major General in the U.S. Army and propelled him to the White House.

In keeping with the rugged resilience implied in his nickname, "Old Hickory," Jackson is also noted for surviving what is believed to be the first presidential assassination attempt. On January 30, 1835, Richard Lawrence, an unemployed housepainter from England, tried to fire two pistols at Jackson, both of which misfired. Unharmed but enraged, Jackson famously attacked Lawrence with his cane. 

Zachary Taylor

Engraved portrait of Zachary Taylor in military uniform

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Honored for serving side-by-side with the soldiers he commanded, Zachary Taylor earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready.” Reaching the rank of Major General in the U.S. Army, Taylor was revered as the hero of the Mexican-American War, often winning battles in which his forces were outnumbered. 

Taylor's mastery of military tactics and command first showed themselves in the 1846 Battle of Monterrey, a Mexican stronghold so well fortified, it was considered “impregnable.” Outnumbered by more than 1,000 soldiers, Taylor took Monterrey in just three days.

After taking the Mexican town of Buena Vista in 1847, Taylor was ordered to send his men to Veracruz to reinforce Gen. Winfield Scott. Taylor did so but decided to leave a few thousand troops to defend Buena Vista. When Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna found out, he attacked Buena Vista with a force of nearly 20,000 men. When Santa Anna demanded surrender, Taylor’s aide replied, “I beg leave to say that I decline acceding to your request.” In the ensuing Battle of Buena Vista, Taylor’s forces of only 6,000 men repelled Santa Anna’s attack, virtually ensuring America’s victory in the war.

Ulysses S. Grant

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant

National Archives and Records Administration

While President Ulysses S. Grant also served in the Mexican-American War, his greatest military feat was no less than keeping the United States together. Under his command as General of the U.S. Army, Grant overcame a series of early battlefield setbacks to defeat the Confederate Army in the Civil War and restore the Union.

As one of the most legendary generals in U.S. history, Grant started his rise to military immortality at the 1847 Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War. At the height of the battle, the then young Lieutenant Grant, aided by a few of his troops, dragged a mountain howitzer into the bell tower of a church to launch a decisive artillery attack against Mexican forces. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1854, Grant left the Army hoping to start a new career as a school teacher.

However, Grant’s teaching career was short-lived, as he immediately joined the Union Army when the Civil War erupted in 1861. Commanding Union troops on the war’s western front, Grant’s forces won a series of decisive Union victories along the Mississippi River. Elevated to the rank of Commander of the Union Army, Grant personally accepted the surrender of Confederate leader General Robert E. Lee on April 12, 1865, after the Battle of Appomattox

First elected in 1868, Grant would go on to serve two terms as president, largely dedicating his efforts to healing the divided nation during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period

Theodore Roosevelt

The Rough Riders
William Dinwiddie / Getty Images

Perhaps more so than any other U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt lived life large. Serving as assistant secretary of the Navy when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt resigned his post and created the nation’s first all-volunteer cavalry regiment, the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, famously known as the Rough Riders. 

Personally leading their head-long charges, Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders won decisive victories in the battles of Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill

In 2001, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Roosevelt the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at San Juan Hill.

Following his service in the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt served as governor of New York and later as Vice President of the United States under President William McKinley. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt was sworn in as president. After winning a landslide victory in the election of 1904, Roosevelt announced he would not seek re-election to a second term.

However, Roosevelt did run for president again in 1912—unsuccessfully this time—as the candidate of the newly-formed progressive Bull Moose Party. At a campaign stop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in October 1912, Roosevelt was shot as he approached the stage to speak. However, his steel glasses case and a copy of his speech carried in his vest pocket stopped the bullet. Undeterred, Roosevelt arose from the floor and delivered his 90-minute speech. 

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said as he began his address, "I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose." 

Dwight D. Eisenhower

General Dwight D Eisenhower (1890 - 1969), Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, watches the Allied landing operations from the deck of a warship in the English Channel during World War II, June 1944. Eisenhower was later elected the 34th President of the United States

Keystone / Getty Images

After graduating from West Point in 1915, young U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Dwight D. Eisenhower earned a Distinguished Service Medal for his service in the United States during World War I

Disappointed to never have engaged in battle in WWI, Eisenhower quickly began advancing his military career in 1941 after the U.S. entered World War II. After serving as Commanding General, European Theater of Operations, he was named Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force of the North African Theater of Operations in November 1942. Regularly seen commanding his troops at the front, Eisenhower drove Axis forces out of North Africa and led the U.S. invasion of Axis' stronghold Sicily in less than one year. 

In December 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt elevated Eisenhower to the rank of Four-Star General and appointed him as Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Eisenhower went on to mastermind and lead the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy, ensuring the Allies’ victory in the European theater. 

After the war, Eisenhower would achieve the rank of General of the Army and serve as U.S. Military Governor in Germany and Army chief of staff.

Elected in a landslide victory in 1952, Eisenhower would go on to serve two terms as president. 

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy with fellow crew members

Corbis / Getty Images

Young John F. Kennedy was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Naval Reserve in September 1941. After completing Naval Reserve Officer Training School in 1942, he was promoted to lieutenant junior grade and assigned to a patrol torpedo boat squadron in Melville, Rhode Island. In 1943, Kennedy was reassigned to the Pacific Theater of World War II where he would command two patrol torpedo boats, PT-109 and PT-59. 

On August 2, 1943, with Kennedy in command of a crew of 20, PT-109 was cut in half when a Japanese destroyer off the Solomon Islands rammed into it. Gathering his crew in the ocean around the wreckage, Lieutenant Kennedy reportedly asked them, "There's nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose." 

After his crew joined him in refusing to surrender to the Japanese, Kennedy led them on a three-mile swim to an unoccupied island where they were later rescued. When he saw that one of his crewmen was too badly injured to swim, Kennedy clenched the strap of the sailor's life jacket in his teeth and towed him to shore. 

Kennedy was subsequently awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism and the Purple Heart Medal for his injuries. According to his citation, Kennedy "unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore."

After being medically discharged from the Navy due to a chronic back injury, Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946, to the U.S. Senate in 1952, and as President of the United States in 1960.

When asked how he had become a war hero, Kennedy reportedly replied, "It was easy. They cut my PT boat in half." ​

Gerald Ford

President Ford At Press Conference
Interim Archives / Getty Images

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, then 28-year-old Gerald R. Ford enlisted in the U.S. Navy, receiving a commission as ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve on April 13, 1942. Ford was soon promoted to the rank of lieutenant and was assigned to the newly commissioned aircraft carrier USS Monterey in June 1943. During his time on the Monterey, he served as an assistant navigator, Athletic Officer, and antiaircraft battery officer. 

While Ford was on the Monterey in late 1943 and 1944, he participated in several important actions in the Pacific Theater, including allied landings on Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Leyte, and Mindoro. In November 1944, aircraft from the Monterey launched strikes against Wake Island and the Japanese-held Philippines.

For his service on the Monterey, Ford was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal, nine engagement stars, the Philippine Liberation Medal, two bronze stars, and the American Campaign and World War Two Victory Medals.

After the war, Ford served in the U.S. Congress for 25 years as a U.S. Representative from Michigan. Following the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, Ford became the first person to be appointed to the vice presidency under the ​25th Amendment. When President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, Ford assumed the presidency, making him the first and so far only person to have served as both Vice President and President of the United States without being elected. While he reluctantly agreed to run for his own presidential term in 1976, Ford lost the general election to Jimmy Carter.

George H.W. Bush

George H. W. Bush
U.S. Navy / Getty Images

When the 17-year-old George H.W. Bush heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he decided to join the Navy as soon as he turned 18. After graduating from Phillips Academy in 1942, Bush deferred his admission to Yale University and accepted a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Navy.

At just 19, Bush became the youngest naval aviator in World War II at the time.

On September 2, 1944, Lieutenant Bush, with a crew of two, was piloting a Grumman TBM Avenger on a mission to bomb a communications station on the Japanese-occupied island of Chichijima. As Bush began his bombing run, the Avenger was hit by intense antiaircraft fire. With the cockpit filling with smoke and expecting the plane to explode at any time, Bush completed the bombing run and turned the plane back over the ocean. Flying as far over the water as possible, Bush ordered his crew—Radioman Second Class John Delancey and Lt. J.G. William White—to bail out before bailing out himself.

After hours floating in the ocean, Bush was rescued by the Navy submarine, the USS Finback. The other two men were never found. For his actions, Bush was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and a Presidential Unit Citation. 

After the war, Bush went on to serve in the U.S. Congress from 1967 to 1971 as a U.S. Representative from Texas, special envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, vice president of the United States, and the 41st president of the United State.

In 2003, when asked about his heroic WWII bombing mission, Bush stated, "I wonder why the parachutes didn't open for other guys. Why me? Why am I blessed?" 

The election of military veterans to the office of president often coincides with America's engagement in wars. Prior to World War II, a majority of presidential veterans had served in the Army. Since WWII, most have served in the Navy. Besides the 26 presidents who served in the U.S. military, several presidents served in state or local militias. As of the 2016 election, 15 presidents have served in the Army or Army Reserve, followed by 9 who served in state militias, 6 who served in the Navy or Naval Reserve, and 2 who served in the Continental Army. So far, no former member of the U.S. Marine Corps or U.S. Coast Guard has been elected or served as president.

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Longley, Robert. "9 Presidents Who Were War Heroes." ThoughtCo, Dec. 20, 2022, thoughtco.com/presidents-who-were-war-heroes-4150390. Longley, Robert. (2022, December 20). 9 Presidents Who Were War Heroes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/presidents-who-were-war-heroes-4150390 Longley, Robert. "9 Presidents Who Were War Heroes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/presidents-who-were-war-heroes-4150390 (accessed June 2, 2023).