31 American Presidents Who Served in the Military (Updated)

Blog Written by JOHN COTTON / Fact-checked by LOGAN MILLER

american presidents who served in the military

Are you aware that 31 U.S. presidents have been veterans? They were high-ranking generals serving in the army before running for president.

You might not know that George Washington was a general, the highest-ranked Amerian officer of all time. Also, Nixon was a commander, and Kennedy was a lieutenant in the U.S.Navy Reserve.

Check out the complete list of the American presidents who served in the military below, including their highest rank and last service.

List of Presidents Who Served in the Military

Order of presidency (Years of tenure) Name (Lifespan) Highest Rank Last Service
1st (1789 – 1797) George Washington (1732 – 1799) General of the Armies US Army
3rd (1801 – 1809) Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) Colonel Albermarle County Regiment, Virginia Militia
4th (1809 – 1817) James Madison (1751 – 1836) Colonel Orange County, Virginia Militia
5th (1817 – 1825) James Monroe (1817 – 1825) Colonel Virginia Militia
7th (1829 – 1837) Andrew Jackson (1767 – 1845) Major General US Army
9th (1841) William Henry Harrison (1773 – 1841) Major General US Army
10th (1841 – 1845) John Tyler (1790 – 1862) Captain Virginia Militia
11th (1845 – 1849) James K. Polk (1795 – 1849) Major Tennessee Militia
12th (1849 – 1850) Zachary Taylor (1784 – 1850) Major General US Army
13th (1850-1853) Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) Major New York Militia
14th (1853 – 1857) Franklin Pierce (1804 – 1869) Brigadier General US Army
15th (1857 – 1861) James Buchanan (1791 – 1868) Private Pennsylvania Militia
16th (1861 – 1865) Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) Captain Sangamon County State Militia, Illinois
17th  (1865 – 1869) Andrew Johnson (1808 – 1875) Brigadier General Union Army (Volunteers)
18th (1869 – 1877) Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) General of the Army Union Army
19th (1877 – 1881) Rutherford B. Hayes (1822 – 1893) Major General Union Army (Volunteers)
20th (1881) James A. Garfield (1831 – 1881) Major General Union Army
21st (1881 – 1885) Chester A. Arthur (1829 – 1886) Brigadier General New York Militia
23rd (1889 – 1893) Benjamin Harrison (1833 – 1901) Brigadier General Union Army
25th (1897 – 1901) William McKinley (1843 – 1901) Captain Union Army (Volunteers)
26th  (1901 – 1909) Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) Colonel US Army (Volunteers)
33rd  (1945 – 1953) Harry S. Truman (1884 – 1972) Colonel US Army Reserve
34th (1953 – 1961) Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890 – 1969) General of the Army US Army
35th (1961 – 1963) John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963) Lieutenant US Navy Reserve
36th (1963 – 1969) Lyndon B. Johnson (1908 – 1973) Commander US Navy Reserve
37th (1969 – 1974) Richard M. Nixon (1913 – 1994) Commander US Navy Reserve
38th (1974 – 1977) Gerald R. Ford, Jr. (1913 – 2006) Lieutenant Commander US Navy Reserve
39th (1977 – 1981) Jimmy Carter (born 1924) Lieutenant US Navy
40th (1981 – 1989) Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) Captain US Army Reserve
41st (1989 – 1993) George H. W. Bush (1924 – 2018) Lieutenant US Navy Reserve
43rd (2001 – 2009) George W. Bush (born 1946) First Lieutenant Air National Guard

1. George Washington


  1. Service: Virginia Militia, Continental Army, US Army
  2. Highest Rank: General
  3. Conflict: French & Indian War; American Revolutionary War

George Washington is the first among wartime presidents. He began his military career as a commander in the Virginia Militia. During the Revolutionary War, he led numerous battles from 1775 to 1783.

George Washington went home as a hero and was elected as the country’s first president in 1789. For his huge role in America’s history, Washington was granted the highest possible US Army rank (General of the Armies of the US) posthumously, over 175 years after his death.

2. Thomas Jefferson


  1. Service: Virginia Militia
  2. Highest Rank: Colonel
  3. Conflict: American Revolutionary War

Thomas Jefferson served in the Virginia Militia during the Revolutionary War. From 1770 to 1779, he led as a colonel, then as a commander of the Albemarle County Militia.

Thomas Jefferson would later be the primary author of the country’s Declaration of Independence and elected the third president of the United States in 1801.

3. James Madison


  1. Service: Virginia Militia (Orange County)
  2. Highest Rank: Colonel
  3. Conflict: American Revolutionary War

Just like his predecessors who were presidents that served in the military, James Madison led the Virginia Militia as a colonel from 1775 through 1781. He never went into combat during the Revolutionary War.

James Madison did come home as a war hero and this led to the start of his political career, first as a congressman and party leader, then eventually as the country’s fourth president.

4. James Monroe


  1. Service: Continental Army
  2. Highest Rank: Major
  3. Conflict: Revolutionary War

James Monroe joined the Third Virginia Infantry in 1775 and fought under the command of George Washington. He would eventually get wounded during the Battle of Trenton and earn his Lieutenant Colonel rank as he led a company of soldiers in Virginia.

5. Andrew Jackson


  1. Service: US Army, Volunteer Army, Tennessee Militia
  2. Highest Rank: Major General
  3. Conflict: War of 1812

Out of the many presidents with military background, only a few had their first taste of military service as a major general. Then-lawyer Andrew Jackson was appointed to lead the Tennessee Militia in 1802 and stayed in this role for 10 years.

It was only during the War of 1812 did Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson gain overnight fame for leading his troops on the battlefield and protecting New Orleans.

6. William Henry Harrison


  1. Service: Kentucky Militia
  2. Highest Rank: Major General
  3. Conflict: War of 1812

William Henry Harrison was the shortest-serving leader of all presidents of the United States (he died a month after his oath-taking). He did have a longer military career, including as a Major General for the Kentucky militia (and Army of the Northwest) during the War of 1812.

7. John Tyler


  1. Service: Charles City Rifles (Virginia-based Militia)
  2. Highest Rank: Captain
  3. Conflict: War of 1812

John Tyler served as a captain in his own militia company named Charles City Rifles to defend Richmond, but had to dissolve it two months later when no enemies came.

Tyler then focused on his political career, including becoming a governor of Virginia in 1825, a senator in 1827, VP in 1841, and the 11th US President upon the unprecedented death of then-president William Henry Harrison.

8. James K. Polk


  1. Service: Tennessee Militia
  2. Highest Rank: Colonel
  3. Conflict: Didn’t see war as colonel

James Polk spent just a year as a colonel with the Tennessee Militia in 1821. He then became involved heavily in Tennessee politics as a state legislator and governor, which led to Polk winning the presidency in 1844.

During his presidency, James Polk handled the response, defense, and military plans throughout the Mexican-American War.

9. Zachary Taylor


  1. Service: US Army
  2. Highest Rank: Major General
  3. Conflict: War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, Second Seminole War, Mexican-American War

Zachary Taylor was one of the presidents with military service active most of his life. He served in the US Army from 1808 to 1849, fighting in four different wars. After the Mexican-American War, this wartime hero was elected the 12th US president.

10. Millard Fillmore


  1. Service: New York Militia
  2. Highest Rank: Major
  3. Conflict: American Civil War

Unlike other past presidents’ military rank obtained prior to their presidencies, Millard Fillmore only served as a Major in the New York Militia (as part of  Union Continentals) years after his presidential tenure.

11. Franklin Pierce


  1. Service: New Hampshire Militia, US Army
  2. Highest Rank: Brigadier general
  3. Conflict: Mexican-American War

Franklin Pierce entered the New Hampshire Militia as a private in 1846 to fight during the Mexican-American War. He was promoted to brigadier general by 1847 and fought in Mexico City. Pierce had to return home to New Hampshire in 1848 after an injury and resumed his law practice.

12. James Buchanan


  1. Service: Pennsylvania Militia
  2. Highest Rank: Private
  3. Conflict: War of 1812

James Buchanan had a very extensive political career, but his military history is not as impressive. He was the only one out of 31 veteran presidents who wasn’t an officer.

Buchanan was also the last president who served in the War of 1812.

13. Abraham Lincoln


  1. Service: Illinois Militia
  2. Highest Rank: Captain
  3. Conflict: American Indian Wars (Black Hawk War)

Abraham Lincoln was a captain with the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War. But Lincoln’s leadership of the Union during the Civil War, the death of slavery, and the modernization of the US economy made him one of the most popular military presidents.

14. Andrew Johnson


  1. Service: US Army
  2. Highest Rank: Brigadier general
  3. Conflict: American Civil War

Abraham Lincoln appointed Andrew Johnson as Military Governor of Tennessee in 1853 to 1857. He then served as Brigadier General in the US Army from 1862 to 1865 during the American Civil War.

Johnson is also known as the VP who became the 17th US president, after Lincoln’s assassination.

15. Ulysses S. Grant


  1. Service: US Army
  2. Highest Rank: General of the Army
  3. Conflict: Mexican-American War; American Civil War

Many presidents served in the military when war came knocking near their hometowns. Ulysses S. Grant attended the United States Military Academy and planned to leave the military after completing the 4-year compulsory duty.

Grant changed his mind after fighting in the Mexican-American War and became one of the most influential names in the Civil War.

Eventually, Ulysses S. Grant would rise in rank and become the country’s only four-star general (as of 2023).

16. Rutherford B. Hayes


  1. Service: US Army
  2. Highest Rank: General of the Army
  3. Conflict: American Civil War

Rutherford B. Hayes fought and was wounded 5 times during the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865. He rose to the rank of brigadier general and brevet major general. Hayes was still on active duty when he was elected to Congress.

17. James A. Garfield


  1. Service: US Army
  2. Highest Rank: Major General
  3. Conflict: American Civil War

In 1861, James A. Garfield volunteered for service during the Civil War. It was the Battle of Middle Creek (aka “the battle that made a presidency”) that led to Garfield’s promotion as a major general in 1863. He was then elected to Congress, which led to his presidency in 1880.

18. Chester A. Arthur


  1. Service: New York State Militia
  2. Highest Rank: Brigadier General
  3. Conflict: Civil War

Chester A. Arthur is proof that not all US presidents in military fought on the battlefield.

Chester Arthur first served as engineer-in-chief of Governor Edwin D. Morgan’s military staff. When the Civil War broke, he was promoted to brigadier general rank and assigned to New York Militia’s quartermaster department and effectively handled the outfitting/housing of troops.

19. Benjamin Harrison


  1. Service: Union Army
  2. Highest Rank: Brevet Brigadier General
  3. Conflict: Civil War

Benjamin Harrison served as a colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln then nominated Harrison to Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers, which the U.S. Senate confirmed in 1865.

20. William McKinley


  1. Highest Rank: Brevet Major
  2. Conflict: Civil War

William McKinley was teaching when Civil War began. He enlisted and joined the 23rd Ohio Infantry as a private in 1861, but ended his military career as a brevet major in 1865.

McKinley was the last Civil War veteran president. He occupied the White House from 1896 until 1901.

21. Theodore Roosevelt


  1. Service: US Army
  2. Highest Rank: Colonel
  3. Conflict: Spanish-American War

Theodore Roosevelt served as a second lieutenant (then promoted to captain) in the New York National Guard from 1882 to 1886. He then became Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President McKinley in 1898 but quit the post the following year when the Spanish-American War broke out.

Roosevelt founded the Rough Riders, a volunteer cavalry unit, and fought the War in Cuba. He ended his military career with a colonel rank.

For his military credentials, Roosevelt was posthumously awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and Medal of Honor.

22. Harry S. Truman


  1. Service: Army Officer Reserve Corps
  2. Highest Rank: Colonel
  3. Conflict: World War I

Harry S. Truman was the only U.S. president who served in World War 1. He almost didn’t make it as a soldier when his poor eyesight made him fail his entry to West Point. Truman enlisted in the Missouri National Guard instead, where he passed just by memorizing the eye test chart. There he served from 1905 to 1911.

When the US entered WWI, Truman rejoined his former unit and moved up captain ranks. In 1920, he joined the Officers Reserve Corps, where he was promoted to colonel 11 years later.

23. Dwight D. Eisenhower


  1. Service: US Army
  2. Highest Rank: General of the Army
  3. Conflict: World War I and World War II

Dwight D. Eisenhower attended West Point and served as second lieutenant in the US Army. He fought both in WW1 and in WW2, from 1915 to 1948. By 1944, Eisenhower had already achieved a 5-star General rank.

From 1951 to 1952, Eisenhower served as supreme Allied commander of Europe’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

24. John F. Kennedy


  1. Service: US Navy
  2. Highest Rank: Lieutenant
  3. Conflict: World War II

John F. Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from Harvard in 1940.

During WWII, Kennedy received a Purple Heart and a Navy & Marine Corps Medal. He became a war hero when he safely led 10 of his surviving crew members to a nearby island after a Japanese warship sliced their boat in two.

JFK served in the US Navy from 1941 to 1945. When he was honorably discharged for his back injury in 1945, he had a lieutenant rank.

25. Lyndon B. Johnson


  1. Service: US Naval Reserve
  2. Highest Rank: Commander
  3. Conflict: World War II

Lyndon Johnson served in the Navy from 1941 to 1942. He was promoted to lieutenant commander right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Johnson would serve as a commander of the Navy Reserve until 1964. He was awarded an Army Silver Star for his service.

26. Richard M. Nixon


  1. Service: US Naval Reserve
  2. Highest Rank: Commander
  3. Conflict: World War II

Richard Nixon joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942 and served as an aviation ground officer in the South Pacific. When he came home to the US, Nixon continued to serve in different roles and rose to lieutenant commander rank before ending his military career in 1946 for a political one.

27. Ford, Jr.


  1. Service: US Naval Reserve
  2. Highest Rank: Lieutenant Commander
  3. Conflict: World War II

Gerald R. Ford, Jr. enlisted with the U.S. Navy after the Pearl Harbor attack. During WWII, he fought in the South Pacific and won 10 battle stars for his service. In 1946, Ford left the US Naval Reserve with a lieutenant commander rank.

28. Jimmy Carter


  1. Service: US Navy
  2. Highest Rank: Lieutenant
  3. Conflict: World War II

Jimmy Carter became part of the U.S. Navy in 1946 during WWII. Unlike other presidents who serve in the navy, Carter got to experience surface ship and submarine services, followed by the development of nuclear-powered submarines. Jimmy left the navy in 1953 when his father died.

29. Ronald Reagan


  1. Service: US Army Reserve; US Army Air Corps
  2. Highest Rank: Captain
  3. Conflict: World War II (stateside)

Ronald Reagan served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, although he didn’t see combat due to his bad eyesight. Reagan, however, joined the Army Air Corps First Motion Picture Unit in producing military-themed promotional films and training videos. He ended his military career with the rank of captain.

30. George H. W. Bush


  1. Service: US Naval Reserve
  2. Highest Rank: Lieutenant (Junior Grade)
  3. Conflict: World War II

Many of the recent presidents were veterans of the US Navy. For example, George H.W. Bush has been a member of the U.S. Navy since he was 18 years old. From 1942 to 1945, Bush flew 58 combat missions as part of his World War II service, which led to his lieutenant promotion and a Distinguished Flying Cross award for his heroism.

31. George W. Bush


  1. Service: Texas Air National Guard
  2. Highest Rank: First Lieutenant
  3. Conflict: Vietnam War (stateside)

If you’re wondering how many presidents served in the Air Force, George W. Bush (the 43rd US president) is the only one as of 2023. He took on the role of first lieutenant with the Texas Air National Guard from 1968 to 1973.

Frequently Asked Questions


Which president had the highest military rank?

The top 3 presidents with the highest military ranks are:

  1. George Washington: Died lieutenant general, but was posthumously appointed to the General of the Armies of the United States, making him a six-star general.
  2. Dwight D. Eisenhower: five-star general
  3. Ulysses S. Grant: four-star general

Has a president ever fought in a war while in office?

George Washington was the first and only sitting president to personally lead troops into battle, while in uniform, during the Whisky Rebellion of 1794.

He was the Commander in Chief and no actual fighting occurred because the rebels dispersed after seeing the force Washington brought to battle.

Who is the first president to serve in the military?

George Washington was the first president to serve in the military. His military career spanned 40+ years, from 1752 to 1799.

Who is the last president to serve in the military?

George W. Bush, who was president from 2001 to 2009, served as first lieutenant of the Texas Air National Guard. Bush served during the Vietnam War, from 1968 to 1973.

Which presidents received the Purple Heart?

Out of all the presidents who were in the military, John F. Kennedy was the only one who received a Purple Heart award and the Navy & Marine Corps Medal. These were awarded for JFK’s bravery throughout World War II.


Many papers have tried to link a person’s prior military background to their excellent utilization of military force, but this simply cannot be generalized. Some American presidents who served in the military turned out to be amazing leaders, while others did not.

Yes, the majority of US presidents had a military background. But serving in the military isn’t really a requirement to run for the presidency. In fact, 14 past politicians won the presidency without ever going into combat. Click here to learn which presidents did not serve in the military.

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