10. John F. Kennedy
We come right out of the chute with a controversial choice. Many will argue JFK is ranked much too low based on his heroism during WWII and popularity as president. We’re not considering these presidents’ political careers, only their time in uniform. Here are the facts on Kennedy’s service: He served in the United States Navy from 1941-1945, rising to the rank of lieutenant. Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medals and the Purple Heart for his actions in the Solomon Islands after a Japanese destroyer rammed his PT boat. After the PT boat sank, Kennedy helped lead his crew to a nearby island, while personally towing an injured sailor. His heroism in that incident is the stuff of legends, but he’s in some fine company in that regard on this list, hence his low ranking.
9. Benjamin Harrison
The 23rd president of the United States started his military career as a second lieutenant and in 1864 rose to become Commander of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of the XX Corps, which enjoyed great success against Confederate forces in battles in Tennessee and Georgia. When he retired from service he had been promoted to brigadier general. Nine battles in a year and a half certainly gave him the courage under fire he’d need in his political career.
8. George H.W. Bush
Just out of high school at the time, George H.W. Bush became the youngest naval aviator in history on June 9, 1943. After being promoted to lieutenant, junior grade, he flew missions against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of World War II. In one mission, Bush’s plane was hit and caught fire, yet Bush continued to his target, successfully dropping munitions before bailing out and being rescued.
Bush was credited with 58 combat missions and eventually received the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation before being honorably discharged in September 1945. He was only 21 years old when discharged.
7. Gerald Ford
Future President Gerald Ford joined the military as a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve. He first served as an instructor at the Navy Preflight School in North Carolina in 1942 and was promoted to lieutenant in March 1943. After being assigned to the new aircraft carrier, the USS Monterey, he served as the assistant navigator and antiaircraft battery officer. While serving in that position, the Monterey took part in many engagements in the Pacific Ocean, including action at Wake Island and the Battle of the Philippine Sea. In one notable incident, a typhoon in December 1944 created havoc on the carrier. A major fire broke out, and Ford led efforts to extinguish the blaze.
Ford earned two bronze stars and nine engagement stars for his actions in the Pacific Theater. He was eventually promoted to lieutenant commander in 1945 before being honorably discharged from duty the next year.
6. Theodore Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt is one of the more interesting characters in American history. Before ascending to the U.S. presidency in 1901, Roosevelt was a collegiate boxer, cattle rancher, published author, amateur ornithologist, big-game hunter and the New York City police commissioner. All that came before he joined the military. He was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1898 when the battleship Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Roosevelt promptly ordered war munitions and supplies and asked Congress for authority to recruit sailors and prepare for war. He was quoted as saying, “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.”
When war was declared, Roosevelt resigned his post and recruited volunteers from across the country to make up the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, better known as the Rough Riders. Awarded the rank of colonel, Roosevelt commanded the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, in which they became famous for charges up Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill in Cuba. Roosevelt led the charges on horseback and because of his bravery and leadership was recommended for the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, some political infighting at the time prevented him from receiving this honor but finally, in 2001, he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, the only president to receive one.
5. Andrew Jackson
The seventh president of the United States began his military career by fighting in the American Revolution at the age of 13. Captured by the British, the young Andrew Jackson showed the toughness that would later earn him the nickname “Old Hickory.” In one legendary incident, Jackson refused to shine the boots of a British officer. The officer drew his sword and slashed Jackson, scarring him for life.
Jackson first earned widespread recognition for his military skills in the War of 1812 when he led American forces to victory in battle against the Creek Indians in Alabama. Jackson’s most notable military action, however, came in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, as he had less than 5,000 Americans to defend the port city from capture by a much larger British force. The Americans routed the British, making Jackson a national hero that set him on the path to the White House. He later served in another war, the First Seminole War in 1817, in which his ruthless actions against Indians in what was at the time Spanish territory convinced Spain to cede Florida to the United States.
4. Zachary Taylor
Zachary Taylor served in the military almost non-stop from 1808 to 1847 and participated in more engagements than we have room to discuss. He joined the U.S. Army in 1808, was soon promoted to captain and saw his first major action in the War of 1812, when he defended Fort Harrison in Indiana against Tecumseh’s forces. Some 20 years later, Taylor participated in the Black Hawk War and then in 1837, he helped defeat the Seminole Indians in Florida. After that war, Taylor was promoted to brigadier general, and by 1841 he commanded the entire southern division of the U.S. Army.
Despite his impressive military resume to that point, it was Taylor’s actions in the Mexican-American war that earned him the national acclaim that later won him the presidency. Charged with defending the new U.S. state of Texas from Mexican forces, Taylor engaged in several battles against Mexican troops led by Santa Anna. In the final engagement, the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, Taylor’s forces were outnumbered almost 3-1 by Santa Anna’s troops yet held their ground, forcing the Mexicans to retreat. In all, Taylor fought in four wars and served 39 years in the military.
3. Dwight D. Eisenhower
A career soldier with a long military resume, Dwight Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915 and served in World War I in a newly formed tank corps. After the war, he participated in a cross-country military caravan designed to test the military’s ability to respond to threats. The abysmal road conditions made a lasting impression on Eisenhower: almost 40 years later as president, he signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which initiated the United States Interstate Highway System.
After World War II broke out, Eisenhower was instrumental in devising strategies for fighting Germany and Japan. In 1942, he was named Commanding General for the European Theater of Operations, and was later that year given command of all Allied troops in North Africa. He oversaw the invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland before being named Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces in December 1943. After planning and implementing the ambitious Operation Overlord, which included D-Day, Eisenhower was named General of the Army in late 1944. After the war, Eisenhower served as Military Governor of the U.S. Occupation Zone in Germany before being named Chief of Staff of the Army in November 1945. Not bad for someone who had never held an active command above a battalion prior to World War II.
2. Ulysses S. Grant
Despite the Union’s overwhelming superiority in supplies and manpower, the North’s victory over the South was far from assured in the Civil War, especially after several early Confederate successes. Ulysses S. Grant’s leadership throughout the war was essential to the Union’s ultimate success. An 1843 graduate of West Point, Grant began his military career in the Mexican-American War, where he served from 1846-1848 as a lieutenant. He later resigned from the service only to be called back at the onset of the Civil War. Rising steadily through the ranks, Grant earned notoriety early in the war, first leading the North to victory at the Battle of Shiloh, and then capturing Vicksburg, Mississippi, which gave the Union control of the Mississippi River. After Grant and his troops prevailed against a larger Confederate force in the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863, he was promoted to Lieutenant General of the entire Union Army. For the next year, he pursued Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces in a series of tough battles until Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War.
There’s a tendency among some people to underrate Grant’s military achievements, given some of the negatives associated with him, such as his heavy use of alcohol and his scandal-plagued presidential administration, but as a military leader, he was one of the greatest in history.
1. George Washington
Prior to being named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, George Washington saw military action during the French and Indian War. As one of the few colonists with military experience, Washington was given the unenviable task of fighting for liberty against the British, who had superior numbers, training, and weaponry. Rather than list Washington’s battle-by-battle achievements during the American Revolution, let us consider for just a moment what a Herculean job he was given at the outbreak of that war. Washington was asked to not only be the supreme military leader, but to also organize and train an army that essentially did not exist, recruiting civilians with almost no military experience.
For six years General Washington was the face of the American Revolution, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the fledgling nation rested on his leadership. Despite numerous defeats, despite being poorly funded, and despite facing a ridiculous disparity in terms of troops and supplies, he refused to surrender and finally defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and won independence for the new United States of America.