The President of the United States serves as commander-in-chief of our armed forces. This is an awesome responsibility. How well qualified have our Presidents been to command the largest, most powerful military force in the world today? Some of our best have had no previous military experience. Others became President because of their military experience. Some will surprise you.
George Washington was our first military hero. His Revolutionary War record is well known, but what is less known is his service before the Revolutionary War. He served as a militia officer fighting with the British against the French and Indians, and commanded the Virginia militia, then the largest military force in this hemisphere. For a more detailed account of his military record, see my earlier article “George Washington, British Officer.” During the Revolutionary War, he commanded the Continental Army, holding it together through a series of defeats, and eventually defeating the British.
John Adams had no military experience, but he did serve as the chairman of the War Committee in the Continental Congress. In that capacity, he was George Washington’s immediate superior and worked with Washington on matters of supply and finance during the war. It was John Adams who first proposed Washington to be the commander of the Continental Army.
Thomas Jefferson also had no military experience. During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia. After his term had expired, but before a successor had been named, Jefferson learned of a British unit approaching his home at Monticello. After seeing to the safe evacuation of his family, Jefferson fled just before the British arrived. He was later criticized by some for cowardice as a result of this escape. The legislature established a special committee to investigate his conduct, and this committee completely vindicated Jefferson’s actions. It even adopted a resolution praising Jefferson’s “ability, rectitude, and integrity” and thanked him for his “impartial, upright and attentive administration whilst in office.”
James Madison had a very short military career. In October 1775, Madison was commissioned a colonel in the Orange County (Virginia) militia. He was with his regiment through basic training, drill and target practice, and he engaged in recruiting activities. When his regiment took to the field, Madison’s frail health forced him to leave it, and he saw no action during his brief military career.
James Monroe served in the Continental Army from March 1776 until December 1778. During that time, he rose in rank from lieutenant to major. In March 1776, Monroe dropped out of college to enlist in the 3rd Virginia Regiment. After basic training, the regiment joined Washington at Manhattan. Monroe was with the troops crossing the Delaware and took part in the Battle of Trenton where he led a charge against some cannon about to be fired against his troops. In this charge, he was severely wounded, and had to be carried off the field. For his heroism, Monroe was promoted to Captain. In 1777, he took part in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, and was promoted to major. After the winter at Valley Forge and the battle of Monmouth the following June, Monroe resigned his commission and returned to Virginia. He tried to raise a regiment of volunteers, but did not succeed. The Governor of Virginia appointed Monroe military commissioner of the state, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. George Washington praised Monroe’s service, saying, “He has, in every instance, maintained the reputation of a brave, active, and sensible officer.”
John Quincy Adams, like his father, saw no military service.
Andrew Jackson had a long, successful military career. In the Revolutionary War, the thirteen-year-old Jackson served as an orderly (messenger) for the local militia. He was present at the Battle of Hanging Rock in August 1780. The following April, Jackson and his older brother were captured by a British unit. The officer in charge ordered Jackson to clean his boots. When Jackson refused, the officer tried to slap him with the side of his sword. Jackson blocked the blow, but the blade cut Jackson’s arm to the bone and cut a deep gash in his forehead. The wound left a deep and permanent scar, and a hatred of the British, which Jackson had for the rest of his life. Without dressing the wounds, the British forced Jackson to march 40 miles to a prisoner of war camp in Camden, South Carolina. Jackson lived for a time on a diet of stale bread, and was released a year later after his brother died of smallpox and Jackson was thought to be dying of the same affliction.
Before and during the War of 1812, Jackson fought first the Indians and then the British. He was very successful, rising from major general of militia to major general of volunteers, to major general in the U.S. army. Jackson’s forces defeated the Indians at the battles of Talladega and Horseshoe Bend. His greatest success was at the Battle of New Orleans, where his small mostly untrained force beat a much larger force of British regulars. Jackson suffered 13 killed, while the British had over 2,000 casualties. This battle made Jackson a national hero.
After the War of 1812, Jackson commanded the Southern District. In that capacity, he invaded Spanish Florida to subdue Indian bands raiding American settlements. He captured Pensacola, and executed two British citizens (Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister) for arming and inciting the Indians. Although Secretary of War John Calhoun (later Jackson’s Vice President) and others wanted Jackson court-martialed, no action was taken. Jackson was named provisional governor of Florida after it was acquired from Spain.
Jackson was the last veteran of the Revolutionary War to be elected President, and the only President to be a prisoner of war. His military exploits made him a hero, and helped make him President.