Martin Van Buren (1837-1841), who had no military experience, followed war hero Andrew Jackson. William Henry Harrison, who defeated Van Buren in the election of 1840, in turn, followed Van Buren.
William Henry Harrison (1841-1841) was a professional soldier. Dropping out of college after only a year of studying medicine, he joined the army. During his career, he rose from ensign to major general.
As an aide-de-camp to General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, he participated in the campaign to pacify the Ottawa, Chippewa, Shawnee, and Pottawatomie Indian tribes. He fought in the battle of Fallen Timbers, the last battle of the campaign that resulted in the Treaty of Greenville. Harrison was credited for holding the troops in the line during a crucial point in the battle and received an official commendation for bravery. General Wayne wrote that Harrison “rendered the most essential service…. by his conduct and bravery in exciting the troops to press for victory.” He was promoted to captain in 1797, but resigned from the army the next year. He then served as Secretary of the Northwest Territory, then as territorial delegate to Congress, and then as Governor of the Indiana Territory.
While serving as Governor of the Indiana Territory, Harrison personally led troops against the Indian Confederation led by Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet. He defeated them in a fierce battle at Tippecanoe Creek. The Indian attack caught Harrison and his troops by surprise. After two hours of fierce, sometimes hand-to-hand fighting, Harrison rallied his forces and defeated the Indians. This battle earned Harrison his famous nickname, Old Tippecanoe.
When the War of 1812 began, Harrison was commissioned first a major general of the Kentucky militia, then a brigadier general in the U.S. army, then a major general in the U.S army. He successfully re-took Detroit from the British, and pursued British and Indian forces into Canada. He won a resounding victory at the Thames River. At the Battle of the Thames, Tecumseh was killed, more than 600 British prisoners were captured, and fieldpieces captured by the British from the Americans during the Revolutionary War were recaptured. The battle secured the Northwest and made Harrison a national hero.
William Henry Harrison died after only a month in the White House, and was followed by his Vice President, John Tyler (1841-1845) of Virginia. Tyler saw a brief period of military service during the War of 1812. After the British raided Hampton, Virginia, Tyler joined the Charles City Rifles and was commissioned as a captain of militia. His unit was assigned to the defenses of Richmond, and he saw no action. For his uneventful service, he was awarded a veteran’s bonus of 160 acres of land in what is now Sioux City, Iowa.
James K. Polk (1845-1849), President during the Mexican war, had very little previous military experience. In 1821, Polk was commissioned a captain of a militia cavalry unit, and later rose to the rank of colonel. But he saw no action during his military career.
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) was a professional soldier his entire adult life, until he resigned to accept the Presidency. Commissioned as a first lieutenant in 1808, Taylor rose in rank as his superiors recognized his ability. In 1811, Captain Taylor was assigned as commandant of Fort Knox at Vincennes in the Indiana Territory. His reorganization and improvement of the post gained him the admiration of William Henry Harrison.
During the War of 1812, Taylor was in command of Fort Harrison on the Wabash River. His successful defense of the fort against a determined British attack won him a brevet promotion to major, the first brevet promotion ever given in the U.S. army. (A brevet promotion was an honorary promotion given in recognition of bravery or achievement before the system of awarding medals was established.) After the war, he held a series of positions of increasing responsibility.
In the Black War of 1832, Taylor, now a colonel, constructed and commanded Fort Dixon. He arrived at the Battle of Bad Axe, the final battle of the conflict, in time to help rout the Sac and Fox warriors. After the war, he was appointed commandant of Fort Crawford.
Taylor fought in the Second Seminole War from 1837 to 1840. His forces defeated the Seminoles at the Battle of Okeechobee on Christmas Day in 1837. For this victory, he was brevetted a brigadier general and placed in command of all forces in Florida. Under his command, 53 new forts were built, 848 miles of roads were cut, and 3,643 feet of bridges and causeways were constructed. In 1841, Taylor was named commander of the Second Military Department with headquarters at Fort Smith, Arkansas. In 1844, he was named commander of the First Military Department with headquarters at Fort Jessup, Louisiana.
His location and experience made him the logical choice to lead the forces moved to the Mexican border during the increasing trouble with Mexico in 1846. Although outnumbered two to one at the Battle of Palo Alto after war had been declared, Taylor defeated a strong Mexican force under General Mariano Arista. The next day, he drove the Mexicans from the field at Resaca de la Palma. For these victories, he was promoted to major general. He next advanced on Monterrey, and after three days of intense fighting, received the surrender of Monterrey. He gave very liberal surrender terms, including an eight-week truce during which time he promised not to pursue the retreating forces. He believed that the U.S. should act magnanimously in victory, but President Polk disagreed. He stripped Taylor of the bulk of his troops, taking the most experienced and placing them under General Scott in the south of Mexico. Taylor correctly figured that Polk was just trying to prevent Taylor from becoming more of a hero and a possible Whig candidate against the Democrats in the next election.
With his forces greatly reduced, it was expected that Taylor would remain on the defensive. Instead, he moved on Buena Vista. He faced a force under General Santa Anna more than four times the size of his own, but again won a resounding victory. Taylor himself narrowly escaped injury or death. One bullet passed through his sleeve between his arm and chest, just grazing the inside of his upper arm. Another shot hit a button on his jacket, ripping it off, but not penetrating his skin. The American forces suffered 673 casualties, the Mexicans over 1,800. The news of this victory made “Old Rough and Ready,” as he was now known, a national hero and the next President of the United States.
When Taylor died in office, his Vice President, Millard Fillmore (1850-1853), followed him. Fillmore had no military experience prior to his Presidency, but did serve after his term. During the Civil War, Fillmore formed the Union Continentals, a home guard unit of the militia in Buffalo, New York. This unit was comprised of men over 45 and ineligible for the draft. Fillmore held the rank of major. The Union Continentals spent most of their time in service seeing groups of volunteers off at the train station, taking part in funerals and marching in patriotic parades.
Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) joined the army after the outbreak of the Mexican War. As a former Representative and Senator, he was commissioned a colonel. The next month, President Polk named him a brigadier general. Pierce got off to a good start in his military career, but then things went wrong, (a curious parallel to his political career). At the Battle of Contreras, his horse reared when frightened by a shell landing nearby. The pommel of the saddle jammed into Pierce’s groin, and he passed out from the pain. When the horse fell, it landed on Pierce’s leg, wrenching it badly. Later, he was accused by his political enemies of cowardice or drunkenness because of this incident, but the charges were not widely believed. He spent the rest of his time in the war taking foolish chances to prove his bravery, but he never again had the opportunity. He participated in the capture of Mexico City, but soon came down with dysentery, which so incapacitated him that he was forced to resign from the army.
James Buchanan (1857-1861) had a short military career during the War of 1812. After the burning of Washington in 1814, he volunteered for a unit of dragoons. The unit marched to Baltimore and served under Major Charles Ridgely of the Third Cavalry. After the British withdrew from Baltimore, the unit was honorably discharged.
Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) is considered by most historians to have been our greatest President. His actions in the Civil War set precedents in the use of Presidential power still followed today. His meager military background would not have led anyone to consider him fit to lead our nation through its hardest war.
In the Black Hawk War of 1832, Lincoln volunteered and was elected captain of his company. He served under Colonel Zachary Taylor for a 30-day period. He was twice reprimanded, once when his men stole army liquor and got drunk, and the other time for discharging a weapon in camp. For his first offense, he had to carry a wooden sword, a standard penalty at the time for being a poor officer. At the end of his enlistment, he again enlisted and this time served a 20-day tour of duty as a private in the mounted Independent Rangers. He also served a final 3-day tour as a private in the Independent Spy Corps, and tried without success to track down Chief Black Hawk in the wilderness. When this last tour was over, he returned home, having seen no action.
After Lincoln, every President for the rest of the century and into the next, save one, served in uniform, all but one of those in the Civil War. Some were recognized for their bravery, and some were involved in controversy. In the next article, we will examine this fascinating group of Presidential veterans.