Andrew Johnson’s military career was, like the rest of his career, political. He had attracted national attention as the only southern member of Congress to refuse to leave his senate seat when his state seceded from the Union. On March 4, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee, most of which had been recaptured. With this appointment came the commission as a brigadier general of volunteers.
Johnson’s role as military governor was purely political. His orders were to re-establish federal authority in the state and maintain the peace and security of the state pending the restoration of civil government. Johnson possessed full executive, legislative and judicial powers, and used these powers to rid the state of Confederate influences. He removed all Confederate sympathizers from government offices and arrested clergymen who promoted Confederate interests from the pulpit. He also closed down anti-Union newspapers. At Johnson’s intercession, Lincoln exempted Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. Governor Johnson refused to evacuate the capital at Nashville, even when it was threatened with capture during a Confederate siege. Johnson once declared, “I am no military man, but any one who talks of surrender I will shoot.” He restored civil government to the state on March 4, 1865, the same day he took the oath as Vice President of the United States.
Like Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant became President solely because of his military exploits. Graduating from West Point in 1843, Grant served in the Mexican War with distinction, earning a promotion and two brevet promotions for bravery. After the war, Grant was posted without his wife and children to a remote post in California. His rumored drinking led to his resignation to avoid a court-martial.
At the start of the Civil War, Grant volunteered and became the colonel of the 21st Illinois infantry. He then rose through the chain of command, commanding victorious campaigns against key Confederate points. He took Forts Henry and Donelson, and was promoted to a larger command. After winning the Battle of Shiloh, he then took command of the forces operating against Vicksburg. After a long, difficult campaign, he took Vicksburg, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River. He then took command of all forces in the West, and won decisive victories at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. After that he took command of all Union forces, and traveled with the Army of the Potomac, operating against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. After a year of hard, brutal fighting, Grant finally forced Lee to surrender, ending the war. In July 1866, Grant was promoted to general (then called general of the army), the first person since Washington to hold the rank. His popularity as the victor led to his election as President.
Rutherford B. Hayes followed Grant in office. Hayes began the Civil War serving with the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, rising from the rank of major to major general. He took part in over 50 engagements and was wounded several times, once seriously. He had four horses shot out from under him. At the Battle of Couth Mountain, he was severely wounded in the left arm, but continued to direct his troops until they succeeded in scattering the Confederate forces opposing them. He was later a brigade commander in the clash with Morgan’s Raiders, and later under General Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. At Cedar Creek, he had one of his horses shot out from under him, badly wrenching his leg. After this, he was promoted to brigadier general. In March of 1865, he was brevetted major general of volunteers, and mustered out of the army in June of 1865.
Hayes did not run for re-election, and was succeeded by James Garfield. Garfield served in the Union Army during the Civil War from August 1861 to December 1863. He began as a lieutenant colonel in the 42nd Ohio Regiment and rose to the rank of major general. He distinguished himself as a brigade commander at the Battle of Middle Creek in January 1862, and was promoted to brigadier general. He participated in the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and then served as Chief of Staff to General William Rosecrans at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. For his role in that battle, he was promoted to major general of volunteers.
There was some controversy surrounding Garfield in this battle. General Rosecrans made a crucial error in moving troops out of the line to another location where they were not needed. The Confederates took advantage of the opening, dealing Rosecrans’ army a decisive defeat. Later in his career, Garfield’s opponents tried to blame the mistake on him, but Garfield was able to produce Rosecran’s commendation of him which read: “I feel much indebted to him for both counsel and assistance in the administration of this army. He possesses the instinct and energy of a great commander.” Garfield was elected to Congress in September 1862, and resigned his commission to take his seat in December 1863.
After Garfield was assassinated, Chester Arthur became President. Arthur had served in the New York State militia from February 1858 to December 1862. He rose from the position of brigade judge advocate to quartermaster general. In January 1861, he was appointed engineer in chief with the rank of brigadier general. In February 1862, he became inspector general of the New York State militia, and five months later quartermaster general. New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan said of Arthur’s service, “He was my chief reliance in the duties of equipping and transporting troops and munitions of war. In the position of Quarter Master General he displayed not only great executive ability and unbending integrity, but great knowledge of Army Regulations. He can say No (which is important) without giving offense.” In the state elections, the Democratic Party won control of the state, and Arthur was replaced by the new governor with a Democratic appointee. For the rest of his life, until he became President, he preferred to be called by the title of “General.”
Grover Cleveland, who served as both the 22nd and 24th President never served in the military. Cleveland was drafted during the Civil War but took advantage of the legal option of purchasing a substitute. He paid $150.00 to George Brinske (or Benninsky), a 32-year-old Polish immigrant, to serve in his place.
Benjamin Harrison, who served in the four years between the two terms of Grover Cleveland, served with the 70th Indiana Infantry Regiment from July 1862 to June 1865. He started as a second lieutenant and ended the war as a brigadier general. Although not happy with military life, Harrison performed very well on the battlefield. As a brigade commander under General Hooker in the Atlanta campaign, Colonel Harrison distinguished himself at the Battle of Peach Tree Creek. For his part in the Atlanta Campaign, General Hooker recommended Harrison for promotion to brigadier general, citing his foresight, discipline and fighting spirit. Harrison once wrote of himself, “I am not a Julius Caesar, nor a Napoleon, but a plain Hoosier colonel, with no more relish for a fight than for a good breakfast and hardly so much.”
The last President to have served in the Civil War was William McKinley. Serving as a private in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry from June 1861 to July 1865, he rose from private to brevet major. Enlisting at the age of 18, he took part in actions at Carnifex Ferry, Clark’s Hollow and Princeton, all in West Virginia. He fought at the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam in September 1862. For his valor at the Battle of Antietam, he was promoted to second lieutenant and assigned to the staff of the regimental commander, Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes. As a first lieutenant, he clashed with Morgan’s Raiders at Buffington’s Island, Ohio, in July 1863, and fought at Clay’s Mountain in May 1864. He was again recognized for bravery at the Battle of Winchester, Virginia, in July 1864. He saw action in the Battles of Opequon, Cedar Creek, and Fisher’s Hill. He served on the staffs of Generals George Crook and Winfield S. Hancock. In March 1865, he was promoted to brevet major. His commanding officer, Rutherford B. Hayes, wrote of him, “Young as he was, we soon found that in the business of a soldier, requiring much executive ability, young McKinley showed unusual and unsurpassed capacity, especially for a boy of his age. When battles were fought or service was to be performed in warlike things, he always filled his place.”