Highest military rank held by U.S. presidents 1789-2017

A total of 31 out of 44 U.S. presidents (officially 45, as Grover Cleveland is counted twice) were military veterans, including five who served in the American War of Independence, six in the War of 1812, seven in the American Civil War (Millard Fillmore did so after leaving office), and eight in the Second World War. In early years, many presidents served in their respective state militias, while all who fought in the Civil War did so as part of the United States Army (Union). Of the eight who served during the Second World War, five were in the Naval Reserve, while Jimmy Carter was in the Navy, Ronald Reagan was in the US Army Air Forces, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. The only US president to have served since the Second World War was George W. Bush, who was a First Lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War (although he remained in the US throughout the war).


U.S. presidents have occupied a variety of positions in their respective armed forces, ranging from George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and Eisenhower, who obtained the highest possible position in their respective armies, to James Buchanan, who was a private, and therefore the only U.S. president with a military background not to obtain the rank of an officer. Of the seven presidents who served during the Civil War, five achieved the rank of brigadier general or higher. The level of action also varied among presidents, with some, such as Thomas Jefferson, Chester A. Arthur and Ronald Reagan acting in a purely administrative or educational role, although a majority saw active conflict.


Several presidents also received commendations for bravery during or after their service, including John F. Kennedy, who was awarded both a Navy and Marine Corps Medal and Purple Heart in 1944, and Theodore Roosevelt, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001, for his actions in the Spanish-American War in 1898 (Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was also awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, as he was the oldest man and only general to lead troops on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day; this makes the Roosevelt's one of just two father-son pairs to receive these accolades).

Highest rank attained by U.S. presidents while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces between 1770 and 1973

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Release date



United States

Survey time period

1770 to 1973

Supplementary notes

*Includes George Washington, who had served in an equal capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and was promoted posthumously to the rank of General of the Armies in 1976.

**Former President William Howard Taft was a major general of the American Red Cross during the First World War; as this was not a military role and was done as a means of providing him with additional authority during wartime, it has not been included in this data. Taft also enlisted in the Connecticut State Guard during the war, which acted as a substitute for the Connecticut National Guard while they were on active duty; again, this has not been included in this data.

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