2012 marked the first time since 1932 that none of the candidates of the two major parties for the office of United States President or Vice-President had any military experience. (In an equally unusual quirk of history, none of the current justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are veterans either.) Yet for over four decades after the Civil War, military service in that conflict was almost a prerequisite for the White House. For all but eight years from 1865 until 1901, the White House was occupied by a Civil War veteran.
The first Civil War Veteran turned president was Brig. Gen. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869). Though from Tennessee, he remained loyal to the Union and was named his state’s Federal Military Governor with the rank of brigadier general in 1862. He resigned his position in 1865 shortly before becoming Vice-President of the United States. He assumed the presidency upon the death of Abraham Lincoln.
The most famous Civil War Veteran turned president was Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) who was the Commanding General of the U.S. Army during the last two years of the war. He has the unique distinction of being the first West Point graduate elected president. He was also only the second president ever elected who had never held an elected office prior to becoming president.
Maj. Gen. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) was opposed to the war at first but raised a regiment and despite a lack of military experience, he rose through the ranks to command a brigade. Wounded several times during the war, he was cited for gallantry by Grant and ended the war with the regular army rank of brigadier general and a brevet, or honorary rank, of major general. To date, Hayes is the only presidential candidate to promise to serve only one term, a promise which he kept.
Maj. Gen. James A Garfield (1881) also had no prior military service, but he started the war as a lieutenant colonel in an Ohio regiment and rose through the ranks to be a brigade commander and Chief of Staff for Gen. William Rossecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland. He left the military in 1863 with the rank of major general because of changes in the command of the Army of the Cumberland and his deteriorating relationship with Grant.
Garfield is the only sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives to be elected president. His term of 200 days is the second shortest presidential term in U.S. history as he was gunned down by Charles J. Guiteau, a disappointed office seeker. One of the witnesses to deed was Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the 16th president.
Brig. Gen. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) ascended to the presidency upon Garfield’s death. He served early in the war in the quartermaster department and did a very effective job, spending the duration of his military career in New York City. His military career ended when Democrats took over New York State politics in 1863 causing Arthur to lose his post.
Brig. Gen. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) started the war as a lieutenant in a regiment he helped raise. He rose through the ranks to become a division commander with the rank of brigadier general, despite no prior military experience.
Harrison is the answer to several trivia questions. He is the only grandson of a former president (William Henry Harrison) to be elected president. He is one of the few presidents to lose the popular vote,(To incumbent President Grover Cleveland) but still carry the electoral vote. Four years later, Cleveland defeated Harrison in a rematch.
Maj. William McKinley (1897-1901) entered the war as a private in the 23rd Ohio, the same regiment Hayes started. (The two future presidents would become friends.) His intelligence impressed McKinley’s superiors and soon he was a commissary sergeant. He was commissioned a lieutenant for his bravery at the Battle of Antietam. He ended the war as a major serving on the staff of Gen. Samuel Carroll.
McKinley was president when the U.S. went to war with Spain and appointed a number of former Confederate generals to the same rank in the U.S. Army, though only one of them, Joseph Wheeler, saw any action in the field.
McKinley was killed by an anarchist, Leon Czolgoszin 1891. Robert Todd Lincoln was again a witness. Even more ironic is that McKinley’s Vice Presidnt, Theodore Roosevelt, watched Lincoln’s funeral procession through New York City.
The only non-veteran during this time was Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897). Though drafted to fight in the war, he paid a Polish immigrant $150 to take his place, so Cleveland could stay home to help take care of his widowed mother. However, this action labeled him as a “draft dodger” which haunted his political career.