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The Lesser-Known Military Careers of 11 U.S. Presidents

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We know the good ones: Washington coaxing his tattered troops through the winter at Valley Forge, Andrew Jackson bidding the Redcoats adieu in New Orleans, Ike masterminding the invasion of Normandy. Throughout history, American presidents have more often than not been former leaders of the military. Here's a list of eleven presidents and their service records you might not have known about.

1. James Monroe

In June 1775, at the tender age of 17, Monroe took a break from his studies at the College of William and Mary to assist a raid on the Governor's Palace in Virginia. The results? A haul of hundreds of muskets and swords that were used by militia in the Revolutionary War. The next spring he dropped out of school to join the Continental Army, where he rose to the rank of Major, crossed the Delaware River with George Washington, and was wounded at the Battle of Trenton.

2. William Henry Harrison

Perhaps best known for his one-month term in office, Harrison first achieved notoriety as a soldier before his brief occupation of the White House. As the Governor of Indiana, he was the prime antagonist of Tecumseh's Native American confederacy. In 1811 he led a force of 1,000 men against the confederacy while Tecumseh was away, destroying their village in the Battle of Tippacanoe and indirectly contributing to the War of 1812. Tecumseh himself was killed by Harrison's forces a few years later at the Battle of the Thames.

3. Franklin Pierce

With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, Pierce successfully appealed to President James Polk for an officer's commission. In 1847, having attained the rank of brigadier general despite a complete lack of military experience, he took sail for Veracruz with several thousand men under his command. Things went swimmingly until he fell off his horse at the Battle of Contreras, which effectively ended his military career.

4. Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln's military service lasted less than three months with the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War. He was elected by the soldiers of his unit to be their Captain, an event he later described as "a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since." The future president saw no combat but witnessed its consequences, including many corpses that had been mangled and scalped. He described on such experience in these words:

"The red light of the morning sun was streaming upon them as they lay head towards us on the ground. And ever man had a round red spot on top of his head, about as big as a dollar where the redskins had taken his scalp. It was frightful, but it was grotesque; and the red sunlight seemed to paint everything all over."

5. & 6. Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley

These two future presidents served together in the 23rd Ohio Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Hayes (left) was a middle-aged lawyer who received an officer's commission and eventually rose to brevet major general. McKinley (right) was an eighteen year old private under Hayes' command. Hayes spoke highly of Private McKinley and eventually promoted him. They were separated after Hayes was shot in the arm and left the unit to recuperate. McKinley went on to serve in the bloodiest single-day battle in U.S. history at Antietam. By the end of the war, he achieved the rank of brevet major.

7. Harry S. Truman

Overcoming extremely poor eyesight by allegedly memorizing the eye exam chart, Truman entered the Missouri National Guard. He served from 1905 to 1911, then re-enlisted with the outbreak of WWI and became an officer. While in France, his unit provided support to Patton's tank brigade in the Hundred Days Offensive. On the last day of the war, his unit fired some of the final rounds into German territory before the ceasefire took effect.

8. Lyndon Baines Johnson

When Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, Johnson was a sitting Congressman for Texas' 10th district. He quickly became an officer in the Naval Reserve, seeking combat duties before being denied. In 1942 he took part in a three-man review of the South Pacific theater at President Roosevelt's request. The Silver Star he was awarded by General MacArthur has been criticized as a political move by many, who noted his lack of active combat experience. Here's the actual citation that accompanied the award:

"While on a mission of obtaining information in the Southwest Pacific Area, Lieutenant Commander Johnson, in order to obtain personal knowledge of combat conditions, volunteered as an observer on a hazardous aerial combat mission over hostile positions in New Guinea. As our planes neared the target area, they were intercepted by eight hostile fighters. When, at this time the plane in which Lieutenant Commander Johnson was an observer developed mechanical trouble and was forced to turn back alone, presenting a favorable target to the enemy fighters, he evidenced coolness in spite of the hazard involved. His gallant action enabled him to obtain and return with valuable information."

9. Richard Nixon

Nixon, who was born a Quaker, could have been exempted from service during World War II. Despite this, he left his job in the Office of Price Administration for a commission in the U.S. Navy. His first post was at a Naval Air station based, inexplicably, in Iowa. He later asked for and was granted a transfer to the Pacific Theater, where he handled logistics operations. He returned to America without seeing combat and resigned his commission on January 1, 1946.

10. Jimmy Carter

Georgia's only president first left his home state to attend the Naval Academy in 1943. After graduation, he served under Admiral Hyman Rickover in the nascent nuclear submarine program. In 1952 he took part in the clean-up of radioactive materials from an overheated reactor in Chalk River, Canada. He resigned his commission in 1953 after the death of his father.

11. Ronald Reagan

The Gipper had the same problem as Harry Truman: terrible vision. He was called to active duty in 1942 and limited to domestic service, where he served in the Los Angeles area and New York City. For most of the war, he was part of the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), an Army Air Force unit made up entirely of cinema personnel. Other famous members included Jimmy Stewart, Clarke Gable, and William Holden. The FMPU was responsible for the production of promotional films for the U.S. military. Projects Reagan worked on ranged from the tasteless (Target Tokyo) to the inspiring (Wings for This Man, one of the first movies to portray the Tuskeegee Airmen).

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10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.


Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.


America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.


According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”


An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.


The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.


Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.


Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”


Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.


The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.


In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”


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