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

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).

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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