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Civil Warriors: Celebrating America’s Warrior-Presidents

Joel Kilpatrick
Joel Kilpatrick
Joel Kilpatrick is a writer and journalist.

Ten people are pictured on U.S. currency and coins. Quiz: How many were war heroes or were directly involved in a war as president?

Answer: All but one. When America venerates its political leaders, it essentially venerates military heroes. And yet war is a reality most young American men know nothing about, except via the safety of video games.

Two presidents celebrated this month, February, gave military leadership to a nation in crisis during periods separated by four score and seven years.

Yet most people don’t think of Abraham Lincoln as a warrior. It was he who laid out the basic strategy for the Union effort to quell the rebellion — and it took him three frustrating years to find a general (or two) willing to prosecute the war on Lincoln’s terms. Early in the conflict, Lincoln even borrowed military strategy books from the Library of Congress and began suggesting campaigns and tactics to his obstinate generals, George McClellan foremost among them. At points, Lincoln even created specific battle plans and shared them with his generals.

Until the arrival of Grant and Sherman, Lincoln’s early generals wanted to win a bloodless war against wayward brethren, but as commander-in-chief, Lincoln was unwavering: he wanted swift, decisive victories, and he wanted them to be relentless. He urged his men in the field to press the enemy hard and on all fronts until the Southern insurrection collapsed. Eventually, that is exactly what happened — but only because Lincoln, the warrior-president, insisted that it be so. Without his unyielding leadership on the point of maintaining the Union, our country would have been cleaved in two because nearly every other politician of his day would have, at some point, settled for peace over restoration.

When I was in grade school, Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday were celebrated on separate Mondays in February as distinct events. Both were holidays, which made the little month of February something of a prize. I attended Grant School — named for U.S. Grant, who is pictured on the $50 — and appreciated the importance attached to these two men whose birthdays were later lumped into the vaguer, duller “Presidents’ Day” and celebrated on a single Monday, for which none of us students were grateful.

Washington did what Lincoln did not: led actual troops on actual battlefields with the boom of cannons and whistle of musket and rifle shot felling those around him. The American Revolution was a kind of civil war. Washington, with three other men featured on present-day money — Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton — declared war on the world’s foremost super-power, then took up arms against it.

Jefferson, it turned out, was better-suited for beautiful writing and profound expressions of principles of liberty than he was for leading troops. Nevertheless, he put his life and worldly possessions entirely at stake by helping a nascent nation declare its independence. At one point, he fled British troops who sought to take him into custody at his home at Monticello.

Hamilton, for his part, was a vigorous combatant and leader of soldiers under Washington, for whom he also served as a close aide. The future secretary of the treasury of the U.S. even led a bayonet assault at the siege of Yorktown. Five days later, Cornwallis surrendered.

Not only is Hamilton exalted with his likeness on the $10 bill, but it was Hamilton himself who convinced Congress to create national coinage in the first place.

Ben Franklin, an old man by the advent of Revolutionary hostilities, had commanded troops in the French and Indian wars and done so ably. Franklin the military chief is often forgotten in the shadow of Franklin the inventor, Franklin the practical sage and Franklin the founder of a university. But his experience on remote battlefields helped shape his view of the country he would help found — and whose treasonous separation document he would sign at the peril of his life.

So, too, much later, Kennedy became a naval hero in a war declared by another coinage-honoree, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of course, I barely need to mention generals Andrew Jackson (the $20 bill) and Ulysses S. Grant, who rose from obscurity on the winds of war, which landed each in the White House.

Why this talk of warriors and great men?

Mainly because so few American men have fought on battlefields in our day, and the shaping effect of combat no longer does its refining work on those who would be leaders. Thus we live in a generation unfamiliar with the extremities of experience sometimes required to preserve freedom and what Lincoln termed “a just and a lasting peace.”

It helps us to remember, in this month of presidents’ birthdays, that those whose faces adorn the money we spend so freely in this unthinkably rich nation were also warriors — battle-tested, familiar with the sight of blood and the smell of gunpowder and death.

Men who knew the value of peace because they had seen and fought and led men in the great aggravations of peace’s opposite.

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