Top of page

Armed Forces Day–U.S. Military leaders who also were lawyers

Share this post:

This Saturday is Armed Forces Day in the United States, a day set aside to recognize the men and women who serve in the active and reserve components of the armed forces of the United States.  The day has been observed since 1950.
This blog post is devoted to a few of the men who rose to leadership positions in the armed forces of the United States, and in one instance the Confederate States, who studied law or had professional backgrounds as lawyers. This is not a comprehensive list, it mostly includes individuals from the 19th century and it focuses exclusively on Americans.  Excluded are some prominent figures, such as Andrew Jackson, because their roles in the legal profession are well known.  Four of these individuals ended up commanding the United States Army.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury by John Trumbull.

Alexander Hamilton was New York‘s most influential lawyer during the first twenty years of the new republic. His role in our understanding of the U.S. Constitution, through his essays in the Federalist Papers, and in George Washington‘s cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury is well known. The role of Hamilton in the formation of the U.S. Army is not as well known. During much of the War for Independence Hamilton had served on George Washington’s staff.  After the end of the war he resigned his commission and returned to civilian life.  However, when the possibility of land hostilities with France arose in the late 1790s, he was recalled to the army and appointed a major general by President John Adams.  Hamilton served as inspector general of the army and after Washington’s death in December 1799 he was the army’s senior general officer for another six months.  Hamilton returned to civilian life in June, 1800.

Genl. Winfield Scott., commander in chief of the United States Army c. 1847. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division //

Unlike Hamilton, Winfield Scott’s legal career was short and undistinguished.  Scott was born in Virginia, the son of an officer in the Continental Army.  After one year he left the College of William and Mary to pursue a course of law office study.  He spent much of that time in Richmond observing the proceedings surrounding Aaron Burr’s trial for treason, although he also rode the circuit conducting routine legal work.   In 1807 Scott joined a local militia company; he later  received a commission in the regular army as a captain in the light artillery.  Over the next two years Scott would spend time in the army and, during a suspension from active duty after a conviction for mishandling funds, in Virginia as an attorney.  In his autobiography he provides few details about his law practice except for an account of a trial of a slave who successfully sued for her freedom.  While Scott’s law practice was mediocre, his military career was stellar; he rose to the rank of commanding general of the Army, a post that he held for twenty years.  His victories in the field included the Battle of Chippawa during the War of 1812 and the successful seaborne invasion of Mexico during the Mexican-American War.  Scott was in command of the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War; he formulated the Anaconda Plan, the Union’s strategy that crippled the Confederacy.

Many members of the bar played prominent roles in the Civil War.  Professor Bernard J. Hibbitts estimates that at least 20,000 lawyers served in the Union Army.  There is no credible estimate for the number of lawyers who served in the Confederate forces, but a number of individuals with legal training rose to high command in the Confederacy.  Both armies had over 100 generals who had professional backgrounds at the bar.

Title page for Halleck’s A Collection of Mining Laws of Spain and Mexico. San Francisco, O’Meara & Painter, printers, 1859. Photograph by Donna Sokol.

Like Winfield Scott, Henry Halleck held the rank of General-in-Chief of the Union Army during the conflict.  After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1839, he accepted a positing in the Corps of Engineers.  Halleck saw active duty in California during the war with Mexico.  In 1849 he was the military secretary to the convention which drafted that state’s constitution; his work in this post was widely praised but it was not sufficient to advance a career in politics.  In the early 1850s he remained on active duty in the state as an engineering officer, but resigned his commission in 1854 to devote his full time to work as an attorney.  In 1851 Halleck had been admitted to practice in federal courts and had joined a law firm in San Francisco where he specialized in land titles.  Halleck’s knowledge of Spanish, and of the state’s geography and history soon advanced his career; one of his written works was a compilation of translated Spanish and Mexican mining laws.  At the beginning of the Civil War he also published a treatise on international law, which would be reissued in multiple editions during the next 50 years.  Recalled to federal service in 1861, Halleck proved to be a talented staff officer, but he was a disappointing leader of troops in the field and as a director of strategy.  In 1864 he became chief of staff when Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and became General-in-Chief.  He remained in the army until his death in 1872.

Majr. Genl. William T. Sherman: U.S. Army, Currier & Ives graphic. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div. //

William Tecumseh Sherman was the professional opposite of Halleck, a very unsuccessful lawyer but a brilliant field general.  Sherman’s legal career is hardly mentioned by his biographers; in fact he just barely mentions it in his memoirs.  After leaving the army in 1853 Sherman became a banker in San Francisco.  By 1859 he had relocated to Leavenworth, Kansas where in addition to working as a government contractor he was admitted to the territorial bar on the basis of his education and reading of the standard legal texts.  In his memoirs Sherman cheerfully admits that he was an incompetent lawyer.  A story exists about one court case which he lost for a client who owned a shack on a rented plot of land and was sued for back rent.  The solution for the client, suggested by one of the firm’s senior attorneys, was to move the shack, in the middle of the night, to another location! In 1861 Sherman rejoined the army where he proved to be an original and outstanding strategist. He remained on duty until 1884 and served as General of the Army, the commanding general, from 1869 until his retirement.

Raphael Semmes, rear admiral and brig. genl., C.S.A. , Lee Gallery, Richmond, VA. [between 1861 and 1865(?)] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //
Raphael Semmes found that the antebellum United States Navy provided great flexibility in pursuing non-nautical pursuits.  Semmes was born in Maryland in 1809.  He was appointed a midshipman in the navy in 1826; in 1832, after passing the examination, he was commissioned a midshipman.  Not having immediate sea duty, he spent the next few years studying law in his brother’s office in Cumberland, Maryland and was admitted to practice in 1835.  Although recalled to active duty in 1835, Semmes’ career until the Mexican-American war would often be interrupted with long periods of leave.  During one such period he relocated his law practice to Cincinnati.  Afterwards while posted to the Pensacola Naval Base he moved his family to Alabama, which became his permanent home.  Semmes served on active duty during the Mexican-American War, and later published his observations in 1851 as Service afloat and ashore during the Mexican War.  His law practice in Mobile in the period after the war was mainly devoted to civil work, although as a naval officer he sometimes acted as a defense attorney in court-martial cases.  One such case involved one of his future lieutenants on the CSS Alabama, John McIntosh Kell.  Semmes returned to active duty in the mid-1850s and after Alabama seceded from the Union he resigned his commission to accept a commission in the Confederate Navy.  During the Civil War Semmes was assigned to command two commerce raiders, the CSS Sumter, and later the CSS Alabama.  His success was responsible for drastic increases in marine insurance rates for Union flagged vessels.  Alabama would spend almost two years at sea sinking over 60 vessels before finally being destroyed in combat by the USS Kearsarge off the coast of France in 1864.  Semmes returned to the Confederacy, and promotion to the rank of rear admiral,  in the last months of the war.  After the war he faced charges arising out of his conduct as the captain of the Alabama, but the prosecution was dropped. Unable to return immediately to the practice of law, he spent sometime after the war as a college professor and newspaper editor.  He resumed the practice of law in Mobile in 1869 concentrating on maritime law.  He also served as that city’s attorney.  Semmes died in 1877.

Bronze bust of Holland M. Smith, photograph by David Durham, Bounds Law Library, University of Alabama School of Law Used with permission.

Holland McTyerie Smith was born in a small Alabama town in 1882.  A precocious student, he entered Auburn University at the age of 16, which at that time operated as a military academy.  Smith did not like the regimented environment, but  he mentions in his autobiography that he read everything he could find in the college library on the campaigns of Napoleon.  Smith’s father was a lawyer and it was his hope that his son would follow in his footsteps.  In 1901 Holland entered the law program at the University of Alabama, graduating with the class of 1903.   He briefly practiced law, but found the profession to be boring and his skills not equal to the task.  His memoirs relates one trial where when acting as an assistant to the local prosecutor, he presented such a weak case that the quick acquittal of the defendant resulted in his resolve to leave the profession.  Smith applied to become a military officer and successfully passed the examination for the Marines  school for candidates for second lieutenant.  Smith’s career spanned over 40 years with service on three continents and in two major wars.   He is perhaps most remembered for his leadership in preparing and leading the Marine Corps amphibious campaigns in the Pacific Theater.  He retired in 1946, and died in 1967.

Further Reading

General biographies and autobiographies are good sources for finding basic information about the professional backgrounds of these individuals.  A select list includes


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *