In Celebration of Armed Forces Day
By Kathy Shurtleff
Many of the early members of the Court had military service, commencing with the first Chief Justice, John Jay, who served as a Colonel in the New York Militia during the Revolutionary War. Jay was the first, but not the last, person with military service to be appointed to the office of Chief Justice. To date, six of the 17 Chief Justices had military service. John Marshall, “The Great Chief Justice,” served in the Culpeper Minutemen and later as a Captain in the Continental Army. Marshall served closely with President George Washington who had a great impact on Marshall’s later life. Chief Justice Edward D. White served as a private in the Confederate armies during the Civil War. His appointment as Chief Justice is perhaps one of the greatest examples of reconciliation in the history of the country following that conflict. In addition to White, two Associate Justices of the Supreme Court also served in the C.S.A. during the Civil War: Lucius Q. C. Lamar and Horace Lurton. Two future Chief Justices served in World War I: Fred M. Vinson, who served as a Private, and Earl Warren, who achieved the rank of First Lieutenant. William H. Rehnquist served in World War II as a Sergeant in the newly minted U.S. Army Air Forces.
Future Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (last figure on the right riding on the horse) is shown at the pyramids at the time he was serving in the Army Air Forces.
Oliver Wendell Hollmes, Jr. was wounded in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff and again later at Antietam.
Military service provides a special perspective on the intersecting powers of the federal government. The Constitution outlines a system designed with a series of checks and balances to protect against undue control by any one sector, underscoring the principle that we are a nation of laws. Justices who have served in the armed forces prior to serving on the Court have additional practical experience in how those powers function.