8 Historic Figures You Didn’t Know Were Veterans

Harriet Tubman is well known for her work as an activist and abolitionist —but did you know she was also a spy for the Union Army? Despite being known as inventors, artists or philosophers, these eight individuals also served their countries as soldiers, sailors or Military volunteers.

1. MOHANDAS GANDHI

Mohandas GandhiLong before he began his first hunger strike, the political pacifist created the volunteer Indian Ambulance Corp to act as stretcher-bearers for the British during the Second Boer War. He and 34 other volunteers were awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal for their services.

2. DR. MARY EDWARDS WALKER

A noted surgeon, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate, Walker was also the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War. Walker was an alleged Union spy during her time as a civilian surgeon; she was captured for suspected spy activity by Confederate soldiers and held prisoner for several months. Walker retired from public service in 1865, the same year she was awarded her Medal of Honor.

3. HARRIET TUBMAN

portrait of Harriet TubmanThe “conductor” of the Underground Railroad is remembered as a former slave who helped many others escape to freedom, but Tubman was also a part of the Union Army. In addition to serving as a nurse, Tubman was a spy and scout for the Union troops. When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with Military honors.

4. GEORGE WESTINGHOUSE

The American entrepreneur and prolific inventor not only created the railroad air brake and founded a number of successful companies, he was also a member of the Union Army during the Civil War, enlisting in the New York National Guard at age 15. He later joined the New York Cavalry before jumping ship from the Army to join the Navy in 1864. Westinghouse is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

5. SOCRATES

statue of Socrates

Historians believe that the Athenian philosopher also served in the Peloponnesian War, a battle between Athens and Sparta.

6. LEWIS HOWARD LATIMER

An African American inventor who worked with both Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell during the development of the lightbulb and the telephone, Latimer also joined the U.S. Navy when he was 15. He served for two years before being honorably discharged and securing a job at a patent law firm.

7. LEONARDO DA VINCI

Leonardo da VinciLeonardo da Vinci put his skills as an inventor, mathematician, and engineer to use as a military architect for Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Valentinois. Leonardo designed and built war machines, including catapults, machine guns, crossbows, and tanks.

8. MARCO POLO

The explorer (and namesake of the popular pool game) led a galley into war-torn Venice only to be captured by the Genoan army in the late 13th century. It was in prison that he and Rustichello of Pisa wrote The Travels of Marco Polo.

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  1. Jerry Mullen says

    Nothing surprising about Socrates having served in the Peloponnesian War. (it was a 30 year war, not a “battle.” Back in those days, Athens kept the forms of a republic at home, even though they were running a brutal commercial empire. As a republic, every citizen served in the military. If you were wealthy enough to afford the equipment, you served as a Hoplite, the heavy infantry. Poor citizens who couldn’t afford armor, helmets, swords and spears and the Hoplon or shield, served as light infantry, with slings and such weapons. Our founders set up a similar system with the Militia Act of 1792, which required every voting citizen to ‘Supply himself with a suitable firearm and train with the militia company of his community.”