On any fall Saturday afternoon, if you turn your television to a channel carrying Big Ten Conference football, you might happen upon a game involving the University of Wisconsin Badgers. And, should the Badgers score, you will hear their band strike up the stirring Wisconsin fight song, “On Wisconsin!” That tune, which is also the official song of the state of Wisconsin, has become quite popular with high schools across the country and even my own high school fight song was based on it. But the cry of “On Wisconsin” has a history that goes well beyond the Badger football team. It was once shouted by a young lieutenant over the crashing of artillery and rifle fire, helping to turn the tide of a crucial battle. As such, it is just another example of how the actions of one man, a single officer, inspires others and plays a role in changing history. So, you ask, who was this young lieutenant? And now I will tell you his story.
The young lieutenant’s name was Arthur MacArthur, Jr. Born on June 2, 1845, he was the son of a prominent Milwaukee lawyer and judge, Arthur MacArthur, Sr. The elder MacArthur emigrated from Scotland as a youth, lived in Chicopee, Massachusetts for a time, before moving to Wisconsin when his son was four years old. He built a prosperous career as a lawyer, which he leveraged to gain political influence and power as a Union Democrat, serving as the state’s Lieutenant Governor. The younger Arthur, however, had little interest in following in his father’s footsteps and, with the approach of the Civil War, was sent to a military school in Illinois. When war did come, Arthur, Sr. did all he could to protect his son and prevent him from enlisting, which his son was most determined to do. The two fought over the issue and finally reached a compromise, agreeing that Arthur, Jr. would return school in Illinois while his father tried to get him an appointment to West Point. However, Judge MacArthur discovered that no positions were open until the summer of 1863 and his son let him know, in no uncertain terms, that was not acceptable.
Being only 17, Arthur was too young to enter the army as an officer, so the judge allowed him to lie about his age and exercised what influence he did have to gain his son a position as a second lieutenant and adjutant to the newly formed 24th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. The teenaged lieutenant had a rocky start to his military career, as the exuberance and immaturity of youth caused him many problems during training. At first, many of the soldiers under his command ridiculed the "boy lieutenant." His biographer, Kenneth Ray Young, wrote that, “When he shouted out his orders, the men laughed at his high, squeaky voice.” However, when the regiment moved out to join General Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland, these soldiers would quickly learn that the “boy lieutenant” became something quite different when the shooting started.
MacArthur and his regiment soon had their inaugural exposure to hostile fire, “seeing the elephant” at Perryville, Kentucky in October 1862. As the battle reached its climax, the 24th Wisconsin was ordered to assault Confederate positions on the far side of a broad cornfield. Looking at the open ground in front of them with what must have been severe trepidation, the men of the regiment heard MacArthur’s voice and turned their heads to see this young man, galloping on horseback up and down their line, exposed to enemy rifle fire, shouting encouragement, and conveying orders to them. In the resulting attack, MacArthur would remain at the front of the regiment, who broke the Confederate line and sent them into retreat. The 24th soon pulled back, having survived their first combat with the loss of only one man. But, more than that, the men now gawked in amazement at the “boy lieutenant,” whom they now affectionately referred to as “Little Mac.”
MacArthur and the regiment would next be tested in the bloody New Year’s battle at Stones River, Tennessee. In a three-day engagement that cost 24,000 casualties, the 24th Wisconsin helped fend off a horrific Confederate onslaught on New Year's Eve, including holding the line in an area known as the Round Forest, which some combatants renamed “Hell's Half Acre.” MacArthur’s regiment would lose nearly 30 percent of its men at Stones River and Little Mac was in the middle of the carnage, displaying what his regiment commanding officer described as “great coolness and presence of mind.”
The 24th Wisconsin and the Army of the Cumberland would eventually move south, driving Braxton Bragg and the Confederate Army of Tennessee south and out of Tennessee altogether. In the midst of this success, young Lieutenant MacArthur became very ill and was sent north to a military hospital. While he recuperated, his regiment and Rosecrans’ entire army were badly defeated at Chickamauga, Georgia on September 19-20, 1863. The army retreated back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Bragg effectively bottled them up and lay siege to the city. Arthur MacArthur would return to his regiment in October to find them running out of food, cut off from any regular source of supply, and awaiting Bragg to crush them.
The loss at Chickamauga had completely undone Rosecrans and he simply ceased to be an effective commander. Undersecretary of War Charles Dana had been dispatched to evaluate Rosecrans before the disaster at Chickamauga, and now was asked to assess the situation in Chattanooga, reporting directly to President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton on “Old Rosy’s” ability to deal with the crisis. In what was, perhaps, his most scathing assessment of Rosecrans, Dana said that he had “never seen a public man possessing talent with less administrative power, less clearness and steadiness in difficulty, and greater practical incapacity than General Rosecrans. He has inventive fertility and knowledge, but he has no strength of will and no concentration of purpose.” Clearly disturbed by what he was hearing, Lincoln would comment that Rosecrans was not behaving in a way that inspired any confidence in his abilities and that, indeed, he was acting “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.”
On October 16, Lincoln appointed Ulysses Grant as commander of all Union forces in the West and ordered him to fix the situation in Chattanooga. Grant immediately relieved Rosecrans of command, ordering George Thomas, who was one of Rosecrans’ corps commanders, to take over the Army of the Cumberland. Grant telegraphed Thomas, saying “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards. I will be there as soon as possible. Please inform me how long your present supplies will last, and the prospect for keeping them up.” For his part, the new commander of the Army of the Cumberland quickly responded with a summation of his current stores and bravely concluded, “I will hold the town till we starve.”
Once Grant arrived in Chattanooga, he assumed his characteristically energetic approach to command, personally meeting with all key officers, surveying the field, and immediately ordering actions designed to reopen the line of supply to the starving city. Once the supplies of food and military materiel began to flow, he turned his attentions to matters of strategy. Grant had little confidence in Thomas or his army, which included Arthur MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin. Grant would comment to Sherman that, “the men of Thomas's army had been so demoralized by the battle of Chickamauga that he feared they could not be got out of their trenches to assume the offensive.” But, he would soon find out that he had misjudged both Thomas and his army.
Grant’s plan to break the siege and drive Bragg back into Georgia was based on both the terrain and his assessment of the men now under his command. Chattanooga was ringed by mountainous terrain, all of which was manned by Bragg’s troops. On his right, were the heights of Lookout Mountain, which merged with the steep slopes of Missionary Ridge. That ridge extended across Grant’s front to his far left, ending at a place known as Tunnel Hill. As for the men under his command, he had Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland, as well as the recently transferred XI and XII Corps from the Army of the Potomac, and General Sherman with units from Grant’s old command, the Army of the Tennessee. While he saw Thomas as slow and plodding and his army as unreliable, he considered the XI and XII Corps as only slightly better. He knew that they were merely cast offs from George Meade’s army and they were led my General Joe Hooker, an officer Grant loathed and even referred to as “dangerous.” The only forces he could trust were those from the Army of the Tennessee, led by his closest friend and comrade, William Sherman.
Therefore, Grant developed a battle plan that gave the most important assignment to Sherman, while Thomas and Hooker were to play supporting roles. Hooker, with XII Corps in the vanguard, was to make a demonstration on the Confederate left by pressuring Bragg’s forces on Lookout Mountain, while Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland demonstrated against the center on Missionary Ridge. Sherman, meanwhile, was to attack the Southern right at Tunnel Hill. From there, he was to roll up Bragg’s flank, at which point Hooker and Thomas could provide support by exploiting Confederate attention on the damage being done by Sherman.
As for his own position, Grant chose to remain near the center during the coming battle, with George Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland. The center was, after all, the logical place from which to command. Further, given the distance from one flank to another, it would be difficult for Grant to practice his direct, on-scene style of leadership whenever an unreliable commander was in need a little command direction. So, perhaps, he decided to place himself nearest the force and commander he trusted the least.
The attack was launched on November 24, when Sherman crossed the Tennessee River, but the major fighting would start in earnest the next day. However, Sherman’s attack met stiff resistance and, because of an error on the maps, he soon found that the terrain on Tunnel Hill was not as favorable as believed. As a result, by mid-afternoon, the major thrust of Grant’s attack was going nowhere. But, at the same time, Hooker, rather than diverting Confederate attention, was rolling up Lookout Mountain and threatening Bragg’s right. In an effort to relieve the resistance against Sherman, Grant ordered Thomas to have his men go forward and seize the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, hoping that this little demonstration would pose enough threat to Bragg’s center that the Southern commander to pull forces away from his front opposite Sherman. However, just as with everything else in the attack, the demonstration would not proceed as ordered.
With the firing of a set of signal guns, Thomas’ army moved forward towards the Confederate rifle pits. As the signal was given, MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin, which now numbered fewer than 150 men, were crouched at the edge of the woods forming the no-man’s land separating the two armies, in the center of a two-mile line running between two rivers. Ahead of them, the ridge rose almost 600 feet, broken by ravines, gullies, and the rifle pits. The 24th crossed the three-quarters of a mile to the rifle pits at the double quick, crashing into the shallow trenches and fighting hand-to-hand with the defenders.
The Confederates finally retreated, but now the 24th and the other Union regiments found themselves pinned down at the base of the ridge by artillery and rifle fire from the crest above. Victory had turned into a hellish nightmare. Then, suddenly and without orders, the 18,000 soldiers trapped at the base of Missionary Ridge seemingly decided to take matters into their own hands. One by one and then in groups of two and three, they rose to their feet and began to climb the steep slopes of the ridge towards their tormentors. Grant, who was watching the attack progress, was horrified. He turned to Thomas and angrily demanded to know who had ordered the men forward up the ridge.
Thomas replied, in his usual slow, quiet manner: "I don't know; I did not." Then, addressing General Gordon Granger, he said, "Did you order them up, Granger?" "No," said Granger; "they started up without orders. When those fellows get started all hell can't stop them." General Grant said something to the effect that somebody would suffer if it did not turn out well, and then, turning, stoically watched the ridge. He gave no further orders.
At the center of this unplanned and unordered attack was Arthur MacArthur and the 24th Wisconsin. MacArthur’s color bearer had been killed during the fighting for the rifle pits and, as men began to clamber out of the trenches and up the hill, his replacement was decapitated by a round of solid shot from a Confederate gun above. MacArthur himself was wounded but still standing. When the colors went down a second time, he climbed out of the trench, grabbed them, and turned to his men, who were still cowering in the rifle pits. Raising the now ragged, battle-scarred flag high above his head, he shouted "On Wisconsin!" and moved quickly up the ridge. In one of those rare moments when men are moved from terror to bravery, the men of the 24th Wisconsin rose up and began to follow Little Mac up the steep slope amid a hail of enemy rifle and artillery fire. As the Union soldiers up and down the line moved closer, the Confederate defenders abandoned their positions at the crest in disorganized panic. As Arthur MacArthur reached the summit of Missionary Ridge, he firmly planted the staff of the bullet-riddled flag in the ground for all to see. MacArthur, the 24th Wisconsin, and the Army of the Cumberland, who Grant had feared would not leave their trenches, smashed Bragg’s center in six places, sending the Southern army into full retreat. The siege of Chattanooga was broken.
That night, the 24th Wisconsin’s corps commander, General Philip Sheridan, reached the summit of Missionary Ridge. When he was told about young MacArthur's action, Sheridan found him and embraced the teenage lieutenant. Sheridan turned to the men of the 24th who were looking on and, choked with emotion, he said, "Take care of him. He has just won the Medal of Honor.”
That medal would be presented some 27 years later, on June 30, 1890. MacArthur would eventually take command of his regiment, attaining the rank of Colonel at the tender age of 19, the youngest to attain that rank in the Union army. In the years following the war, he would remain in the army, fight in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, and retire from service in 1909 as a Lieutenant General. Along the way, he would father a son named Douglas, who would become a General of the Army (five stars) during World War II and also be awarded the Medal of Honor.
After retirement, Arthur MacArthur returned to Milwaukee to enjoy the last years of his life. In 1912, the 24th Wisconsin planned to hold its 50th anniversary, with some 90 surviving members attending. They invited MacArthur to be the keynote speaker and, despite ill health, he eagerly agreed. The reunion was held in Milwaukee on September 5, 1912. The evening was warm and the hall was uncomfortably hot as the men took their seats. Despite being very weak, MacArthur summoned all his strength and moved to the podium to deliver his address. As he was about to begin, some say he glanced over to the tattered flag on the wall behind him, the one he had carried up Missionary Ridge that November afternoon. He then looked out over the now elderly men he had once served with as a young man, as their “boy lieutenant,” their “Little Mac.” His voice cracked a bit as he said, "Your indomitable regiment...." Then, he paused, his head lowered to the podium, and, as a hush fell over the room, Arthur MacArthur collapsed to the floor.
The first man to reach his side was Dr. William Cronyn, who had been the regiment’s surgeon and had treated young MacArthur’s wounds during the war. He quickly examined the fallen hero of Missionary Ridge, then turned to what remained of the 24th Wisconsin saying, "Comrades, the general is dying." Quietly, the aged veterans gathered around their once brave leader, reciting the Lord's Prayer in unison. When they had finished, Arthur MacArthur was dead, felled by a brain aneurism. One of the men, Captain Edwin Parsons, then rose to his feet, took the 24th’s colors from the wall, and draped them gently over Arthur MacArthur’s body. As they lifted him up and carried his body from the room, the colors Arthur MacArthur had so bravely carried up Missionary Ridge as a boy, now embraced him in death, and he probably would have wanted it so.