Today we celebrate the U.S. Army’s 241st birthday, as well as the 100th anniversary of Flag Day. In honor of both occasions, allow me to share a story about a Wisconsin man fitting for each observation.
The 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment was part of the Army of the Cumberland, which in September of 1863 survived the Battle of Chickamauga, considered the most significant Union defeat in the Western Theater of the Civil War. The Army of the Cumberland retreated to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and endured a weeks-long siege by Confederate forces. The arrival of additional Union forces eased the siege and set the stage for the Battle of Missionary Ridge in late November.
The Army of the Cumberland’s task was to take the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. However, confusion about the orders resulted in the Army of the Cumberland holding the low ground as the Confederates retreated to the top of the ridge, eventually concentrating rifle and artillery fire against their Union foes.
With the 24th Wisconsin for this battle was 18-year-old Lt. Arthur MacArthur, whose gallantry had already earned the respect of his older peers. As he and his men endured withering Confederate fire, the regimental color bearer was killed. Grabbing the flag and holding it over his head, MacArthur turned to his men and bellowed, “On Wisconsin!” before charging up Missionary Ridge. His men followed, and other Union units also charged the ridge rather than absorb continued Confederate fire. MacArthur reached the crest of Missionary Ridge and planted the regimental colors where they could be seen by all.
From a distance, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was shocked to observe Union troops advancing up Missionary Ridge, as no orders had been given for the Army of the Cumberland to mount such an assault. Nevertheless, Union Soldiers continued their ascent, dislodging the entrenched Confederates in what military historians consider the conflict’s most successful frontal assault against dug-in defenders holding the high ground.
Modern historians were not the only ones impressed. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan learned of MacArthur’s actions later that night. Sheridan found the teenage lieutenant, embraced him and told the men of the 24th Wisconsin, “Take care of him — he has just won the Medal of Honor.”
MacArthur would eventually command the 24th Wisconsin, and 27 years later would finally receive the promised Medal of Honor. After the end of the Civil War, MacArthur joined the regular Army and continued an impressive military career that finally concluded at the rank of lieutenant general in 1909. One of his three sons was Douglas MacArthur, who would also receive a Medal of Honor and achieve the rank of General of the Army — a five-star general.
Three years later, in ill health, MacArthur was the keynote speaker at the 50th anniversary reunion for the 24th Wisconsin, held in Milwaukee. As he began to address the 90 or so surviving members of the regiment, he collapsed at the podium and died. He was covered with the tattered remains of the regimental colors he had so valiantly carried up Missionary Ridge nearly five decades earlier.
The flag represents our nation, the U.S. Army defends our nation, and on that day in 1863, Arthur MacArthur embodied the best characteristics of both our flag and the U.S. Army.