It’s been a season of military anniversaries, with the Wisconsin National Guard recently completing the 100th anniversary of the 32nd Division’s exploits in World War I, and the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy Beach landings earlier this month. Today we mark the 244th birthday of the U.S. Army, and the 242nd birthday of Old Glory, the U.S. flag.
The Continental Congress adopted the American Continental Army — which continues today as the United States Army — on June 14, 1775. Two years later on the same date, Congress adopted the flag of the United States. A Fredonia, Wisconsin schoolteacher, BJ Cigrand, arranged the first formal observation of the flag’s birthday in his one-room schoolhouse June 14, 1885. In the following years, Cigrand enthusiastically advocated in newspaper and magazine articles and public addresses observing June 14 as “Flag Birthday,” or “Flag Day.”
The Army was founded, more than a year before the states declared their independence from England, to defend Americans from tyranny. The flag signified the newly declared nation’s sovereignty. Nearly nine decades later, a Wisconsin resident would bring honor to the Army and that flag in a battle to preserve the nation’s sovereignty over its rebellious Southern states.
Arthur MacArthur — an 18-year-old lieutenant with the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, part of the Army of the Cumberland — had already earned the respect of his older peers with his battlefield gallantry. On Nov. 25, 1863 — during the Battle of Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga, Tennessee — the Army of the Cumberland was ordered to take the Confederate rifle pits at the base of the ridge. Confusion among Union troops about whether they were to stop at the base of the ridge or the top allowed the Confederates to retreat to the top of the ridge, from where they fired down upon the Union Soldiers.
On that day, when Confederates shot and killed the 24th Regiment color bearer, MacArthur seized the flag, hoisted it over his head, turned to his men and bellowed the words “On Wisconsin!” He then charged up Missionary Ridge, incurring two gunshot wounds in the process. His men followed, as other Union units also ascended the ridge. MacArthur crested the ridge and planted the regimental colors where all could see.
No Union generals had given the order to attack the high ground, but nonetheless the determined Union forces successfully dislodged the entrenched Confederates. By the end of the day, the rebel troops were retreating to Georgia, and the Union was in firm control of Chattanooga and the rest of Tennessee. It was a significant victory for the Union and a terrible blow to the Confederacy.
MacArthur earned a Medal of Honor for his actions that day, an award he would finally receive in 1890. He entered the regular Army after the Civil War and served until 1909, retiring as a lieutenant general.
MacArthur was in poor health the last time he saw that tattered regimental flag on Sept. 5, 1912 in Milwaukee at a 24th Regiment reunion. According to the American Battlefield Trust, MacArthur — the reunion’s keynote speaker — ascended the podium and said, “Your indomitable regiment” before collapsing. He died moments later, respectfully covered by the very flag he carried up Missionary Ridge nearly half a century earlier.
MacArthur reminds us, as we observe the birthday of the U.S. Army as well as the flag of the United States, that the flag is precious because of the nation it represents, and that the Army has stood in defense of liberty since before there was a national flag to receive a pledge of allegiance.
MacArthur’s legacy remains in the Wisconsin National Guard today, which continues to support local authorities in Wisconsin during storms and other emergencies, and remains active in overseas operations. Nearly 400 Soldiers of the 2nd battalion, 127th Infantry remain in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and a similar number of Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry will mobilize this summer for a coalition forces security element mission. A group of Airmen from the 115th Fighter Wing are currently deployed in support of global contingency operations.