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Arthur MacArthur's Flag

 

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The 72-year old retired Lieutenant General glanced briefly around the room.  He shouldn't have been here, had risen from his sick-bed just for this occasion.  The feeble former general wouldn't have missed it--it was the 50th reunion of what remained of his old military unit--the 24th Wisconsin.  Only 90 members were still alive, and they had asked MacArthur to speak to them.  On the wall behind the podium from which he would address them hung a flag; old, tattered and bearing the scars of combat.  It was the battle flag of the 24th Wisconsin, a flag that stirred the heart of MacArthur.  Perhaps as he waited his moment of address his mind wandered back half a century.

 

The date was November 25, 1863.  The place was a small ridge overlooking Chattanooga, Tennessee.  From the one-thousand foot heights of Missionary Ridge Confederate General Braxton Braggs' soldiers trained their artillery on the city below.  Major General Ulysses S. Grant and his men had pitched their tents there, and now the soldiers were at the mercy of those relentless cannon.  Trapped and faced with starvation and annihilation, the Union troops had lost so many horses that they couldn't even mount an artillery battery in their defense.

It was a frustrating feeling of helplessness and imminent disaster, compounded by the winter drizzle and ominous skies.  Major General William Sherman had mounted an attack to the right and was quickly stalled.  Under pressure of the enemy he requested a feint elsewhere to relieve his embattled troops.  It wasn't intended to be a major offensive, such was an improbable military operation.  The reserve troops were simply to attack the center of the Confederate lines at the base of Missionary Ridge to draw attention away from Sherman.

The battle for the gun pits was furious, soldiers fighting hand-to-hand and engaging each other with bayonet.  As the Confederate soldiers were slowly defeated and the young Union soldiers gained control of the gun pits, they found themselves trapped at the base of the ridge by the cannon mounted above them.  Their brief victory had turned into a nightmare of death.  Watching from a distance General Grant's worst fears materialized as the withering fire threatened to destroy his valiant soldiers.  "Pull back," he probably thought to himself, "retreat...get out of there before it is too late."

No thought had been given to attacking Missionary Ridge that day, Grant knew it would be suicidal.  The move to the gun pits at the base of the ridge had simply been a token attack, designed to divide the enemy forces and provide some relief for Sherman's embattled soldiers.  Yet suddenly, without orders, the 18,000 young men trapped in the gun pits rose to their feet and began to assault the enemy entrenched on the 1,000-foot slope.  Angry at the suicidal offensive, Grant asked, "Who ordered those men up the ridge?"  A subordinate replied that the attack had commenced without order.  Chomping his traditional cigar and fearful of the worst Grant replied, "Well, it will be all right if it turns out all right."

Among the units advancing on the entrenched Confederate soldiers that day was the 24th Wisconsin Infantry.  The unit detailed to advance the colors was led by an 18-year old First Lieutenant named Arthur MacArthur.  When the soldier assigned to carry the battle flag of the 24th Wisconsin fell to an enemy bayonet, another soldier rushed forward to hoist the flag.  The roar of cannon fire filled the ridge and the second color bearer fell, decapitated by a cannon ball.  Bloody and wounded, Arthur MacArthur retrieved the colors himself.  Raising the already battle-scared flag high he turned to his troops with the shout "On Wisconsin!" and proceeded up the ridge.  As MacArthur reached the summit he firmly planted the staff of the flag in the ground.  Below him the advancing soldiers saw their flag, battered and scarred, waving in the breeze at the top of the precipice.  Their hearts filled with inspiration they surged forward, doing the improbable, achieving victory at Missionary Ridge.

More than a half century later Arthur's son Douglas MacArthur related the story of what happened next.  According to that account, Brigadier General Philip A. Sheridan reached the summit of Missionary Ridge that evening.  Upon hearing the accounts of MacArthur's valiant and inspirational action he could not help embracing the young teenager.  His voice choked with emotion, the war hardened general turned to MacArthur's comrades and said, "Take care of him.  He has just won the Medal of Honor.

Actually, as was not uncommon regarding the award of Medals of Honor to heroes of the Civil War, MacArthur's medal was not presented for almost 30 years.  He received the award on June 30, 1890.  But his comrades never forgot the words of General Sherman.   Shortly after the battle at Missionary Ridge they unanimously elected him to the rank of major (it was not an uncommon military process of the day for vacancies in the ranks to be filled by the vote of the soldiers in a unit).  Four months and thirteen battles later the nineteen year old soldier was brevetted again, to the rank of Colonel.   Often called the "boy colonel" in his home state, he was the youngest Colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War.  After the Civil War he chose to remain in the military.  It took 30 years for him to regain the rank he had held as a volunteer in the Civil War but achieve it again he did, finally retiring in 1909 as a Lieutenant (3-star) General.

 

The reminicence of the patriarch of one of our Nation's greatest military families was interrupted by the reality of the moment.  He was back in Milwaukee, the city where he had joined a volunteer army 50 years earlier as a 17 year old boy.  Before him sat the remnant of his comrades  in the 24th Wisconsin.  It was September 5, 1912 and time for him to once again speak to the soldiers he had so valiantly led decades before. 

Despite his illness he summoned from within the same fortitude that had sustained him at Missionary Ridge, to walk to the podium.  Perhaps he glanced quickly again at the tattered flag on the wall behind him, a flag that he dearly loved.   "Your indomitable regiment...." he began in a weak but steady voice....and then a hush fell over the room as Arthur MacArthur collapsed to the floor.

Dr. William J. Cronyn had been a surgeon for the 24th Wisconsin and was the first to reach MacArthur's prostrate form.  Quickly he examined the man they had all come to love and admire, then turned to what remained of the heroes at Missionary ridge and said, "Comrades, the general is dying."  Solemnly 90 aged veterans gathered around the frail body on the floor, reciting in unison, the Lord's Prayer.  When they had finished, Arthur MacArthur was dead.  Captain Edwin Parsons rose to his feet and, as is recorded in the minutes of that emotional meeting "took from the wall the battle-torn flag he (MacArthur) had so gallantly carried, and wrapped it around MacArthur."

Arthur MacArthur had often said that he wanted to die at the head of his regiment.  Who could have dreamed it would happen in so fitting a fashion, standing before the very flag that had catapulted him into history.  And who could have dreamed that the very flag he had carried so valiantly at Missionary Ridge during the Civil War, would enwrap his body fifty years later as he was carried from the moment and place of his death...at the head of what remained of the 24th Wisconsin.

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SOURCES:

AMERICAN CAESAR, Douglas MacArthur by William Manchester

Medal of Honor Recipients and Their Official Citations

The Citizens Flag Alliance, Inc.

 

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