Milwaukee Teen Led Brave Charge in Civil War Battle

Dec 21, 2012

While the Iron Brigade, and its Wisconsin regiments, get a lot of the glory due to their fierce fighting in the American Civil War, there were other Wisconsin regiments which showed their mettle in battle.

Perhaps no story drives that home more than that of Arthur MacArthur of Milwaukee at the Battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee, November 25, 1863.

The Boy Colonel, Arthur MacArthur, Jr. of the 24th Wisconsin Regiment.

Pewaukee historian Thomas Martin Sobottke says on that day, the Union forces are overlooking Chattanooga, ready to take on Confederates who had earlier in the war won at Chickamauga. But after Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, General Ulysses Grant is on the offensive, ready to take the Confederates. He orders several regiments, including the 24th Wisconsin, to attack Confederate rifle pits at the bottom of Missionary Ridge, as a diversion for an attack on another strong point to the left. The Union troops do as they are ordered.

"They did hand-to-hand fighting, close shooting, bayoneting, rifle butts," says Sobottke, the voice of Lake Effect's "Iron Brigade and Beyond" series. "They did that savage fighting."

But then, Sobottke says, Grant notices the men are continuing up the ridge - led by the flag of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry regiment.

Enter Arthur MacArthur. Enlisting at only 17 years old, the now lieutenant was in command of some 50 to 70 men of the 24th Wisconsin. Considered now a veteran of battle, MacArthur is near the color company when the regular color bearer is bayoneted in the rifle pits. The next soldier to pick up the colors is then decapitated by an artillery shell, covering MacArthur in blood.

But a wounded MacArthur takes the flag and heads up the ridge, giving the soldiers the visual order to advance. In the confusion, the soldiers hesitate.

"They were kind of stalled," Sobottke says. "And MacArthur, who's 18 years old, Arthur MacArthur of Milwaukee, Wisconsin - he's a local boy made good here - he turns back to the regiment under fire and yells at the tops of his lungs, 'On Wisconsin!' and goes forward by himself."

Inspired, the regiment and much of the line to the right and left follow. MacArthur is one of the first to reach the top of the hill and, despite the fact that he is under fire, he plants the colors at the top of the hill. Grant and his officers are stunned.

"This was a day when his soldiers went beyond their orders and did more, and a little 18-year-old boy lieutenant from Milwaukee led them," Sobottke says. "I guess that's biblical, isn't it? And a little boy or young person shall lead them."

Later, MacArthur is taken down the hill to receive medical attention and many soldiers go to congratulate him. Sobottke says General Sheridan, a tough man and key aide to Grant who rarely gives praise, tells the soldiers, "Boys, handle him gently. This boy has just won the Medal of Honor."

It took some 30 years after the war, but Arthur MacArthur of Milwaukee was, indeed, awarded the Medal.

"There was an understanding that that guy had done something incredible that day," Sobottke says.

During the rest of the Civil War, MacArthur advanced to captain, then major, and later became the youngest colonel leading a regiment in the entire U.S. Army. And after the war, he would have a son, Douglas MacArthur - who would lead U.S. forces in the Pacific in WWII and later in Korea.

Thomas Martin Sobottke is the voice of our Civil War series, "Iron Brigade and Beyond: Wisconsin in the Civil War." He's a historian, teacher, and the author of the book, Across That Dark River: The Civil War Memory, published by Moving Train Books, LLC. He has published articles for North and South magazine, including one on war correspondents, and he lives in Pewaukee. Our Civil War series is produced by Stephanie Lecci.