On Nov. 25, 1863, the Union Army of the Cumberland scaled the imposing heights of Missionary Ridge, breaking the center of the Confederate line and forcing the Southern army to retreat.
After the dust settled, many soldiers referred to the battle as “The Miracle at Missionary Ridge.” This surprising success provided Gen. Ulysses S. Grant the victory needed to secure Chattanooga for the Union.
One of the young men climbing the ridge’s side was Lt. Arthur McArthur, Jr. from Milwaukee, Wis. McArthur, known by his friends as “Mac,” was not the picture of a soldier. He was born into the prominent family of Judge Arthur McArthur. Weighing only 90 pounds, he seemed more suited to be a drummer boy than an actual soldier. When the war began, he offered his services to the United States, but being 15 years old, he was turned down.
However, the fire did not die in McArthur, even as he was forced to watch others march off to war. Judge McArthur arranged for his son to attend a military school in Illinois while he tried to get the young man an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
For more than a year, Mac studied before returning home and convincing his influential father to obtain a lieutenant’s commission for him in the newly formed 24th Wisconsin. Finally, in July 1862, he marched out of town toward the battlefield.
It would be several months before Mac saw combat on the rolling hills near Perryville, Ky. This experience was soon followed by confused fighting in the cedar glades at the Battle of Stones River in Tennessee.
McArthur was making a name for himself, being described as “the bravest of the brave, and last to leave a point of danger.” However, as his regiment prepared to enter the campaign that would carry them to the gates of Chattanooga, Mac contracted typhoid fever and was sent home to recover.
By the time he returned, his regiment had experienced a disheartening defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga. He found the army in a sad state of affairs at Chattanooga, being under siege with very little food to sustain its starving soldiers.
However, the melancholy countenance of the men changed with the arrival of Gen. Grant and the opening of the “Cracker Line” in late October.
By mid-November, the soldiers regained their strength and with newly arrived reinforcements, Grant developed a plan to break the siege and drive the Confederate forces away from Chattanooga.
The Wisconsinites time for battle came on Nov. 25, when they were ordered to assault the Confederate defenses at the center of Missionary Ridge. However, their role was merely a diversion.
The men would only attack the Confederate line at the foot of the ridge, forcing the Confederates to weaken their northern and southern flanks, the areas where the “real” Union attacks would take place.
Under a late afternoon sun, the men of the 24th Wisconsin marched onto the plain before Missionary Ridge as if on a parade. Bayonets glistened, and silk flags flapped in the breeze, as they marched toward the daunting Confederate lines.
The army soon came under artillery fire from the ridge, which rained lead and iron upon the heads and shoulders of the advancing soldiers.
As they neared their goal, the men rushed forward and captured the trenches. Finding themselves under rifle and close artillery fire, the soldiers realized they could not retreat, nor could they maintain their positions.
Their only option was to move forward. Together, as if one man, the army clambered over the earthworks and began scaling the side of the ridge. As they moved up the slopes, bullets began striking some of the men, sending them rolling down the ridge’s side.
As the brave Wisconsin men neared the summit, the 24th Wisconsin’s color bearer fell, pierced through the body.
Suddenly, Mac, grabbing the flag in his hands, turned to his men and shouted “On Wisconsin!” The young lieutenant led his troops to the crest, where the Confederate line seemed to evaporate and flee before overwhelming numbers of blue-clad soldiers.
The Army of the Cumberland disobeyed orders that November afternoon, but in doing so, they won a great victory. Lieutenant Arthur McArthur, Jr. was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for his brave actions on Missionary Ridge. Years later, his son, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, received the same honor in a very different war.
Lee White is a Park Guide at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. For more information, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.