On Nov. 25, 1863, Union forces defeated the Confederates at Missionary Ridge.
In the fall of 1863, Confederate forces, under General Braxton Bragg, had trapped Union troops under Major General William Rosecrans in a tight semicircle around Chattanooga, Tennessee, cutting off their supplies.
In November, Union support under Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Major General George Thomas, and Major General William T. Sherman arrived and attacked the rebels on three fronts, breaking the siege and capturing the seemingly impregnable Confederate position on Missionary Ridge.
One soldier, 18 year-old First Lt. Arthur MacArthur of Wisconsin’s 24th Infantry Regiment, would go on to become a Medal of Honor recipient (and, years later, so would his son).
1st Lt. MacArthur’s entire regiment was pointed at the Confederate defenses on Missionary Ridge. The rebels had been attacking Union forces from this ridge since the Union defeat at Chickamauga Creek and Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant needed to clear it for his future plans in the faltering Chattanooga Campaign.
Grant’s first major assaults on Missionary Ridge, launched by his stalwart companion Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, failed. A second failure would force the Union Army to retreat back to Chattanooga and face a siege. A victory would cement control of Tennessee and open Georgia to invasion. The 24th Wisconsin Infantry was placed near the center of the line for this important attack on Nov. 25, 1863.
But unclear instructions on that day nearly doomed the efforts. The defenses on the ridge started with rifle pits at the base and increased to trenches near the top. The Union orders led some commanders to believe that they were supposed to take the rifle pits and then wait, while the actual plan was to take the pits and then advance to the top and take the ridge.
The Union advance nearly failed because of simple confusion about orders. This allowed Confederate forces to pour the fire on those advancing units, and the 24th Wisconsin Infantry was taking casualties.
It was during this assault that the color bearer was hit by Confederate fire and either killed or wounded (accounts differ). In the Civil War, absent colors could quickly break a unit’s assault as the men became either confused about what direction they were supposed to be going or afraid that the leading ranks had been completely destroyed and the fight was lost. MacArthur stepped forward to get the colors back up.
Despite heavy Confederate fire, he grabbed the colors and rushed forward yelling, “On Wisconsin!” as he did so. Confederate soldiers, trying to prevent the rush, aimed for him and wounded him at least twice as he charged, but they failed to stop him.
MacArthur, with the disciplined men of the 24th at his back, rushed into the enemy’s lines and planted the regimental colors right near the center of the Confederate defenses. The 24th defended them, and 15,000 Union soldiers rushed the ridge next to the 24th.
By day’s end, the 24th was camped 2.5 miles past the ridge they had fought so hard to take. The way into Georgia was open, and the 24th would take part in the advance to Atlanta.
MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to major, soon taking command of the 24th amid the constant leadership churn of that unit.
The Union would hold Chattanooga, also known as the Gateway to the Lower South, and use it to supply Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign the following year.