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241 years of Army service to our flag and nation

June 14, 2016Emblem_of_the_United_States_Department_of_the_Army_svg

By Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, the adjutant general

Today we celebrate the U.S. Army’s 241st birthday, as well as the 100th anniversary of Flag Day. In honor of both occasions, allow me to share a story about a Wisconsin man fitting for each observation.

The 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment was part of the Army of the Cumberland, which in September of 1863 survived the Battle of Chickamauga, considered the most significant Union defeat in the Western Theater of the Civil War. The Army of the Cumberland retreated to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and endured a weeks-long siege by Confederate forces. The arrival of additional Union forces eased the siege and set the stage for the Battle of Missionary Ridge in late November.

The Army of the Cumberland’s task was to take the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. However, confusion about the orders resulted in the Army of the Cumberland holding the low ground as the Confederates retreated to the top of the ridge, eventually concentrating rifle and artillery fire against their Union foes.

With the 24th Wisconsin for this battle was 18-year-old Lt. Arthur MacArthur, whose gallantry had already earned the respect of his older peers. As he and his men endured withering Confederate fire, the regimental color bearer was killed. Grabbing the flag and holding it over his head, MacArthur turned to his men and bellowed, “On Wisconsin!” before charging up Missionary Ridge. His men followed, and other Union units also charged the ridge rather than absorb continued Confederate fire. MacArthur reached the crest of Missionary Ridge and planted the regimental colors where they could be seen by all.

From a distance, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was shocked to observe Union troops advancing up Missionary Ridge, as no orders had been given for the Army of the Cumberland to mount such an assault. Nevertheless, Union Soldiers continued their ascent, dislodging the entrenched Confederates in what military historians consider the conflict’s most successful frontal assault against dug-in defenders holding the high ground.

Modern historians were not the only ones impressed. Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan learned of MacArthur’s actions later that night. Sheridan found the teenage lieutenant, embraced him and told the men of the 24th Wisconsin, “Take care of him — he has just won the Medal of Honor.”

MacArthur would eventually command the 24th Wisconsin, and 27 years later would finally receive the promised Medal of Honor. After the end of the Civil War, MacArthur joined the regular Army and continued an impressive military career that finally concluded at the rank of lieutenant general in 1909. One of his three sons was Douglas MacArthur, who would also receive a Medal of Honor and achieve the rank of General of the Army — a five-star general.

Three years later, in ill health, MacArthur was the keynote speaker at the 50th anniversary reunion for the 24th Wisconsin, held in Milwaukee. As he began to address the 90 or so surviving members of the regiment, he collapsed at the podium and died. He was covered with the tattered remains of the regimental colors he had so valiantly carried up Missionary Ridge nearly five decades earlier.

The flag represents our nation, the U.S. Army defends our nation, and on that day in 1863, Arthur MacArthur embodied the best characteristics of both our flag and the U.S. Army.

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We commemorate Memorial Day

May 30, 2016

By Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, the adjutant general

Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, the adjutant general of Wisconsin

Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, the adjutant general of Wisconsin

Seven score and 10 years ago, Waterloo, New York, held what is considered to be the first Memorial Day observation. And what began as a day to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War Soldiers has grown into an occasion to solemnly remember those whose lives were lost in combat serving in our nation’s conflicts.

 

Originally called Decoration Day, the observance was first held on May 30 in Northern states, as that was not the anniversary of a Civil War battle. Southern states honored their Civil War dead on different days until after World War I, when the nation expanded the tradition to commemorate all American service members who perished in the nation’s wars.

 

Congress established that Memorial Day would be held the last Monday of May back in 1971, when the observance also became a federal holiday.

 

The Civil War and World War I stand as bookends, of sorts, for Memorial Day, and Wisconsin was an active participant in both conflicts.

 

Wisconsin would send more than 90,000 volunteers to fight in the Civil War, on battlefields in places like Shiloh and Antietam, Bull Run and Gettysburg. Many of those volunteers fought their way into the history books in units such as the Iron Brigade of the West, and the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment with its bald eagle mascot, Old Abe. The 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment included a 17-year-old officer named Arthur MacArthur, a Medal of Honor recipient who inspired his regiment by planting the unit colors atop Missionary Ridge and shouting “On Wisconsin!”

 

It would be at Camp MacArthur near Waco, Texas, a little more than a half-century later, that the Wisconsin National Guard and Michigan National Guard would form the 32nd Infantry Division. Some Wisconsin National Guard units carried the lineage of heroic Civil War regiments into the fighting in Europe — and it would appear that they also carried the courage and determination of their Civil War forebears.

 

The 32nd Division was the first American unit to conduct armed patrols in Germany during World War I, and earned the nickname “Les Terribles” — meaning terrifying or formidable — from the French. The 32nd also earned another nickname, the Red Arrow, during World War I because it pierced every enemy line it encountered. In the final month of “the war to end all wars,” the 32nd Division was the first Allied Army unit to break through the Hindenberg Line and advance to the Meuse River. The Red Arrows were still fighting the Germans when the Armistice of Compiegne was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.

 

MemorialDay2016Approximately 12,000 Wisconsin Soldiers lost their lives in the Civil War, and roughly 2,250 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers would perish in World War I. Since Sept. 11, 2001, 10 Wisconsin Army National Guard members have lost their lives in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. I think about them every day, as well as the thousands of other Americans who gave their lives to preserve and protect our nation.

 

The Declaration of Independence holds that liberty is an inalienable right endowed by our Creator, but liberty endures in large part because throughout the history of our nation, brave men and women have stood up against those who would steal or infringe on that right.

 

That is why we do not celebrate Memorial Day — we commemorate it. As our nation grows, fewer and fewer of us put on the military uniform. The burden of defending our nation is borne by fewer and fewer Americans. And while we should absolutely continue to enjoy those liberties available to us in the United States, we should also honor those who cannot be here to share those liberties with us, and remember the families for whom Memorial Day will never be a celebration.