I have on at least one occasion wondered about the origin of the phrase “On Wisconsin.” Today two history professors on Book TV (C-Span 2) told the following wonderful and charming story. General Douglas MacArthur of World War I and World War II fame was not the first warrior in his family. His father, from Milwaukee, was one of the “boy generals” for the Union army during the Civil War. General Ulysses S. Grant ordered the boy general and his Wisconsin troops to secure the top of Lookout Mountain. After exercising great bravery and perseverance, the Wisconsin lads seized the mountaintop. As the flag was being posted, the boy general pointed ahead and said, “On Wisconsin!” This incident was later said to be the inspiration for the phrase used in the lyrics we know so well. An absolutely wonderful story, but is it true? (Please Abe, say it is.)
Yes, the story you heard about Arthur McArthur Jr. is true. He joined the 24th Wisconsin infantry at the age of 18 and helped overrun the Confederates at the 1863 battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee. According to the Medal of Honor Web site, Home of the Heros, when the soldier assigned to carry the battle flag fell wounded, another soldier rushed in to hoist the colors. Soon afterward, the second color bearer fell and MacArthur hurried in to retrieve the flag. He turned to his wounded infantry and shouted “On Wisconsin!” to encourage them on. He continued up Lookout Mountain and proudly planted the flag; victory was theirs. Though this story is true, to my knowledge there is no correlation between McArthur Jr.’s triumph and the “On Wisconsin!” lyrics. Carl Beck wrote the words to “On Wisconsin!” in 1909. To learn more about “On Wisconsin,” visit the UW Marching Band Web page.