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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Monday, August 15, 2022
On Wisconsin

The iconic UW-Madison phrase ‘On Wisconsin’ may have been first used by First Lt. Arthur MacArthur at the Battle of Missionary Ridge during the Civil War.

Historian debunks myths behind “On Wisconsin!” fighting song

Kevin Hampton, a curator at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, gave a lecture on the history of the famous Badger fight song, “On Wisconsin!” as part of the Wednesday Nite at the Lab series.

According to Hampton, the song originates from a music competition during the early 1890s. The song was written by William T. Purdy and Carl Beck, roommates at the time in Chicago.

Purdy wanted to enter the song in a contest that offered a $100 dollar prize for a new University of Minnesota fight song. Beck, after hearing the song, immediately began writing lyrics for a Wisconsin fight song, and then convinced Purdy to abandon his plans.

The song’s debut is most often cited from a Wisconsin football game in 1909, and has been widely popular ever since.

A story about the Battle of Missionary Ridge during the Civil War can also be cited as the birthplace of the song, according to Hampton.

As the tale goes, MacArthur inspired his regiment by grabbing and planting the regiment’s flag on the crest of the Missionary Ridge during a critical moment in the battle and shouting “On Wisconsin!”

Currently, when searching any Internet site or even asking Civil War aficionados, Hampton said it will list Arthur MacArthur, the First Lieutenant of the Union’s 24th Infantry, as the person who famously cried “On Wisconsin!” during the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

The story is also described in his son Douglas MacArthur’s 1964 autobiography “Reminiscences.” It was the first account of MacArthur as the creator of the phrase.

Hampton said, “If someone has a record before 1964 that someone said this, please, I would love to see it.”

However, he added that the story reiterated in Douglas’ autobiography is not necessarily one shared by any historical records.

Hampton said there are accounts of MacArthur yelling “up, 24th, Wisconsin, up” and “onward, onward” on the battlefield, but not much else.

Still, Hampton said this should not detract from the honorable duties MacArthur performed at the battle, which later earned him a Medal of Honor. 

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Correction: This article was updated Thursday, Nov. 21 at 5:15 p.m. to reflect that the music competition took place in the 1890s and not the 1990s as previously reported.

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