Sunday, May 11, 2014

The General Died and Chicago Mourned

“The Clan MacArthur was the dominating clan of Scotland from A.D. 300 to 1750. This clan crowned and uncrowned the kings of Scotland for more than 1,000 years. For more than 600 years they were the keepers of the Stone of Destiny. Upon this stone, all the kings of Scotland were crowned, and since it’s removal to England in the time of James the First, every ruler of England has been crowned upon this stone. The legend is that this is the stone upon which Jacob rested his head when he saw the vision of the angels upon the ladder, ascending to and descending from heaven.” (Source unknown)

This is the heritage and background of General John McArthur. We know very little about his ancestors except that they were Highlanders. His father, John MacArthur, was a native of Islay in the Western Highlands. He was a blacksmith and a tenant of Lord Balantyre. His son, also named John, was an excellent student and his parents and the parish minister wanted him to study for the ministry. His patron offered him a full scholarship at the University of Edinburgh. John respectfully declined and began working with his father as a blacksmith.

John McArthur was a soldier at heart. His ancient heritage called him and so did America. He was attracted to this country by reading accounts of the Mexican war. “The uniform success of our soldiers filled him with admiration for the American people, and he determined to cast his life with them.” Little did he know how this would determine his future.

He came to Chicago early in its history and began manufacturing boilers. He became one of the trustees of the United Presbyterian Church. Before the Civil War he organized a militia company known as the Highland Guard. When the first call for volunteers was issued by President Lincoln, Capt. McArthur tendered his services and those of his company. He was at once elected a Col. of the 12th Illinois infantry.

The Scottish citizens of Chicago presented to McArthur and his Regiment an American flag and a smaller flag of white silk which bore the following words:

“Dinna ye hear the slogan?
Tis McArthur and his men.”

At the battle of Fort Donelson, early in the war, he had command of a brigade, and ”displayed such gallantry that he was at once made a Brig. General.” He was unschooled in the science of war but his “McArthur blood” made him skillful and brave. He was born a soldier.

We don’t have time to give all the details in the career of General McArthur. We do need to say that at the battle of Pittsburgh (Shiloh) he was severely wounded and carried from the field of battle. When he recovered he was put in command of a division of the Army of the Tennessee and remained in command until the war ended.

In 1848, at the parish of Erskine, Scotland, he married Miss Christina Cuthbertson. The marriage produced eight children. After the war, he served for a time as the Commissioner of Public Works for Chicago and in 1872, President Grant appointed him Postmaster. He was an active member of the George H. Thomas, Post No. 5, Grand Army of the Republic.

The General was president of the Illinois Saint Andrew Society in 1871 when the city was destroyed by the Great Fire. What a strong leader he must have been during this critical time.

In 1877, John McArthur was forced into bankruptcy. In my files is a copy of all the creditors listed in Document 4014. I recognize many of the names as people associated with the Society who must have come to his aid and loaned him money. The total debt was $72,446.22.

Most of the articles about his life indicate that he was a poor businessman. You decide. Here is what was written in the Memorials of Deceased Companions, page 357. “In 1872, President Grant appointed him Postmaster. In 1874, the bank which had been designated by the Secretary of the Treasury as a depository of public funds failed. General MacArthur had at the time a balance of $73,000 on deposit, and a judicial ruling held him indebted to the government for that amount. With characteristic integrity, he went to work to make good the loss, with the result that he depleted his own fortune down to the borderline of want. From this misfortune, he never fully recovered, but with the same heroism which characterized him in war, he did not surrender, but fought adversity and succeeded in securing sufficient to enable him to rear and educate his family.”

The John McArthur Clan is buried in Section 90, lot no. 155. Twenty-eight people are buried in this large lot. Gus Noble, our president and I visit this plot at least four times a year. In a line are the burial lots of Mason, McArthur and Badenoch. All important names in the history of the Scots of Chicago.

Let me quote again from The Memorials: “On the evening of May 15th, 1906, the Angel of Death came and kissed down his eyelids, and his remains were laid at rest in Rose Hill Cemetery. Thus we close the story of this sturdy life, hoping to meet him in the great beyond.” (Written by Edward A. Blodgett, George Mason and Richard S. Tuthill.)

A great man died, and Chicago declared a day of mourning.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

History Club - Next meeting, June 7, 2014. We will discuss and celebrate the sacrifices of those who fought on D-Day.


  1. Another brave Scot fought bravely at Ft. Donelson and Pittsburgh Landing. Captain Edward McAllister, of Plainfield, IL led the Illinois 1st Light Artillery Battery Co D. nicknamed "McAllister's Battery." McAllister is listed in that same book. I would bet they knew each other well!