ARKIES AT WAR:

DOUGLAS MACARTHUR

Yes, THE General Douglas MacArthur was born in Little Rock in 1880 while his parents were billetted in the northwest upper floor of this building, the only remaining of the twenty-seven buildings which then comprised the Little Rock Arsenal commanded by Captain Arthur MacArthur.

Any grognards wishing to quibble over the exact location of the birth of the future supreme commander of allied forces in the Southern Pacific can argue that he might have been born at the infirmary on the base. That spot is now marked by the "Human Dissection Monument." On the other hand, he was born in an era when birthing was done in the home, so that room in the red brick building seems just about as likely a spot as any other on the post. About a hundred yards off to the right in this picture were buildings especially reserved for married officers, but a 90-year-old who lived all her life in the vicinity claimed in 1952 that she specifically remembered the MacArthurs living in the northwest corner room on the second floor of the tower building, not the married officers' barracks. In the stairwell of the museum is a floor plan showing how the floors were divided into apartments at the time, and the corner apartment looks mighty small for a married couple with two kids. While it would be interesting to lock down a fact like that, it's not like verifying the Shroud of Turin or a fingerbone of John the Baptist or the bathroom tiles where Elvis briefly stood. He was, by tradition, and very likely, born here. Top right window, partially obscured by trees.

In 1942 when Little Rock's favored son had thrust upon him the mantle of America's greatest hero this was the last remaining building of the Old Arsenal. The building and grounds were renamed MacArthur Park in his honor. The building eventually became the Arkansas Museum of Natural History and just a few years ago when the AMNH moved to President Clinton Street to become the Museum of Discovery, this building became the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History.

MacArthur all but disowned us. He practically never acknowledged his Arkansas origins unless confronted with the official records. He always claimed Norfolk, Virginia as his home town and his place of origin even though he was eighteen months old before his dad got reassigned to Washington.

If you'll indulge my armchair psychology, MacArthur embraced a notion of his own personal greatness, destiny, nobility and military heritage. This self-image was supported by Virginia origins much better than by Arkansas origins. Virginia is the birthplace of great soldiers and presidents and aristocrats. For the first 60 years of MacArthur's life, Arkansas was nothing but unarable swamp in the east and unarable mountains in the west. Military units raised in Arkansas fought without distinction in the Mexican War and the Civil War. If West Pointers thought anything about Arkansas at all they thought it was half lawless and half useless, a place of wild Indians and illiterate woodsmen.

Here's a perfect example of how he handled the uncomfortable truth of his birthplace. In 1963, a year before he passed away, he was in New York accepting an award from the Grand Lodge of Masons. A presenter was recounting MacArthur's biography when he was interrupted, "You spoke of my birthplace. I'm a Virginian." The presenter quoted the record and MacArthur had a standard lame quip. He explained that it was intended that he be born in his mother's home town but his father was reassigned to Little Rock unexpectedly. The Norfolk papers dutifully reported that Douglas was born while his parents were out of town. Polite after dinner laughter follows.

Of course I suspect that was his way of pretenting to be making a joke whenever he got caught revising his personal history. He promised all his personal effects to his memorial in Norfolk. In the museum that was his birthplace and from 1942 bore his name the only MacArthur artifacts were 1) a copy of the WWII Japanese surrender document and 2) a copy of the record of his induction as a freemason. Efforts to obtain artifacts during MacArthur's lifetime were unsuccessful, and the MacArthur artifacts in the MacArthur museum are replicas. Even if MacArthur didn't particularly care for Little Rock himself, you'd think that somewhere in the vast stores of artifacts kept in Virginia there would be some scrap they wouldn't mind having displayed at their benefactor's birthplace.

His efforts to ignore his birth state are to a degree successful. I found no mention of the fact in the early pages of "American Caesar." Most of the biographies I checked begin with him in New Mexico, where his father was posted the summer following Douglas' birth. If your definitive biography doesn't mention the place where you were born, then you are an effective propagandist. On the other hand, Arkansas has always been blessed with the power of invisibility. In Ken Burns' epic Civil War documentary, Arkansas is also not mentioned. Being from Arkansas is like being born in the witness protection program.

There's another minor detail that has provoked a few quibbles. The family of Dr. A. I. Breysacher has claimed that he was the physician who delivered young Douglas. Others have suggested the attending physican was more likely Dr. Edwin Bentley. Here's how the evidence broke down. The MacArthurs were pals of Breysacher but Bentley was the Army surgeon assigned to the post. Douglas and his older brother Malcolm were christened on the same day at Christ Episcopal Church in Little Rock. The sponsor for Douglas was Breysacher. The sponsor for Malcolm was Bentley. Some folks suggest that the family confused sponsorship with delivery. Others say the MacArthurs might have retained a physician outside the army as a matter of necessity or personal relationship. Make of the circumstances what you will.

Regarding his christening at Christ Episcopal Church we bear in mind that a church is a body of people and not a building. This is Christ Episcopal Church today. This one was built in 1943 to replace the one that burned in 1938. That earlier church (inset photo) was built in 1887 to replace the original building which burned in 1873. So young Douglas was born seven years after the first church burned and seven years before the second church was occupied.

In the "Annals of Christ Episcopal Church Parish of Little Rock" I found that after the burning of the first church, the congregation moved to the Opera House on Main Street. When I found that you have no idea how much I wanted to have discovered that Douglas MacArthur was baptized on the stage of a frontier opera house. Amateurs like myself live to discover something like that. Unfortunately I couldn't make the dates fit. Four years after the fire, Christ Episcopal got a new pastor, who apparently found the opera house an inappropriate place for worship services. A temporary chapel was built on the church property where it served the congregation for eleven years until the completion of the second church. The MacArthur brothers were almost certainly baptized in that temporary chapel.

The only time he ever set foot again in Little Rock was on March 23, 1952. The Gazette headline predicted a crowd of 75,000 and the day after the visit reported 26,000. He stayed here only four hours on a whirlwind tour of southern cities. It was supposed to be six hours, but his flight was delayed due to mechanical problems. Also, the weather in the south at that time was pretty twitchy. Just a couple of days earlier tornadoes had devastated the region. Arkansas was particularly hard hit, the death toll reaching 131 with over 400 treated at area hospitals. Downtown Searcy was nearly scraped off its foundations. More tornadoes had cropped up in the intervening days. MacArthur's plane touched down at Adams Field. He went to Christ Episcopal (the present one) for a worship service. He attended a private luncheon. He was presented with a silver platter bearing an engraving of the building and an inscription identifying it as his birthplace. He also got an orchid "for his best girl," a tomahawk from Pea Ridge, and a scout scroll. He gave a very short, sentimental speech from the Fulton Bandstand and he split. He was on the ground from 12:30 to 4:30.

The reason for the whirlwind tour was that 1952 was an election year and MacArthur was a prominent Republican. So prominent was he that he had only recently "withdrawn" his name from the ballots of the Wisconsin primary (while casually implying that he would serve if drafted). There was some local political friction caused by his visit. These were the days of the solid-south-yellow-dog-capital-D-little-emocrat Democrat. The local aldermen and other party muck-a-mucks made arrangements to have business out of town during MacArthur's visit. They coudn't say so outright, but they couldn't afford to be photographed sucking up to this very popular, charismatic and photogenic Republican.

Of course, for the sake of politeness some civic leaders had to be on the welcoming committee. All the big shots didn't skip town, but so many did that it made the papers.

When MacArthur passed away in April of 1964 a memorial service was held on the front lawn of the Old Arsenal building. The service was open to the public. The Honorable Rufus J. "God bless yooouuuu, THIS day" Womble stood at the top of the steps and delivered his eulogy to a crowd of thirty-five.

Miscellaneous trivia: When the federal government appropriated the acreage for the arsenal back in 1837 the action nearly caused a riot. The new army post displaced the old race track and jockey club.

Visit the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History at 503 East 9th in Little Rock. Admission is free, donations are graciously accepted. 501-376-4602.

RTJ--2/1/2004

Sources:

Cantrell, Ellen Harrell; The Annals of Christ Church Parish of Little Rock Arkansas from A.D. 1839 to A.D. 1899; Press of Arkansas Democrat Company, Little Rock, 1900.

McDonald, Margaret; White Already to Harvest: The Episcopal Church in Arkansas -- 1838-1971; The Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas and The University of Sewanee3, TN; 1975.

Arkansas Democrat/Gazette and Arkansas Gazette articles (date sectionpage:column): 3/23/52 A1:2; 3/23/52 A1:3; 3/24/52 A1:2; 3/21/52 A1:6; 3/18/52 A3:1; 4/12/64 E3:5; 4/11/64 A1:4; 4/7/64/ B4:7; 4/6/64 A1:7; 10/1/63 A3:7; 3/22/63 B1:1


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