On Wisconsin (origins of)

The Finest of All College Marching Songs

“On, Wisconsin!”

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Plunge right through that line!
Run the ball right down the field, a touchdown sure this time.
On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Fight on for her fame,
Fight! Fellows! Fight! Fight, fight, we’ll win this game.

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Stand up, Badgers sing!
“Forward” is our driving spirit loyal voices ring.
On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Raise her glowing flame!
Stand, fellows, let us now salute her name!

Listen while you read: The earliest recording of On Wisconsin, from 1915

Check out other renditions of On Wisconsin and other great UW audio on the Alumni Park Playlist.

On the Battlefield

The afternoon of November 25, 1863, was a brutal one for Wisconsin’s 24th Volunteer Infantry Regiment. As the Union Army attempted to push up Missionary Ridge outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the men were greeted with gunfire from the well-protected Confederate soldiers guarding the hill.

The flag bearer fell, and another man took his place. He, too, was shot down. Then a third young man picked up the flag, ran up the hill, and shouted “On, Wisconsin!” as he planted the standard in the ground. The rallying cry boosted Union morale, and the regiment ascended the ridge and broke the Confederate line. Eighteen-year-old Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur Jr. received the Medal of Honor for his bravery that day, and his shout echoed into Wisconsin history.

On the Football Field

Like MacArthur, Carl Beck BA1913 was a New England native who made his way to the Midwest. In 1909, Beck temporarily withdrew from the UW and moved to Chicago to earn tuition money. While there, he roomed in a boarding house with an old friend, William Purdy, a glee coach and pianist.

One “frosty Sunday morning” in September, Beck overheard Purdy practicing a melody that he intended to submit to the University of Minnesota’s contest for a new football fight song. “No, Bill, no!” Beck supposedly cried, arguing instead that the song would sound better as an anthem for Wisconsin. “All right, all right, we’ll try it your way,” Purdy responded. By the end of the day, they’d rewritten the piece.

Purdy went to Madison to distribute copies of the sheet music and lyrics to students the night before the November 13 game against Minnesota. Though the song didn’t inspire a victory on the field, “On, Wisconsin!” was an instant hit with Badger fans. Beck received so many telegrams at his job from students wanting more print copies that he was fired for “preoccupation with outside interests.”

Purdy never again visited campus, but royalties from the song helped to support his wife after his early death in 1918. And the UW also gave scholarships to his two children, Ken Purdy BA1938 and Mary Lois Purdy BA1935.

Listen to the history of “On, Wisconsin!” with Mike Leckrone

On Variety