Francis A. Waller was born on August 15, 1840 in Gurneyville, Ohio. Waller moved to Vernon County, Wisconsin in 1853. After the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, Abraham Lincoln would issue a proclamation, on April 15, calling for 75,000 state militia, for 90 days, to suppress the rebellion of the southern states. Waller, then 20 years of age, answered Lincoln’s call and enlisted as a private, in Company I, of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry. Organized at Camp Randall, Wisconsin, the 6th would be officially mustered into Federal service on July 16, 1861.(i)
Waller, with his 6th Wisconsin would leave for Washington City, and would remain there until July 28, 1861. In June 1862, the regiment would be assigned to US Brigadier General John Gibbon’s Fourth Brigade, of Rufus King’s First Division in the III Corps of the Army of Virginia. They would see some action at Cedar Mountain on August 9. Gibbon’s brigade, then called the “Black Hat” brigade, would be comprised of all western regiments: 2nd Wisconsin, 6th Wisconsin, 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana. On their march, to intercept CS Major General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Left Wing, thought to be at Centreville, Virginia, the brigade would be surprised by the Confederates at the Battle of Brawner’s Farm. The brigade would suffer terribly at this opening battle of Second Manassas, and would earn a reputation for bravery. In September 1862, during the Maryland Campaign, they would be heavily engaged at South Mountain, earning the new nickname – Iron Brigade. On September 17, at the Battle of Antietam, Waller, would participate in some of the hardest fighting at the Corn Field. Again, the Iron Brigade would suffer tremendously. From December 12–15, they would fight at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Continuing to earn a reputation for hard fighting, they would be engaged at the Battle of Chancellorsville, in early May 1863.
CS General Robert E. Lee, determined to take the fight to the north, would invade Pennsylvania in June 1863. The Federal Army of the Potomac, with its new commander, US Major General George G. Meade, pursued Lee. On July 1, he found the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On that day, then corporal, Francis Waller would provide his most valuable service to the United States. Fighting would commence early that day, between US Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry division and CS Major General Henry Heth’s Confederate infantry division. Buford’s dismounted cavalry was able to slow Heth’s approach to Gettysburg until US Major General John Reynold’s I Corps was able to arrive. The Iron Brigade was part of the I Corps and was one of the first infantry brigades to arrive at the rapidly developing Battle of Gettysburg. While the rest of the brigade (2nd Wisconsin, 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana and 24th Michigan) fought at Herbst Woods, on McPherson’s Ridge, the 6th Wisconsin was sent north of the Chambersburg Pike to reinforce US Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s brigade. As the battle raged, between 10:30 a.m and 11:15 a.m., the reinforced Confederate line began to push the Federals back, towards the Lutheran Seminary. The portion of Cutler’s line, that included the 6th Wisconsin was refused, facing north, near an unfinished railroad cut. This railroad cut proved fateful for CS Brigadier General Joseph R. Davis’ brigade, comprised of Mississippians and North Carolinians. Davis would push three regiments of his brigade, into the cut, in an effort to flank the Federal I Corps. Unfortunately the walls of the cut proved to high to allow accurate musket fire, or artillery support. Pushing through the cut, the Confederates became easy targets for the Federal regiments arrayed on the south bank of the cut. The 14th Brooklyn, 95th New York and the 6th Wisconsin opened a withering fire on the soldiers trapped in the cut. Many of the Confederates surrendered, but plenty determined to fight their way out. The fighting devolved to hand-to-hand combat. During the hardest fighting, Waller engaged the color bearer of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry, Corporal William B. Murphy. The two would fight gallantly for the cherished flag. Waller triumphed, killing Murphy and securing the Mississippi colors. For his brave, and selfless actions, Waller would be awarded the Medal of Honor. During the fighting at Gettysburg, the Iron Brigade would suffer 1,212 casualties of the 1,883 soldiers (64%) that arrived at McPherson’s Ridge.(ii)
Waller would continue to serve with the 6th Wisconsin, through the remainder of the Civil War. He would fight at Mine Run, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Five Forks and Appomattox Court House. Waller would receive promotions to 2nd Lieutenant on December 21, 1864 and 1st Lieutenant on March 23, 1865. On December 1, 1864, Waller would be awarded the Medal of Honor. His official citation reads:
“Capture of flag of 2d Mississippi Infantry (C.S.A.). (iii)
After the Civil War, Lieutenant Waller would return to Vernon County, Wisconsin. He would die on April 30, 1911 in Bentford, South Dakota. He is buried at Walnut Mound Cemetery in Retreat, Wisconsin. Francis Waller is a true American HERO.
(i) The Civil War Soldiers and Sailor System was used to research this article.
(ii) The Gettysburg National Military Park website was used to research this article. Click here to view the transcript.
(iii) The Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients website was used to research this article.