Faces of Gettysburg – Francis Ashbury Wallar – Medal of Honor Winner

Frank A. Wallar. NPS

   He went by Frank rather than Francis or Ashbury. When he died on April 30, 1911, Earl Rodgers, Wallar’s former commander of old Company I, 6th Wisconsin, recalled; “Wallar was one of the few soldiers who at no time during the four years of service was absent from roll call. He stood in the ranks and fought in every battle and skirmish.” For a soldier who served in the Iron Brigade this was a high distinction. Few men who served in regiments of that famous unit made it through the entire war.
    Wallar’s post-war photograph suggests a man of determination and grit; someone not to be trifled with; an individual possessed of courage and conviction. A viewer of his photograph is immediately drawn to his eyes. They are steady and determined yet also speak of what he saw and lost in the years of 61-65.
    On July 1, 1863, during the charge of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry upon the Railroad Cut, Wallar captured the flag of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted from corporal to sergeant for “conspicuous bravery on the battle-field.” By the time he mustered out in July 1865 he was a 1st Lieutenant. During the war no one questioned whether Wallar was due both the medal and promotion for his actions at Gettysburg, but years later two veterans of the 6th Wisconsin claimed that they, and not Wallar, captured the flag of the 2nd Mississippi. The first was Frank Hare, a Company B veteran who had lost a leg from a wound at the Wilderness, who claimed at a reunion in Milwaukee in 1880 that he had captured a flag at Gettysburg “but did not know what-one.” Since it was well known that the 6th had captured only the 2nd Mississippi’s flag at Gettysburg it was clear that Hare was obliquely claiming credit for it. Someone alerted Wallar who wasted no time in securing sworn statements from men in the regiment, and official documents from his service, attesting that he had captured the flag. He confronted Hare with this evidence “who quietly retired from his position.” [“A Settled Question,” Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph, July 29, 1883, copy GNMP Library]
    Cornelius W. Okey, who had served in Company C, 6th Wisconsin, probably was unaware of the business between Hare and Wallar for in 1883 he published an article titled “Echoes of the Iron Brigade,” in which he described, in great detail, how he captured the flag of the 2nd. In Okey’s account, he was badly wounded at the instant he seized the flag and, bleeding profusely, “gave the flag, which was now entirely in my possession, to a sergeant, I think of Company H, and started for the rear.” Okey went on to relate how he eventually ended up a Cuyler Hospital in Germantown, Pennsylvania, soon after July 6. Shortly after his admission to this hospital he claimed that he was surprised by a visit from the sergeant, whose name Okey omits, who gave him the following statement: As near as I can remember I only had the flag in my possession for a few minutes when I was wounded through the thigh. I broke the staff in two taking the butt end for a cane with which to get off the field, and gave the flag to Corporal John F. Waller. Okey did not need to state the obvious – that he and not Wallar should have received the Medal of Honor – any reader would understand this from his account of the event and the alleged “statement” from the unnamed sergeant of Company H, which gave the appearance of legitimacy to his claim. [Echoes from the Marches of the Famous Iron Brigade, (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms Intl., 1978, 62-65]
    By the time Okey published his account, Wallar had moved with his family to Petonka, South Dakota, where he was farming, but someone sent him a copy and asked him to respond. Okey aroused Wallar’s ire and his reply pulled no punches. What follows is Wallar’s full account as published by the Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph on July 29, 1883.

    Yours of the 3d is received, also echoes of Gettysburg. You ask me to read and tell what I know about it. I know that C. W. Okey is a damned liar, and doubt if he was at the battle of Gettysburg at all. I will tell you just how I got the flag. We, the Iron Brigade, was formed in line of battle facing to the north, (if memory serves me aright), and advanced to the edge of a piece of woods where we came to a halt. We had been there but a few minutes when fighting commenced on our right, between a quarter and half a mile away and there was no men of ours on the right of the brigade where the fight was going on and our men were falling back leaving a part of a battery in the hands of the enemy. At this time Colonel Dawes moved his regiment in that direction, at a double quick, arms at a right shoulder shift. When we got within about three hundred yards of the enemy, where they were in a railroad cut just deep enough for good breastworks, they commenced a slow fire and the nearer we got the hotter the fire. And we did not fire on them till we were within less than two hundred yards of them. Then we kept up a steady fire, advancing all the time till within a few rods of the cut; then there was a general rush and yell enough to almost awaken the dead. Up to this time our line was as straight and in as good order as any line of battle ever was, while under fire. After that the line was not in such good order, but all seemed to be trying to see how quick they could get to the railroad cut. I had no thought of getting the flag till at this time, and I started straight for it, as did lots of others. Soon after I got the flag there were men from all the companies there. I did take the flag out of the color bearer’s hand, but just as I made a dash for it someone shot him and he fell forward and the flag had not struck the ground till I had it, and my first thought was to go to the rear with it for fear it might be retaken, and then I thought I would stay, and I threw it down and loaded and fired twice standing on it. While standing on it there was a 14th Brooklyn man took hold of it and tried to get it, and I had to threaten to shoot him before he would stop. By this time we had them cleaned out, when some were ordered to take the two pieces of artillery back that we recaptured. Others were ordered back with the prisoners we had taken. Others were ordered out on the skirmish line, and there was where I was ordered. I still had the flag, and when ordered to go on the skirmish line, asked Colonel Dawes what I should do with the flag, he said, ‘give it to me” and I did. Just then a sergeant of Co. H came up wounded, and was going to the rear, and the colonel told him to take it and take care of it. I then went on the skirmish line, and staid there until the 11th Corps gave way on the right, and we fell back to the edge of the city [actually back to near the Seminary] where battery B was stationed around what was left of us as a support to the battery. We repulsed several charges of the enemy, but when they got even with our right flank we fell back through the city, taking two of the guns of the battery with picket ropes, firing all the way back through the city.
    I afterwards saw the sergeant, after we came home on furlough, and I asked him how the staff got broken and he told me that when he went back to the city he entered a house and went to bed, and when we were driven back he thought that if the flag was left standing in the room they (the rebs) would get it, so he broke the staff in two and put the flag in bed with him, and in that way saved it.
    Now if C. W. Okey has a part of the staff, there is where he got it. I thought very little of the 14th Brooklyn man who tried to steal the flag from me on the battle field, but I think less of Okey to wait almost 20 years and then try to steal the honors of capturing the whole flag, by stealing a piece of the staff 20 years ago. But he is not the first one that has come up and claimed that he got the flag. There was a Co. B man [Frank Hare] at the reunion in Milwaukee, who claimed to have captured the flag. I did not know his object in so claiming, but got a few of the boys to certify to my taking the flag, and I still have them. Perhaps Okey would like to have them read or read them, so I will give you a copy of them. [“A Settled Question,” Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph, July 29, 1883, copy GNMP Library]

1886 Image of the Railroad Cut. Wallar captured the flag of the 2nd Mississippi near the left foregrond of the photograph. The crest of the ridge in the background is where the bridge over the cut is today. NPS

    Wallar did not mention the official after-action report of Lt. Colonel Rufus R. Dawes, who commanded the 6th Wisconsin at Gettysburg, probably because the Official Records of the war had not yet been published. But Dawes report confirmed that it had been Corporal F. Ashbury Wallar who captured the 2nd Mississippi flag before the Confederate surrender occurred. [War Department, War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889, v. 27, pt. 1, 276.]
    But even Wallar’s memory was not infallible and he omitted many details from his story, perhaps because he did not personally observe them in the excitement of battle or did not think they were important. There were several men of the 6th killed or wounded while trying to capture the colors of the 2nd Mississippi before Wallar got them. One of them may very well have been Okey, because he was wounded on July 1, and in a post-war account of the battle Lt. Colonel Dawes mentioned that Okey was shot in the melee for the colors. Elements of Okey’s account may very well be true. Also, the color bearer of the 2nd Mississippi, Sergeant William B. Murphy, was not wounded, but was captured.
    This story is a reminder that combat is a messy, chaotic business, and memory, particularly of a battle like Gettysburg, can be suspect. For some veterans, like Hare, having served at Gettysburg, done their duty and survived was not enough. They sought to rise above the rest and seek honors or glory they had not earned. In other cases, like Okey, they may have felt they were deserving of accolades not received and hence chose to exaggerate their deeds.
    One final note to this post; The Wallar family of DeSoto, Wisconsin sent three sons to serve in Company I, 6th Wisconsin. Frank and Sam joined in the summer of 61. Thomas, the youngest, enlisted in 1864. Miraculously, all three survived the war.

[For further reading about the colors story and the 6th Wisconsin at Gettysburg see, Lance J. Herdegen & William Beaudot, In the Bloody Railroad Cut at Gettysburg.]

D. Scott Hartwig,
Supervisory Historian

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This entry was posted in 6th Wisconsin Infantry, Army of the Potomac, Faces of Gettysburg, Historical Memory and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Faces of Gettysburg – Francis Ashbury Wallar – Medal of Honor Winner

  1. Todd Wiley says:

    Scott this is an amazing story! Thank you so much for sharing it and for all that you do to bring history alive for us all!

  2. James E Wallar says:

    Thank you for this he is my great great great great grandpa.

  3. Ken Ross says:

    Your posts are so interesting I can’t stop reading them. Thanks for the excellent stories. Please keep them coming.

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