151 years after death at Gettysburg, soldier finally gets Medal of Honor
‘A medal for the country and the nation’
By C.J. LIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 6, 2014
WASHINGTON — Dismembered horses. Hundreds of Confederate dead and dying all around. It was the last day at Ground Zero of the grueling Battle of Gettysburg. And it was where 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing spent his last moments alive.
Now, 151 years later, Cushing has been awarded the Medal of Honor for his feats that helped the Union Army repel the Confederate assault known as Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863.
“Sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the passage of time,” said President Barack Obama before presenting the medal to 85-year-old Helen Loring Ensign, Cushing’s first cousin two generations removed. “And so this medal is a reminder that no matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do the right thing.”
“Lon” Cushing, commander of Battery A of the 4th United States Artillery, 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac, had been shot in the stomach and shoulder. He had burned his thumb to the bone covering the vent of a gun. He and his battery were right where Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett was trying break through the Union line.
Within a few hours, all of Cushing’s officers had been killed. Two of his six cannons were disabled. Refusing pleas to get treatment and telling his first sergeant that he’d “fight it out or die in the attempt,” Cushing moved one of the last cannons closer to the more than 10,000 Confederate soldiers advancing through the smoke-filled battlefield and continued firing.
“The most dangerous place to be in the Battle of Gettysburg on Cemetery Ridge was being there with Cushing’s battery. That area was just like a slaughterhouse,” said Mark Bradley, a historian for the U.S. Army Center of Military History. “This is not a sight for the faint-hearted.”
Bradley and members of the Cushing family spoke with media Wednesday at a hotel near the Pentagon.
With the Confederates less than 100 yards away from where Cushing’s battery was making their stand near a copse of trees known as “the Angle,” Cushing was shot in the head and died instantly. He was 23.
In letters to Cushing’s sister, the first sergeant wrote that the bravery of the other Union troops on numerous battlefields was entirely due to the example Cushing set, Obama said.
“From Bull Run to Antietam, from Chancellorsville to Fredericksburg, Lon fought bravely and developed a reputation for his cool, his competence, and his courage under fire,” Obama said.
The battle was considered the turning point of the Civil War; the Confederates never mounted a major offensive after that.
Cushing was among the thousands of unknown soldiers who gave their “last full measure of devotion,” said Obama, quoting Abraham Lincoln. “His story is part of our larger American story — one that continues today. The spirit, the courage, the determination that he demonstrated lives on in our brave men and women in uniform who this very day are serving and making sure that they are defending the freedoms that Alonzo helped to preserve.”
Cushing will again be honored later this month when the USS Gettysburg dedicates its officer dining hall as the “Cushing Wardroom,” Obama said.
About 20 family members attended the Thursday ceremony at the White House. They were joined by Margaret Zerwekh, who is not related but lived on property in Wisconsin that was originally the Cushing family farmhouse. It was Zerwekh, the 93-year-old granddaughter of a Union soldier, who took an interest in Cushing’s history and campaigned for three decades to have him awarded the medal.
The family plans to loan the medal to places of significance to Cushing, including West Point, his alma mater and burial place; Delafield, Wisc., where he was born; and Fredonia, NY., where he grew up.
“We feel that this is very much a medal for the country and the nation,” Loring said. “The idea is it should not sit on somebody’s mantelpiece and just stay there. It needs to be shown so that people today can understand the price of making our country free and the sacrifice it takes. We want to bring Alonzo to life in what he did for his nation.”
The award took several acts of Congress to make a reality. Originally, officers could not be awarded the Medal of Honor. Even after that rule was changed, the medal still could not be awarded to anyone whose actions took place more than five years prior without an act of Congress. Cushing’s medal was approved last December as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
For Bradley, Cushing’s bravery was evident in his decision to command a battery, often the main target of the enemy.
“He was a staff officer and he could’ve remained a staff officer for the rest of the war, and maybe he could’ve gone up to higher command of the infantry,” Bradley said. “But he chose to remain in command of the battery, which I believe indicates that he thought he could contribute the most to the Union war effort by doing so, by putting his life in jeopardy each time a battle was fought rather than being safe behind the lines. That resulted in his death.”
It’s something Cushing’s family, no matter how far removed, has always kept in mind. His name has been passed down from generation to generation in a family whose members have served in conflicts dating back to the Revolutionary War.
“He was recognized at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg as being a hero,” Loring said. “And he is now being recognized 151 years later. We’ve all kept him in our hearts and family and known about him, but he’s now getting the national recognition he deserves.”
Helen Loring Ensign accepts the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama on behalf of 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing's family at a White House ceremony on Nov. 6, 2014. Ensign is Cushing's first cousin two generations removed. Cushing was killed making at stand against Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.
C.J. LIN/STARS AND STRIPES