Gettysburg, Pa. — July 3, 1863
First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing’s actions during the Battle of Gettysburg helped change the course of history. He was buried with full honors at West Point, and in 1887 his family and friends placed a stone marker at Gettysburg National Military Park commemorating his heroics.
But it took more than 150 years for him to receive the Medal of Honor.
“Typically, this medal must be awarded within a few years of the action,” President Barack Obama said during the medal ceremony at the White House on Nov. 6, 2014. “But sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the passage of time.”
Cushing’s story began in Wisconsin, where he was born in 1841. He grew up in New York, attended West Point and, upon graduation, was assigned to Battery A, 4th United States Artillery.
Cushing developed a reputation for “his cool, his competence and his courage under fire” in fighting at Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, Obama said.
But it was on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg — July 3, 1863 — that Cushing distinguished himself.
Confederate forces led by Gen. Robert E. Lee began firing on Cushing’s position on Cemetery Ridge that morning, according to his award citation, in an assault that would later become known as Pickett’s Charge.
As Cushing used his field glasses to direct fire for his battery, he was hit in the shoulder by a shell fragment. Other artillery units withdrew, but Cushing stood his ground and was hit again, this time in the stomach.
Sgt. Frederick Fuger, who also received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle, told him to go to the rear for medical treatment, Obama said, but Cushing moved his remaining guns forward, saying he’d “fight it out or die in the attempt.”
Cushing continued to direct fire as more than 10,000 Confederate soldiers advanced, Obama said.
Then, as Confederate forces closed in, Cushing “was struck in the mouth by an enemy bullet and fell dead beside his gun,” his award citation reads.
He was 22.
In awarding Cushing the Medal of Honor, Obama noted that Cushing and the others who died at Gettysburg never knew that the battle would be a turning point in the Civil War.
“It’s also proof, if any was needed, that it was thousands of unknown young soldiers, committing unsung acts of heroism, who saved our union, and freed a people, and reaffirmed our nation as ‘one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,’ ” Obama said.
Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., first learned about Cushing’s story and the push to award him the Medal of Honor when Kind was an intern in a former senator’s office.
Margaret Zerwekh, a historian from Wisconsin who is now in her 90s, lives on land owned by Cushing’s father and spent more than 25 years doing research and writing letters to Congress to get Cushing the recognition. Kind joined that effort several years ago and worked with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., to add the medal to the defense authorization act.
“Awarding someone posthumously the Medal of Honor is a hard thing to do, and it should be,” Kind said, but the process was made somewhat easier because Cushing’s actions are so well documented.
Kind said Cushing’s is an incredible story of a man who knew he was going to die but continued to fight.
“Because of that courage, the center held, the union prevailed,” King said. “It’s amazing that one individual had such an important role to play.”
In his Gettysburg address, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the battlefield as “a final resting place for those who died there, that the nation might live,” Obama said.
And 151 years later, he said, “the nation that lived” paused to honor one of the men who made it possible.
“This medal is a reminder that no matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do the right thing,” he said.