As the Civil War’s bloodiest battle entered its third and final day on July 3, 1863, Union First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing stood on a pivot point of history. The Confederacy had reached its furthest incursion into Union territory, but its forces had been successfully held at bay during the first two days of the Battle of Gettysburg. Now, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had unleashed Pickett’s Charge in a last effort to change the course of the battle and the Civil War itself.
The focal point of the attack, which consisted of a mile-wide line of nearly 13,000 Confederate soldiers, bore down upon Cushing’s battery along a wall on Cemetery Ridge. The 22-year-old Cushing, who had graduated twelfth in his class at the U.S. Military Academy in 1861, had seen action at Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Nothing, however, prepared him for the carnage of Pickett’s Charge.
Chaos, smoke and death engulfed the six guns and 110 men of Battery A of the 4th United States Artillery under Cushing’s command. When some of his panicked men started to flee to the rear, Cushing pulled out his revolver and threatened any deserter that he would “blow his brains out.” Standing tall in the face of Pickett’s Charge, Cushing peered through his field glasses to direct the fire of his artillery battery when a shell fragment ripped through his shoulder. A second shot tore through his abdomen and groin.
First Sergeant Frederick Füger exhorted his wounded commander to go to the rear, but Cushing refused to abandon his post, saying he would “fight it out, or die in the attempt.” While the Confederates were inflicting considerable casualties, the Union forces were causing even greater damage and opening holes in the enemy lines that would ultimately allow them to win the battle. While bleeding profusely and holding his exposed intestines with his hands, Cushing continued to direct the movement of his lone remaining field piece. As he ordered his men with his weakening voice to keep firing at the advancing Confederate columns, Cushing was struck in the mouth and fell dead beside his gun.
Cushing’s commander, Captain John Hazard, wrote in his battle report that the young lieutenant “especially distinguished himself for his extreme gallantry and bravery, his courage and ability, and his love for his profession.” Cushing received a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel shortly after his death, but he was ineligible to receive the Medal of Honor, established in 1861 to recognize members of the armed forces who distinguished themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity” while fighting enemy forces, because it was not awarded posthumously at that time.
By the time that policy changed decades later, Cushing’s story had become largely lost to history. One of his three brothers who also fought in the Civil War, William, even eclipsed him in fame thanks to his daring nighttime raid that sank the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle in 1864. The story of the Gettysburg hero, however, was resurrected by Margaret Zerwekh, who lived in his birthplace of Delafield, Wisconsin, on property once owned by the lieutenant’s father. After researching Cushing’s story, she wrote a letter to Senator William Proxmire in 1987 that promoted the Civil War soldier’s credentials for the Medal of Honor. Since more than five years had passed since Cushing’s death, an act of Congress was required to award him the medal, and Zerwekh campaigned lawmakers for more than two decades before that approval finally came.
The 94-year-old Zerwekh was present at the White House last Thursday when President Barack Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor upon Cushing for distinguishing himself with gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. More than two dozen members of the Cushing family attended the ceremony, including his nearest next of kin, octogenarian Helen Loring Ensign (a cousin, two generations removed), who accepted the award on his behalf. As the citation noted of Cushing, “His gallant stand and fearless leadership inflicted severe casualties upon Confederate forces and opened wide gaps in their lines, directly impacting the Union force’s ability to repel Pickett’s charge.”
More than 3,500 members of the armed forces have received the Medal of Honor, but none has waited longer than Cushing, who is only the second Civil War recipient since 1915. “Sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the passage of time,” the president said at the White House ceremony, “and so this medal is a reminder that no matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do the right thing.”