During the Civil War, the Medal of Honor didn’t carry the same weight it does among US troops these days. When it was first conceived in 1861, American troops getting medals for any reason was a new thing, even if it was for “personal valor.” More than 1,500 were awarded throughout the war. By 1917, however, the Medal of Honor achieved the status it was intended to carry in the first place, and 910 of those were rescinded to officially elevate the award. Since then, individual medals have been awarded, often long after the action for which they were won.
That’s how Alonzo Cushing was awarded his Medal of Honor for bravery before the enemy at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. It was presented to him by President Obama in 2014.
Every photo of Cushing looks like he is ready to personally end some Confederate lives.
Major Alonzo Cushing was a Union artillery officer who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point just a few short weeks after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. By the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, Cushing was still a lieutenant in experience, but earned the rank of brevet major for his role at the recent Battle of Chancellorsville, in Virginia. The heavy toll the Union took during that battle must have weighed heavily on Cushing because he gave no ground to the enemy as long as he could still stand. He was also a veteran of Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. By then, he knew how important his role was.
On the last day of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, the artillery battery commander was wounded three separate times. First, shrapnel from an exploding shell tore through his shoulder. This was not enough to deter Cushing. Even after his second wound, which cut through his lower abdomen and literally spilled his guts, he stayed at his post, holding them in. It was the third injury that would silence him forever. He was ordered to fall to the rear. Instead, he ordered his guns to move closer and moved with them.
The Gettysburg Cyclorama, 1883.
(Paul Dominique Philippoteaux)
Cushing defied orders to abandon his position on Cemetery Ridge at the critical point in the battle. The massive bombardment of Cemetery Ridge that cut into Alonzo Cushing preceded a full frontal infantry assault that came to be known as “Pickett’s Charge.” The Confederate attack on the Union position at Cemetery Ridge was as close as the Confederate Army would ever get to defeating the Union, losing more than half the men who made the charge.
Also killed was Brevet Maj. Cushing. Because of his previous wounds, Cushing could no longer yell loud enough to be heard by the men under his command. His First Sergeant literally picked him up and repeated his orders to the men. As he gave orders, the 22-year-old Cushing was hit in the mouth by an enemy bullet and was killed. His gallantry in combat earned him the permanent rank of Lt. Col. and a burial at his beloved West Point’s cemetery.
If looks could kill, Cushing’s is an 1841 Howitzer.
Just as Cushing’s First Sergeant wrote to his family about his bravery in battle, the Wisconsin native became the subject of a letter-writing campaign more than 100-plus years later. Residents of Wisconsin were more concerned with recognizing one of their favorite sons for his valor. It wasn’t until 2014 that Congress was finally able to act and the President was able to concur.
“His part of our larger American story — one that continues today,” the President said. “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. And it’s incumbent on all of us as Americans to uphold the values that they fight for, and to continue to honor their service long after they leave the battlefield – for decades, even centuries to come.”
President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Honor to 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing for his gallantry during combat at Gettysburg July 3, 1863. Receiving the medal at the White House ceremony, Nov. 6, 2014, is Helen Loring Ensign, Cushing’s first cousin, twice removed.
Accepting Cushing’s Medal of Honor was a distant first cousin of the young officer. Also present was Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh and 94-year-old historian Margaret Zerwekh. It was Zerwekh’s constant lobbying that made Cushing’s award a reality.
At 151 years, it was the longest wait of any Medal of Honor Recipient to receive the award.