Thursday, November 6, 2014

Updated: Family proud of Cushing's service receives Civil War hero's Medal of Honor

Alonzo Cushing while at West Point


Just a month past his 22nd birthday, 1st. Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing wrote a letter to an aunt from his camp in Virginia, telling her of his new command of Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery.

"I ... have been working hard all day, endeavoring to put things in proper shape," he wrote. "I shall have the Battery in superb fighting condition before the Army is ready to move."

His unit indeed was well-prepared four months later when it found itself at ground zero of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, at a spot dubbed "The Angle." It took a severe pounding from Confederate artillery trying to soften Union positions. Cushing suffered two grievous wounds and directed the operation of a field piece during the massive Rebel advance before a bullet to the head killed him instantly.

Thursday afternoon, more than 151 years later, Cushing posthumously received the Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama for demonstrating conspicuous gallantry, inflicting severe casualties on the enemy and helping to turn back the charge. A descendant living in California accepted it on Cushing's behalf.

"This medal is a reminder that no matter how long it takes it's never too late to do the right thing," Obama said during the brief ceremony at the White House Roosevelt Room.

Cushing refused to leave the field at Gettysburg when he was asked to do so by his first sergeant, who did receive the Medal of Honor in his lifetime.

"His mere presence there, I think, was a tremendous symbolic boost to his men," Mark Bradley, historian for the U.S. Army Center of Military History, said of Cushing during a conference call Wednesday in which the Civil War Picket participated.

1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing (center, back row) in 1862. (Library of Congress)

The ceremony was the culmination of a long campaign for Cushing to receive the honor.

It was rare for a Federal officer during the war to receive a Medal of Honor and historians acknowledge efforts to recognize Cushing at the time probably were sidetracked because others survived the momentous July 1863 battle in Pennsylvania and wrote about their service.

It was largely up to the descendants of Cushing, who like his three brothers had no children or direct descendants, to keep alive his legacy, saving his letters, traveling to Gettysburg and sharing stories around the Thanksgiving table.

Helen Ensign
"I was under 5 years old when I heard about Cushing," said Helen Loring Ensign, 86, of Palm Desert, Calif., who received the medal from President Obama. Ensign is Cushing's first cousin, two generations removed, the closest surviving blood relative and primary next of kin, as confirmed by the Army's Past Conflict Repatriations Branch.

Among those joining the Cushing and Loring families in Washington, D.C. for the White House and U.S. Army ceremonies was Margaret E. Zerwekh, 94, of Delafield, Wisc., where Cushing was born.

Zerwekh lives on property once owned by the Cushing family, did research on him and petitioned a congressman years ago to support the honor. She helped prepare paperwork for the nomination. Efforts involved additional politicians and military experts who studied records of the young artilleryman's stand at Gettysburg.

“Margaret made it happen," said Jessica Loring, Ensign's niece and Cushing's first cousin, three generations removed.

Obama cited 25 years of work by Zerwekh. "She managed to bring Republicans and Democrats together to make this happen. Margaret we may call on you again," he said to laughs.

Cushing late last year received a congressional waiver of a requirement that the medal must be recommended within two years of the event and presented within three years.

The medal, the country's highest military award, is bestowed to American soldiers who display conspicuous "gallantry above and beyond the call of duty."

Cushing sent Confederate currency in letter to his aunt

Descendants told reporters that they plan to lend the medal to West Point, where he graduated; Gettysburg, Delafield; Fredonia, New York, where Cushing grew up; and the McClurg Museum, in Westfield, N.Y.

“It is very much a medal for the nation," said Loring. "It should not sit on someone’s mantle place and stay there.”

The museum's curator, according to news reports, pushed for Ensign to receive the medal after the initial announcement that it would go to two first cousins, three times removed -- rather than two times removed, like Ensign.

Frederic Stevens Sater, of New York City, and Frederic Cushing Stevens III, of Hoschton, Ga., also were expected to be at the White House ceremony Thursday.

The McClurg Museum has the letter Cushing wrote to his Aunt Margaret, said the Post-Journal in Jamestown, N.Y.

The lieutenant and his brothers all served in the Civil War. One sibling, Lt. William B. Cushing, is best known for sinking a Confederate ironclad during an October 1864 raid.

“His whole family was a brave family," said Loring. ''His mother said, ‘Death before dishonor.’”

Loring has a grandson named for Alonzo Cushing.

Cushing's battery -- which consisted of 126 officers and enlisted men -- was at the center of the objective for 13,000 attacking Confederates at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. The battery suffered nearly 40 casualties and was left in shambles during the long, pre-attack bombardment.

The lieutenant was wounded in the stomach and right shoulder. Propped up by Sgt.  Frederick Fuger, he continued to direct his men.

“That’s excellent!” he told his men, according to the Civil War Trust. “Keep that range."

He was killed by a bullet as the battery returned fire. Pickett's Charge failed. Cushing later was named a brevet lieutenant colonel. The full honor came Thursday with the Medal of Honor.

Obama acknowledged those who turned the tide at Gettysburg: "I might not be standing here today as president if not for the courageous sacrifices of these men."

The young hero's grave at West Point.


  1. Nice post! I greatly enjoyed reading the background information behind the decision to give him the medal of honor.