News

President Awards Medal of Honor for Civil War Heroism

By David Vergun
Army News Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7, 2014 - President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Union Army 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing yesterday for helping to stop Confederate Army Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.

Helen Loring Ensign accepted the medal during the ceremony, held in the White House's Roosevelt Room, on behalf of Cushing, her first cousin, twice removed. Some 24 other descendants were present as well. 

 

Long before Gettysburg, Cushing, who graduated from West Point in June 1861, "fought bravely" at the battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, developing a reputation for "his cool, his competence and his courage under fire," Obama said. 

Cushing commanded Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac, atop Cemetery Ridge. On that fateful day, some 10,000 of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's troops advanced toward them in a line, elbow-to-elbow, a mile wide, in the final, desperate hours of the battle. 

*Cushing Refused to Fall Back* 

Smoke from the guns obscured the battlefield, and the air was thick with lead. In the chaos, Cushing was hit and badly wounded, the president continued. His first sergeant, Frederick Fuger, urged him to fall back to the safety of the rear, away from the punishing fire. But Cushing refused, telling Fuger he'd rather "fight it out or die in the attempt." 

Bleeding badly and growing weaker every moment, Cushing moved his remaining artillery closer to the front and continued to defend the Union line. "He used his own thumb to stop his gun's vent, burning his finger to the bone," the president related. 

When Cushing was hit the final time, the 22-year-old soldier fell beside his gun. Obama said Cushing was later immortalized by a poet, who wrote: "His gun spoke out for him once more before he fell to the ground." 

*Letter to Cushing's Sister* 

In a letter to Cushing's sister, Fuger wrote that "the bravery of their men that day was entirely due to your brother's training and example set on numerous battlefields." Etched on Cushing's tombstone at West Point is the simple epitaph, "Faithful Unto Death," the president said. And, his memory will be honored later this month, when a Navy cruiser -- the USS Gettysburg -- dedicates its officers dining hall as the "Cushing Wardroom." 

Unbeknownst to Cushing, Gettysburg was a turning point in the war, the president said, and it was men like Cushing who were responsible for the victory. Historians often refer to where Pickett's Charge was stopped as the "high water mark of the Confederacy." 

When President Abraham Lincoln later dedicated the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, he said these men gave their "last full measure of devotion." 

Cushing's story "is part of our larger American story -- one that continues today," Obama said at the ceremony. "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," the president continued, "and to continue to honor their service long after they leave the battlefield -- for decades, even centuries, to come." 

*Medal Was Long in Coming* 

Margaret Zerwekh, 94, a historian, attended the White House ceremony and was recognized by the president. Zerwekh researched Cushing's service in the Civil War. She was certain his valorous actions merited the Medal of Honor, and she lobbied her congressional representatives for decades to make it happen. She became interesting in Cushing's story because she lives on property in Wisconsin that once owned by the soldier's father. 

Typically, the medal is awarded within a few years of the action. Obama said. "But sometimes, even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the passage of time," he added. "No matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do the right thing." 

This medal is about more than just one soldier, Obama said. "It reflects our obligations as a country to the men and women in our armed services -- obligations that continue long after they return home, after they remove their uniforms, and even, perhaps especially, after they've laid down their lives," he said. 

 *Related Sites:*

Medal of Honor: Army 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing [ http://www.army.mil/medalofhonor/cushing/?source=GovDelivery ]

The Defense Department on Facebook [ https://www.facebook.com/DeptofDefense?source=GovDelivery ]

The Defense Department on Twitter [ https://twitter.com/DeptofDefense?source=GovDelivery ]

DoD News on Facebook [ https://www.facebook.com/pages/DoD-News/808154485884259?source=GovDelivery ]

DoD News on Twitter [ https://twitter.com/DoDNews?source=GovDelivery ]

DoDLive Blog [ http://www.dodlive.mil/?source=GovDelivery ]

DoD News Broadcast Channel [ http://dodnews.defense.gov/?source=GovDelivery ]

 

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