Alonzo H. Cushing: A Hero at the Battle of Gettysburg
64 Union Soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at the Battle of Gettysburg. It took 151 years for one of those heroes to finally receive the United States military’s highest decoration. On November 6, 2014, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing for going above and beyond the call of duty at Gettysburg. In Obama’s words, “Sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the passage of time.” He also added that Cushing’s medal “is a reminder that no matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do the right thing.”
A video of Alonzo Cushing's posthumous Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House on November 6, 2014. (YouTube Video Credit: The Obama White House)
Alonzo Cushing graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in June of 1861. He was commissioned a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and participated in some of the most important battles of the American Civil War, including Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Three of his brothers also fought on the side of the Union during the war.
An undated photo of Alonzo H. Cushing. (Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)
On July 3, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg entered its third and final day. At 22 years old, Cushing shouldered a great deal of responsibility on this definitive day of the engagement. He commanded 126 men and six cannons positioned on Cemetery Ridge, the focal point of a 13,000 man strong Confederate attack where Major General George Pickett intended to pierce the Union line. Within a few hours of a massive Confederate cannonade, all of Cushing’s officers had been killed, and all but two of his guns had been knocked out. In the chaos, some of Cushing’s men panicked and started to flee to the rear, but he would have none of it. Cushing pulled out his revolver and threatened any deserter that he would “blow his brains out” if they tried to leave the field.
A monument to Alonzo Cushing at Gettysburg National Military Park. Behind this stone is a monument to his Battery A, 4th United States Artillery.
In the face of Pickett’s charge, Cushing did not flinch, standing tall and directing the fire of his artillery battery. While holding his ground, a shell fragment ripped through his shoulder and another shot tore through his abdomen and groin. First Sergeant Frederick Füger pleaded with his commander to evacuate to the rear, but once again, Cushing would not abandon his post. In Cushing’s words, he would “fight it out, or die in the attempt.” While bleeding excessively and holding his exposed intestines with his hands, Cushing manned his post and continued to direct his lone remaining field piece. With his weakening voice, he ordered his men to keep firing at the advancing Confederate troops. A true soldier until the end, Cushing was struck in the mouth by an enemy bullet and fell dead beside his gun.
The Gettysburg Cyclorama, painted by French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux. The painting depicts the action at Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. Cushing is pictured in the center, leaning against the left side of the cannon. (Photo: Gettysburg National Military Park Public Affairs)
According to Cushing’s Medal of Honor citation, “His gallant stand and fearless leadership inflicted severe casualties upon Confederate Forces and opened wide gaps in their lines, directly impacting the Union Forces’ ability to repel Pickett’s Charge.” Cushing’s commander, Captain John Hazard expressed great respect for the young lieutenant in his battle report, writing that he “especially distinguished himself for his extreme gallantry and bravery, his courage and ability, and his love for his profession.”
Alonzo Cushing's headstone at West Point Cemetery. Inscribed on the last line of his headstone are the words, "Faithful Unto Death." (Photo: stripes.com)
Shortly after his death, Cushing received a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel. At that time, the Medal of Honor was not awarded posthumously and Cushing was therefore ineligible for the decoration. The incredible story of this American hero was almost lost to history, but thanks to the efforts of Margaret Zerwekh, that did not happen. Zerwekh lived in Cushing’s birthplace of Delafield, Wisconsin and after conducting research, led a three-decade campaign to get him the Medal of Honor. Since more than five years had passed since Cushing’s death, it took an act of Congress to award him the medal. At 94 years old, Zerwekh was on hand at the White House on November 6, 2014 when Alonzo Cushing finally received the United States military’s highest decoration.
Margaret Zerwekh and her daughter Sally Weber at an Army reception for Medal of Honor recipient Alonzo Cushing. (Photo: U.S. Army)
Cushing’s story is a reminder of why we must always work tirelessly to preserve our history. His actions almost went unrecognized, but because of the tireless work of Margaret Zerwekh and others, future generations will never forget the sacrifice that he made for our country. The Medal of Honor is now a permanent fixture associated with the name of Alonzo Cushing. His relentless determination in the face of grave danger will always serve as a testament to the American fighting spirit.