National

Civil War veteran gets Medal of Honor

Wisconsin Historical Society photo shows First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing. President Barack Obama is bestowing the nation’s highest military honor on the Union Army officer Thursday Nov. 6, 2014 who was killed more than 150 years ago in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Wisconsin Historical Society photo shows First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing. President Barack Obama is bestowing the nation’s highest military honor on the Union Army officer Thursday Nov. 6, 2014 who was killed more than 150 years ago in the Battle of Gettysburg. AP

Saying it’s “never too late to do the right thing,” President Barack Obama on Thursday posthumously bestowed the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry to First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, a veteran of the Civil War.

Cushing was killed during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, but Obama said his actions as commanding officer of Battery A, 4th United States Artillery, Artillery Brigade, 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac, rated recognition across the centuries.

“No matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do the right thing,” Obama said, “Today, we honor...one of those men—Lt. Alonzo Cushing—who as Lincoln said, 'gave their last full measure of devotion.’”

Though the nation‘s highest military honor traditionally must given within a few years of battle, Obama said “even the most extraordinary stories” can be lost to time. He thanked the Cushing family members, including Cushing’s cousin twice removed, Helen Loring Ensign, from Palm Desert, Calif., who accepted the medal.

Obama noted the award wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless efforts of supporters for decades, including Margaret Zerwekh, a historian from Delafield, Wis., where Cushing was born. She discovered his story and spent 25 years researching, writing letters and raising her voice to ensure he received the recognition he deserves, Obama said.

“What’s more, she even managed to bring Republicans and Democrats together to make this happen,” Obama said to much laughter. “Margaret, we may call on you again sometime in the next several months.”

Obama noted that Cushing was raised by his widowed mother in Fredonia, N.Y. with his siblings, including three brothers who also fought for the Union. After graduating from West Point, he was assigned to Battery A and “from Bull Run to Antietam, from Chancellorsville to Fredericksburg, Lon fought bravely and developed a reputation for his cool, his competence, and his courage under fire,” Obama said.

At Gettysburg, he commanded his battery along a wall on Cemetery Ridge, “fending off punishing fire from General Lee’s Confederate troops,” and was hit and badly wounded, Obama said. His first sergeant -- a soldier by the name of Frederick Fuger -- urged him to go to the rear.

But Cushing refused and said he’d “fight it out, or die in the attempt,” Obama said. At one point, “he used his own thumb to stop his gun’s vent, burning his fingers to the bone,” Obama said.

When he was hit the final time, as a poet later wrote, ‘His gun spoke out for him once more before he fell to the ground.’” Obama said. He was just 22.

In a letter to Lon’s sister, Obama said that Fuger wrote that the bravery of the men that day “was entirely due to your brother’s training and example set on numerous battlefields.”

His tombstone at West Point reads “Faithful unto death,” Obama said, and his memory will be honored later this month, when a Navy cruiser -- the USS Gettysburg -- dedicates its officer’s dining hall as the Cushing Wardroom.

Obama noted that Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War: “I’m mindful that I might not be standing here today, as President, had it not been for the ultimate sacrifices of those courageous Americans,” he said.

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