147 years later, Wis. Civil War soldier gets medal
Now, thanks to the dogged efforts of modern-day supporters, 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing shall not have died in vain, nor shall his memory have perished from the earth.
Descendants and some Civil War history buffs have been pushing the U.S. Army to award the soldier the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration. They’ll soon get their wish.
Secretary of the Army John McHugh has approved their request, leaving a few formal steps before the award becomes official this summer. Cushing will become one of 3,447 recipients of the medal, and the second from the Civil War honored in the last 10 years.
It’s an honor that’s 147 years overdue, said Margaret Zerwekh. The 90-year-old woman lives on the land in Delafield where Cushing was born, and jokes she’s been adopted by the Cushing family for her efforts to see Alonzo recognized.
“I was jumping up and down when I heard it was approved,” said Zerwekh, who walks with two canes. “I was terribly excited.”
Cushing died on July 3, 1863, the last day of the three-day battle of Gettysburg. He was 22.
The West Point graduate and his men of the Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery were defending the Union position on Cemetery Ridge against Pickett’s Charge, a major Confederate thrust that could have turned the tide in the war.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was planning an invasion of the North; both sides knew how important this engagement was.
Cushing commanded about 110 men and six cannons. His small force along with reinforcements stood their ground under artillery bombardment as nearly 13,000 Confederate infantrymen waited to advance.
“Clap your hands as fast as you can – that’s as fast as the shells are coming in,” said Scott Hartwig, a historian with the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. “They were under terrific fire.”
The bombardment lasted two hours. Cushing was wounded in the shoulder and groin, and his battery was left with two guns and no long-range ammunition. His stricken battery should have been withdrawn and replaced with reserve forces, Hartwig said, but Cushing shouted that he would take his guns to the front lines.
“What that means is, ’While I’ve got a man left to fight, I’ll fight,”’ Hartwig said. Within minutes, he was killed by a Confederate bullet to the head.
Confederate soldiers advanced into the Union fire, but finally retreated with massive casualties. The South never recovered from the defeat.
The soldier’s bravery so inspired one Civil War history buff that he took up Cushing’s cause by launching a Facebook page titled “Give Alonzo Cushing the Medal of Honor.” Phil Shapiro, a 27-year-old Air Force captain, said such heroism displayed in one of the nation’s most pivotal battles deserved recognition, even at this late date.
“We need to honor those people who got our country to where it is,” said Shapiro, of Cabot, Ark.
Zerwekh first started campaigning for Cushing in 1987 by writing to Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire. Proxmire entered comments into the Congressional Record, she said, and she assumed that was as far as it would go. But current Sen. Russ Feingold later pitched in and helped Zerwekh and others petition the Army.
After a lengthy review of historical records, the Army agreed earlier this year to recommend the medal.
More than 1,500 soldiers from the Civil War have received the Medal of Honor, according to the Defense Department. The last honoree for Civil War service was Cpl. Andrew Jackson Smith of Clinton, Ill., who received the medal in 2001.
The Cushing name is prominent in the southeastern Wisconsin town of Delafield. A monument to Cushing and two of his brothers – Naval Cmdr. William Cushing and Army 1st Lt. Howard Cushing – stands at Cushing Memorial Park, where the town holds most of its Memorial Day celebrations.
Shapiro, the Facebook fan, said he thought of Alonzo Cushing plenty of times last year as he faced a number of dangerous situations during a five-month stint in Iraq.
“I’d think about what Cushing accomplished, what he was able to deal with at age 22,” Shapiro said. “I thought if he could do that then I can certainly deal with whatever I’m facing.”