WASHINGTON – Raised in Fredonia, First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing went off to fight, telling a cousin that “I may never return” but “I will gain a name in this war.”
Cushing proved right on both counts. He did not return, and now, after an epic delay notable even in a town famed for taking its time, his name will at long last be honored at the White House.
More than 150 years after standing his ground against Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, Cushing will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama – a result both of his heroism in those dark days and of the persistence of a 94-year-old Wisconsin woman who lobbied on his behalf for more than a quarter-century.
Cushing, born in 1841 in Delafield, Wis., moved to Fredonia at age 6 and later graduated from West Point. He was at the center of the most pivotal day of the most pivotal battle that arguably turned the tide of the Civil War. An artillery battery commander at age 22, he refused to retreat in the face of the Confederate infantry assault ordered by Gen. Robert E. Lee on Cemetery Ridge and kept firing his cannon even after being wounded.
After all the blood spilled during the charge – named for Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett – the Union had repelled the Southern rebels, who never fully recovered for the remainder of the war.
“This falls into that category of it’s never too late to do the right thing,” said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who co-sponsored legislation that allowed Cushing to receive the medal so long after the war. “Many military historians for years scratched their heads wondering how he was overlooked for the Medal of Honor at the time. Coming around full circle 150 years after the fact is the right thing to do.”
Nearly half of the previous 3,490 recipients of the Medal of Honor fought in the Civil War, but none waited as long as Cushing.
The approval of the medal by the first black president adds a certain historical coda to the lengthy saga, underscoring how much has changed in this country since Cushing gave his life in a war that ended slavery in the United States.
The long delay owes to a variety of factors that speak to how Washington works, or does not. At the time of his death, the medal was not awarded posthumously, so Cushing was ineligible. Once the rules changed and his cause was taken up, it lingered for years in the bureaucratic and legislative trenches of the capital, where some worried that honoring him would open the floodgates to other requests.
Kind said some Southern colleagues were also less than enthusiastic.
“There was some resistance to awarding a Union soldier the congressional medal at Gettysburg even 150 years after the fact,” Kind said. “They didn’t want us refighting the Civil War all over again. It’s still sensitive. But we were finally able to bridge that gulf and get it done.”
Cushing’s case was pressed most passionately by Margaret Zerwekh, granddaughter of a Union veteran whose house sits on land once owned by Cushing’s father in Delafield.
A history buff who named her pet goose Pepin, after Charlemagne’s son, Zerwekh became intrigued by the story of Cushing, who died childless.
Although he is honored by a plaque at Gettysburg, she decided to wage a one-woman campaign for the nation’s highest recognition. “Mom loves to do research,” said Sally Weber, Zerwekh’s daughter.
Zerwekh started by writing then-Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., for whom Kind worked at the time. Proxmire has since died, but Kind inherited the effort when he won election to the House.
Other Wisconsin politicians joined as well, including Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Republican, and former Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Democrat. John M. McHugh, the secretary of the Army, expressed support in 2010. But the effort still required an act of Congress.
Reached by telephone at her home in Wisconsin on Wednesday, Zerwekh gave a concise answer to why she cared so much about Cushing.
“He saved the Union,” she said.
Cushing graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and had spent two years fighting for the Union by the time Lee drove his army into the North toward Gettysburg. On July 3, 1863, the third and final day of the battle, Cushing commanded an artillery battery with 125 men trying to stave off a charge of Virginians and other Confederates.
Cushing was wounded by shrapnel in the right shoulder and groin and urged to get off the battlefield, but he refused. “I’ll stay and fight it out, or die in the attempt,” he was reported saying.
He moved his cannon to a wall and kept firing. Another soldier, 1st Sgt. Frederick Fuger, held him upright as he gave commands. With Confederates just 300 to 400 yards away, Cushing was shot in the mouth and finally fell.
“He died at a particularly momentous event in a very momentous battle, the largest land engagement of the war, and he died in one of the most critical, if not the most critical spot on the field,” said Kent Masterson Brown, a Civil War historian who wrote a biography of the soldier called “Cushing of Gettysburg.”
Brown became gripped by the lieutenant’s story as a boy when his family visited Gettysburg in 1964, and eventually published his book in 1993. Brown said that the young lieutenant typified the generation of men who fought in the country’s deadliest war, and that the medal would recognize that.
“In that sense, it’s a wonderful thing to behold,’’ he said.
Christopher Smith of Buffalo, one of Cushing’s cannoneers, wrote the only memoir of Cushing’s enlisted men in the early 1890s, Brown said.
The Cushing family has deep roots in Fredonia. Zattu Cushing, Alonzo’s grandfather, was the first to permanently settle in what would become the Town of Pomfret, where Fredonia is located, in spring 1805.
Though Cushing is buried in West Point, in June 2006, a memorial featuring his picture and biographical information was built by students at Fredonia High School in the southwest corner of Pioneer Cemetery. Teachers and students have continued to maintain the memorial.