WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing for helping stop Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.
The ceremony took place in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on November 6, 2014. Helen Loring Ensign accepted the medal on behalf of Cushing, her first cousin, twice removed. Some 24 other descendants were present as well.
Long before Gettysburg, the West Point graduate "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 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.
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, he 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."
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 officer's 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 the where Pickett's Charge was stopped as the "high water mark of the Confederacy."
When President 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," the president concluded. "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, and to continue to honor their service long after they leave the battlefield -- for decades, even centuries to come."
MEDAL LONG IN COMING
Margaret Zerwekh, 94, a historian, attended the White House ceremony and was recognized by the president. Zerwekh did research on Cushing's service in the Civil War. She was certain his valorous actions merited the Medal of Honor and lobbied her congressmen for decades to make it happen. She became interested in Cushing's story, since she lives on property in Wisconsin that was once owned by his 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. 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."
After the president's remarks, a military aide read the full Medal of Honor citation:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3rd, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, United States Army.
...Confederate forces led by Gen. Robert E. Lee began cannonading 1st Lt. Cushing's position on Cemetery Ridge. Using field glasses, 1st Lt. Cushing directed fire for his own artillery battery. He refused to leave the battlefield after being struck in the shoulder by a shell fragment. As he continued to direct fire, he was struck again -- this time suffering grievous damage to his abdomen.
Still refusing to abandon his command, he boldly stood tall in the face of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett's charge and continued to direct devastating fire into oncoming forces. As the Confederate forces closed in, 1st Lt. Cushing was struck in the mouth by an enemy bullet and fell dead beside his gun.
His gallant stand and fearless leadership inflicted severe casualties upon Confederate forces and opened wide gaps in their lines, directly impacting the Union force's ability to repel Pickett's charge. First Lt. Cushing's extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his own life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac, and the United States Army.
By Army David Vergun
Army News Service
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