Today was a very special day in Washington, D.C. It was one of those rare days where everyone came together to do the right thing and remedy an old wrong. The Medal of Honor was finally presented to a most-deserving soldier. One who died more than a century and a half ago.
It was a hot and humid July day in 1863 in southern Pennsylvania, on the third day of what would turn out to be the bloodiest and most memorable battles of the war. The sun was shining, but the sky was filled with the smoke of cannon fire. Alonzo Cushing was a 22-year-old lieutenant from Wisconsin. A graduate of West Point, he served at many of the more well-known battles, including Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg.
Cushing was leading an artillery battery for the Union on that fateful day in Gettysburg. The Confederate charge was particularly brutal, with more than 10,000 infantrymen involved. He never gave up, continuing to urge his men to keep firing even after being wounded in the shoulder and in the abdomen. He used his own thumb to block a gun vent, eventually burning it off before he was felled by Confederate gunfire while still at his post. Today we know this incident as Pickett’s Charge, and recognize it as a turning point in the war.
The Medal of Honor was created in 1861 to honor those who have committed personal acts of valor and bravery above and beyond the call of duty, and to express the eternal gratitude of a grateful nation. Since it was first awarded in December 1861 almost 3,500 medals have been awarded. Nineteen individuals have been awarded two Medals of Honor for distinct incidents.
For whatever reason, Alonzo Cushing never received the Medal of Honor, which is often awarded posthumously. Because of time limits for nominations for the award, it took a special act of congress to have the award granted to him now. Margaret Zerwekh is a ninety-four-year-old amateur historian who today lives on the original Cushing family farm in Wisconsin. For three decades she has been fighting to get Cushing the proper recognition.
Zerwekh managed to do something that few others have been able to in the last few years. She brought members of both parties in Congress to pass the necessary law to allow the medal to be awarded. Her meticulous research over the years was able to show them how richly Alonzo Cushing deserved this honor.
The Army Past Conflict Repatriation Branch worked overtime the last few weeks to identify living relatives for the ceremony. Neither Alonzo nor any of his brothers left any children, but they were able to a first cousin twice removed, 85-year-old Helen Loring Ensign from California. In a White House ceremony today, she received the much-belated thanks of a very grateful nation, and the highest military honor this country bestows for her cousin’s service. You can read more in Lt. Alonzo Cushing, Hero of Gettysburg, Awarded Medal of Honor from NPR.