Almost 150 years after his death in the battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, Alonzo Cushing, first lieutenant of Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, has received the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States. On Monday, President Obama officially bestowed the honor on Cushing along with Command Sergeant Major Adkins and Specialist Four Donald P. Sloat who both served and distinguished themselves during the Vietnam War.
According to a statement released by the White House, “Army First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing distinguished himself during combat operations against an armed enemy in the vicinity of Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1863.” In Cushing of Gettysburg: The Story of a Union Artillery Commander, Kent Masterson Brown offers an expansive view of the life and career of Lt. Cushing. Brown, author of Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign and creator of The Civil War magazine, incorporates vivid descriptions of the fury of battle and the exhaustion of forced battles to honor the historic contributions of Cushing.
Cushing courageously led the Union troops to break Pickett’s Charge in the battle, even placing his thumb over the vent of a Confederate gun and having it burned to the bone. Shortly after this incident he was killed instantly by a gunshot to his face. His first sergeant, who survived the battle, was awarded the Medal of Honor.
In an NPR interview, Brown revealed that the Army War Decorations Board contacted him as
part of their verification process while vetting Cushing’s story. The board drew on Brown’s extensive knowledge of Cushing and the body of information that he had cultivated while writing Cushing of Gettysburg.
For many, though, Cushing’s award is long overdue. Residents in Cushing’s hometown of Delafield, Wisconsin; the former governor of Wisconsin, Jim Doyle; and many Facebook fans pushed for the recognition. Former U.S. Senator Russell D. Feingold endorsed Cushing’s nomination in 2003, and in March of 2010, Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh confirmed that the Army supported Cushing’s nomination, ending years of lobbying by descendants and admirers.
In Brown’s interview he closed saying, “I wonder whether Cushing may be the last Civil War soldier to receive it. And if he is, I’d like to think that it’s being given to him but on behalf of all those others who are going to go unnamed – that they will all share in Cushing’s award of the Medal of Honor because we’ll never be able to right all those, quote, ‘wrongs,’ unquote, of all those other soldiers who were equally valorous.”
Continue for an excerpt from Brown’s Cushing of Gettysburg: The Story of a Union Artillery Commander:
The Confederate infantrymen in Pickett’s division, as they approached to within two hundred yards of Cushing’s battery, leveled their rifles and, behind walls of flame and smoke, poured ragged volleys into the Union lines. Some of Lon’s remaining cannoneers fell, among them Lieutenant Milne. Hit in the abdomen, he fell to the ground, writhing in pain. Lon, seeing the volunteer lieutenant fall, beckoned to Fuger to order some men nearby—probably infantrymen from the 71st Pennsylvania—to take Milne to the rear. He was in agony, bleeding profusely. Though not well liked by many of the regular artillerymen, the Rhode Island lieutenant had displayed much bravery. The wound was mortal; he would die six days later at the Second Corps hospital.
Out from the rear of Pickett’s bloodied columns came General Armistead, his hat placed on the tip of the blade of his upraised sword, urging his Virginians to follow him. Lon’s two guns continued to fire round upon round of canister into the advancing hosts. As the enemy columns came to within one hundred yards of Lon’s guns, Little Dad, up the Union line, observed through the dense smoke what appeared to him to be a Confederate breakthrough at Gushing’s position. He quickly ordered Lt. John Egan to hitch up the two guns that made up the left section of the battery, and to move south to help his old classmate. He must have recalled how Lon had brought two brass guns to his assistance along the Smoketown Road at Antietam almost a year before. The guns were hitched to the limbers, and under the yells of drivers and the crack of whips the battery section left its position in front of Ziegler’s Grove. Woodruff waved them on, calling to the drivers to hurry. Just as he turned around, a musket ball struck him in the spine, exiting near his lower rib. Little Dad crumpled to the ground. Egan saw him fall and ordered two of the cannoneers running alongside the limbers and guns to assist in carrying their commander to safety. “I ordered you to the left,” Woodruff yelled to Egan above the din. “Do your duty, and leave me!” Desperately wounded and bleeding profusely, Woodruff was nevertheless moved by the two men into Ziegler’s Grove, where he was propped up against a tree.
Back down the Union lines, south of Lon’s position, one of the Parrott rifles remaining in Rorty’s battery was loaded with three rounds of canister and, in the frenzy of the moment, apparently overloaded with powder. When it was fired, the gun recoiled so violently that it broke the trail and completely overturned.
The situation in the angle was critical. Faint from loss of blood and terribly ill, gritting his teeth in a vain attempt to withstand the severe pain, Lon asked Fuger to order the two remaining guns double-shotted with canister.
“Double canister,” shouted Fuger. The artillerymen, sweating and coughing in the dense smoke under the hot July sun, hastened to service the two pieces. The infantrymen from the 71st Pennsylvania manning the number three gun had to improvise; having expended all their ammunition, they emptied their cartridge boxes and scoured the ground, picking up jagged fragments of burst shells and rocks. Ramming home bullets, rocks, shell fragments, and even a bayonet, the infantrymen feverishly loaded the number three gun, then stepped back into their respective positions alongside the Ordnance rifle to await the order to fire.
“Ready,” yelled the gunners. The lanyards were stretched. Lon peered through his field glasses at the oncoming hosts. It seemed like an eternity. His face was distorted with pain when he turned to Fuger. “Fire!” he cried.
“Fire!” bellowed Fuger.
As the lanyards were jerked, the two Ordnance rifles boomed and recoiled, belching forth their hail of iron through red sheets of flame and great clouds of smoke. Almost simultaneously, Fuger turned around and saw Lon lunge violently. His knees buckled; the field glasses fell from his hand. Fuger, then standing only about three feet ahead and a foot to the right, stepped over to catch his young commander. Cushing’s arms stretched outward as if to catch his sergeant’s shoulders; then he fell to his knees, and blood gushed from his nose and mouth, splattering Fuger’s boots, trousers, and blouse. Lon’s eyes rolled back in their sockets. His kepi fell from his head. A bullet had hit him just below his nose, drilling its way to the base of his brain. Fuger caught Lon’s mangled and bloody frame in his right arm, momentarily holding it upright amid the torrent of gunfire. Then the loyal first sergeant gently lowered the body of his lieutenant, by now in its death convulsions, to the ground along the right side of the trail of the number four gun, the head toward the enemy. Lt. Alonzo Hereford Gushing was dead. From the time he had received his first ghastly wounds, Lon had remained on the field for over one and one-half hours!