Alonzo Cushing Posthumously Receives Medal of Honor for Bravery at Gettysburg

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Alonzo Cushing Posthumously Receives Medal of Honor for Bravery at Gettysburg

First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery
Photographer unknown, image taken c. 1861-1863
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 6, 2014

For today's trip through military history, we will focus upon one heroic American officer. He was only 22 years old at the time, and a modest 5'9" tall, but he endured two massive wounds, held his position, and helped turn the tide of the third day of the battle of Gettysburg. He did not, however, survive the day. His heroic actions were almost ignored, but he was finally recognized for his achievements 151 years after they occurred.


Alonzo Cushing was born in 1841 in Delafield, Wisconsin, the third of four brothers. After his father died, the family moved to Fredonia, NY where he had a mostly normal childhood. Cushing received an appointment to West Point in 1857. He was a good scholar at the academy, graduating 12th in a class of 34 on June 24, 1861. [The "goat" of this 2nd class of 1861 was…George Armstrong Custer.]

Upon graduation, he received a commission of first lieutenant and was assigned to the 4th U.S. Artillery, Battery A. Lt. Cushing (better known to his fellow officers as "Lon") served in some of the early campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. They included First Bull Run, the Seven Days battles, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. He apparently performed his duties well, for he received two brevet promotions, the last to major, after Chancellorsville.

Battle of Gettysburg

Cushing and his battery arrived at Gettysburg on the battle's second day, and set up on the battlefield, in a section that had been relatively quiet during July 1 and 2. His battery consisted of two sections of 3-inch Ordinance Rifle cannon. Desperate fighting had occurred earlier in the day to the south, around Devil's Den, Little Round Top, and the Peach Orchard. No one was completely sure where the Confederates would strike next, but Union Army Commander George Meade felt that Lee would attack the center of the Union line the next day; Lee had tried the Union right on July 1, then struck the Union left late in the afternoon of July 2.

3-inch Ordinance Rifle; on display at Gettysburg National Military Park
3-inch Ordinance Rifle; on display at Gettysburg National Military Park

At about 1:00 p.m. on July 3, between 150-170 Rebel artillery pieces began a bombardment, preparatory to the final attack of the battle, "Pickett's Charge." For the next hour-and-a-half, Confederate shells fell along the Union center. However, much of the shelling yielded poor results, as the Confederate artillerymen wanted to save ammunition to support the infantry attack.

Unfortunately, Cushing's Battery A sustained high casualties during the barrage, and lost many of the artillerists and three of its cannon as well. At one point, a number of his men took fright and began moving to the rear. Lt. Cushing drew his service revolver, pointed it in the general direction of his spooked men, and threatened to shoot any man who left their positions. Shortly afterward, Cushing himself was wounded during the bombardment; first in the shoulder by a Rebel shell fragment, and shortly afterwards a second shell fragment ripped through his abdomen and groin, causing a grievous wound which would probably have been fatal by itself.

Knowing that Confederate infantry was certainly coming, he ordered the remains of his battery to move their cannon forward until they were touching the stonewall at The Angle. By this time, 12,000 Confederate soldiers were slowly advancing over the mile-long stretch of fields, approaching Cushing's position. A number of his men tried to persuade him to go to the rear for medical treatment. Lt. Cushing, holding his entrails in with his hands, refused. Even when a superior officer ordered him to the rear, Cushing said, "No, I stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt." During the fighting, with enemy bullets and artillery shells landing all around him, Lt. Cushing coolly gave order after order, sending grapeshot and canister rounds slamming into the packed masses of Confederate infantrymen.

Battle of Gettysburg, Day #3, July 3, 1863, app. 3:00 p.m.; Assault on Union center, 'Pickett's Charge' [Cushing's unit was placed in the vicinity of The Angle and the Copse of Trees]; Image from
Battle of Gettysburg, Day #3, July 3, 1863, app. 3:00 p.m.
Assault on Union center, "Pickett's Charge"
[Cushing's unit was placed in the vicinity of The Angle and the Copse of Trees]
Image from

With Rebels charging toward them, Cushing continued giving orders despite shock and the loss of blood. Eventually, Sgt. Frederick Fuger picked up his commanding officer, propping him up on the stone wall so "Lon" could give his commands. However, Cushing's voice began to fail, and Sgt. Fuger began shouting the orders so all the remaining artillerists could hear. The chaos of the battle threatened to engulf Cushing's tiny command. Seeing the vast number of Rebel infantry advancing toward their position, Cushing ordered his men to fire double canister, perhaps even triple rounds of deadly anti-personnel rounds.

Finally, as Battery A was beginning to run low on ammunition, a particularly well-placed canister shot drew an approving comment from Lt. Cushing. "That's excellent!" he told his men, "Keep that range." Immediately after saying those words, as his men frantically reloaded their lone cannon, a Confederate Minie ball struck Cushing in the mouth, exited the back of his head, and killed him instantly. Seeing his officer was beyond help, Sgt. Fuger – now in command of Battery A and its single remaining field gun – placed Cushing's body on the ground, and set off a round of canister.

Shortly afterward, Battery A was completely out of ammo, and Sgt. Fuger obeyed an order to fall back, taking the last operational field gun of the battery to safety. [Sgt. Fuger would be awarded a Medal of Honor in his own right for his actions at Gettysburg.]

The Fight for Lt. Cushing's Medal of Honor

For some reason, despite the reports of Cushing's bravery at The Angle, he did not receive a Medal of Honor. Cushing's commander, Captain John Hazard, wrote in his battle report that the young lieutenant "…especially distinguished himself for his extreme gallantry and bravery, his courage and ability, and his love for his profession." Cushing received a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel shortly after his death, but he was ineligible to receive the Medal of Honor. And why was that? At that time, there was no provision for awarding the MOH posthumously. In addition, he was an officer, which the original legislation creating the award was only supposed to be awarded to enlisted men, and non-coms.

By the time that policy was changed, Lt. Cushing's story was largely forgotten. However, the story of the Gettysburg hero was resurrected by Margaret Zerwekh, who lived in his birthplace of Delafield, WI on property once owned by the lieutenant's father. After spending 20 years researching Cushing's story, she wrote a letter to then-Senator William Proxmire in 1987 that promoted the Civil War soldier's credentials for the Medal of Honor. Since more than five years had passed since Cushing's death, an act of Congress was required to award him the medal, and Zerwekh campaigned lawmakers for more than two decades before that approval finally came.

Even then, the process took years. The U.S. Army approved the nomination in 2010, Legislation to suspend the statute of limitations for receiving the award was passed in 2013, paving the way for President Obama's approval of the award.

The White House was the site for the Medal of Honor ceremony honoring Lt. Cushing on November 6, 2014. The U.S. Army had found a number of living relative of "Lon" Cushing, but most were distant cousins. More than two dozen members of the Cushing family attended the ceremony, including his nearest next of kin, octogenarian Helen Loring Ensign (a cousin, two generations removed), who accepted the award on his behalf. Also present at the ceremony was Margaret Zerwekh.

Alonzo Cushing's Medal of Honor Citation

Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac
Place and date: July 3rd, 1863, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Date of issue: November 6, 2014

Citation: First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing distinguished himself by acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an artillery commander in Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 3rd, 1863 during the American Civil War.

That morning, Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee began cannonading First Lieutenant Cushing's position on Cemetery Ridge. Using field glasses, First Lieutenant 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 Major General George E. Pickett's charge and continued to direct devastating fire into oncoming forces. As the Confederate forces closed in, First Lieutenant 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 Lieutenant 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.

Footnote #1: Cushing is buried at the West Point Cemetery, next to another Union officer associated with Gettysburg: Gen. John Buford. [If you have seen the movie Gettysburg (1993), Buford is portrayed by actor Sam Elliott in the beginning of the film. Buford is credited with selecting the "good ground" that the Army of the Potomac defended during the three-day fight at the small Pennsylvania town.] The epitaph at the bottom of Cushing's tombstone says simply: "Faithful Unto Death."

Footnote #2: Shortly after the White House ceremony, Cushing's memory was honored when one of the U.S. Navy's Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers – the USS Gettysburg (CG-64) – dedicated its officer's dining hall as the "Cushing Wardroom."

Footnote #3: Even before receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions, Lt. Cushing had a small monument on the Gettysburg battlefield. Located in the area known variously as "The Bloody Angle," "The High Watermark of the Confederacy," or simply "The Angle," a section of artillery is sighted to indicate the location of Battery A of the 4th U.S. Artillery. Nearby is this monument to the boy lieutenant.

Memorial to Lt. Cushing, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg PA; Located near
Memorial to Lt. Cushing, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg PA
Located near "The Angle," target of Pickett's Charge on Day #3
Placed by Cushing's family and friends and veterans of the 71st Pennsylvania in 1887
Image courtesy of

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