1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, whose defense of a key ridge at the Battle of Gettysburg helped turn the tide of the Civil War and end slavery, was today posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by the country’s first black president.
At the ceremony, President Obama said the award highlights the obligation the nation has to the military men and women who serve it.
“No matter how long it takes, it’s never too late to do the right thing,” the president said.
“This story is part of our larger American story and one that continues to this very day,” he said.
More than 150 years after the pivotal battle, Obama bestowed the highest award for battlefield bravery to Cushing, who was killed at the age of 22 while repelling 13,000 rebel soldiers at Pickett’s charge, one of the most famous tactical thrusts of the three-day fight in rural Pennsylvania.
The Wisconsin native commanded about 110 men and six cannons at Gettysburg. He defended Cemetery Ridge against an assault led by Confederate Gens. George Pickett and James J. Pettigrew.
The Union victory in July 1863 halted a Confederate advance into northern territory and is widely viewed by historians as a turning point in the brutal conflict.
Normally, the Medal of Honor is awarded — often posthumously — within a few years of the act that merits it. However, Congress granted an exemption in the case of Cushing, whose cause, as NPR’s S.V. Date reported in September, has been the subject of a three-decade campaign by a Wisconsin woman, Margaret Zerwekh, now in her 90s, who lives on what had been the Cushing family farm.
In a statement issued by the White House when it first announced the award to Cushing, it said:
“Cushing was only two years out of West Point on that third day of the battle, in charge of an artillery battery in the Army of the Potomac. According to the White House announcement, Cushing was manning the only artillery piece in his unit that still worked.
” ‘During the advance, he was wounded in the stomach as well as in the right shoulder. Refusing to evacuate to the rear despite his severe wounds, he directed the operation of his lone field piece, continuing to fire in the face of the enemy,’ the White House statement said. ‘With the rebels within 100 yards of his position, Cushing was shot and killed during this heroic stand.’ ”
“Receiving the medal will be Cushing’s closest relative, Helen Loring Ensign, 85, of California.
“Cushing died childless at age 22, and none of his brothers had children. It took the Army Past Conflict Repatriations Branch weeks to find the closest living relative after the president announced in late August that he would present the posthumous medal to Cushing.
“Ensign is related to Cushing through Cushing’s mother and is his first cousin twice removed.”