By Greg Bayne
It was announced by the White House in September 2014 that Alonzo Cushing will receive the Medal of Honor.
Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in June 1861. Neither Cushing nor any of his classmates who included George Armstrong Custer and Adelbert Ames had any portent of the horrors that the Civil War would unfold nor that they would pay the ultimate price. All that they knew was that they would have to play their part. By the time of his death, he had already spent two years fighting for the Union in nearly every major engagement starting with Bull Run. On July 3, 1863, the third and final day of the battle, Lieutenant Cushing commanded an artillery battery with 125 men in the centre of the Union “fishhook”. Fate decided that Lee would attack here in what would become widely recognised in later years as the Confederacy’s High Tide.
Cushing and his men of Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery with their six 3” ordnance rifles, were near a small grove of trees, in a confined area called "the Angle" because of a nearby stone fence. Shortly before the attack, Confederate artillery launched a ferocious cannonade that all but wiped out Cushing's unit. It had killed or injured many of his men and horses while disabling all but two of his guns. The area resembled a slaughterhouse.
With only two working cannons and a handful of soldiers left, Cushing refused to leave the front line or disband what remained of his battery. Seriously wounded in the shoulder and holding his intestines with his hand after shrapnel ripped through his abdomen and groin, Cushing ignored his superiors' orders to seek medical attention. “I will stay here and fight it out, or die in the attempt,” he was reported saying. In an attempt to keep his guns in action, he had even been stoppering the vent of the gun he was serving with his bare thumb; the thumbstall having been completely charred. His thumb was burned to the bone.
The two remaining guns of Battery A were moved to the stone wall of "the Angle" so Cushing and his soldiers could blast away at the charging Confederate soldiers with canister. Another soldier, his First Sgt. Frederick Fuger, who would receive the Medal of Honor himself for this action in 1897, held him upright against one of his guns as he gave commands. With Confederates just 300 to 400 yards away, Lieutenant Cushing yelled “I will give them one more shot," and was himself shot in the mouth and finally fell. Cushing had been in the heat of battle for about 90 minutes and he had been wounded for most of that time. He was 22.
“He died at a particularly momentous event in a very momentous battle, the largest land engagement of the war, and he died in one of the most critical, if not the most critical spot on the field,” said Kent Masterson Brown, who wrote a biography of the soldier called “Cushing of Gettysburg.”
“He is so representative of a people who had that sort of fortitude, who sacrificed that much,” he said, adding that the medal would recognize that. “In that sense, it’s a wonderful thing to behold.”
I could easily have left Cushing there. He had died in a heroic manner, earned his place in history and deserved the Medal of Honor. But I felt uneasy and wanted to pursue it further. I knew that there was some current debate and I wanted some further views so I contacted Kent Masterson Brown who is as close to Cushing as anyone can be and then Eric Wittenberg, who has written extensively about Union cavalry to see if they could comment further. Both kindly agreed to comment.
“Some say that the medal should not be given so long after the event that purportedly warrants it. Some say
there are too many individuals who fought in the Civil War who displayed equal or greater (if that is possible) valour than Cushing to warrant giving the medal to only him. I believe that we should never forget the valour of our soldiers no matter how long ago they served and died. Giving the medal to Cushing has brought out a host of articles and television news segments that have reminded the American people of the horrific sacrifices made during the Civil War. Remembering is always a good thing. I agree that there remain many, many individuals who were equally heroic as Cushing but will never be considered for the medal. That, of course, can be said for every medal that has ever been given. Cushing’s medal is likely to be the last medal to be given to a Civil War soldier. I like to think that it is being given in honour of not only Cushing’s valour but in honour of the valour of all of those who fought during the Civil War who will never be singled out for what they did. I like to think that Cushing’s classmates who died at Gettysburg, Lt. George A. Woodruff and Col. Patrick O’Rorke, are also being given medal. They are all certainly being remembered now and that is the most important thing of all. I will be delivering the keynote address about Cushing at the 151st anniversary of the Gettysburg Address in the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19 and that will be my theme.”
Eric agreed that his blog on http://civilwarcavalry.com could be reprinted:
“Of the following facts, there is no dispute or doubt: Alonzo Cushing was a brave and very capable young soldier who died as a hero. Cushing, although horribly wounded, stood to his gun and pulled the lanyard, blasting canister into the faces of the Confederate soldiers of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead’s brigade at point-blank range at the climax of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge. He was an incredibly brave young man who died a hero’s death doing his duty. These facts are not in dispute. I admire Alonzo Cushing.
Having said that, I have real problems with him receiving a Medal of Honor now, 151 years after the fact. There were plenty of opportunities for the War Department to honour him in the years after the war, but it did not do so. 1520 Medals of Honor were awarded for valour in the Civil War. Many of them were politically motivated, like the one awarded to Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, who instead should have been the subject of a court-martial. Many were not really earned or deserved. Many were. A number of them were even revoked. But Alonzo Cushing was not deemed worthy of being awarded a Medal of Honor by his peers. That fact is also beyond dispute or controversy.
Again, this is not to take anything away from Lieutenant Cushing or his courageous stand at the guns on July 3, 1863. But I have real problems with his being awarded a Medal of Honor today. Is this really the sort of precedent that we want to set? Isn’t this a slippery slope that will open up a big can of worms? Doesn’t this open the door for the advocates of any soldier who did something brave to demand that that soldier also be awarded a Medal of Honor even though his peers did not believe his feats worthy of one? That’s my real concern with this Medal of Honor being awarded to Alonzo Cushing, whose valour certainly deserved recognition.
As unpopular as this statement might be, my humble opinion is that if the veterans–Cushing’s peers–did not deem him worthy of a Medal of Honor, who are we to question the wisdom of their judgment? I think that we should just have left well enough alone. The precedent that this Medal of Honor sets is not one that should have been set.
Despite my objections, I nevertheless congratulate Lieutenant Cushing and his supporters who spent so many years fighting to win the Medal for their hero.”
I can see both parts of the argument. I can’t wait to get your opinions.
Cushing will become the 1,523rd Union soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. He would also be only the second since 1915. Cushing will be the 64th Soldier to receive the Medal of Honor for actions during the Battle of Gettysburg.
If you do not own Kent’s book on Cushing you can download it onto your Kindle. I paid £12.83. Not only does it track Cushing’s army career, it is a great narrative on the westward expansion of a family and their struggle to make a home and survive against the odds.