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Medal of Honor Monday: Army 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing

Jan. 13, 2020 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

In the past few decades, several service members from the Civil War have received posthumous Medals of Honor for their actions in keeping our nation together more than 150 years ago. One of them was Army 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing, who helped stop Confederate soldiers from breaking through the Union line during Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett's famous charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Cushing was born Jan. 19, 1841, in Delafield, Wisconsin. His father died when he was 6, so his mother moved the family to Fredonia, New York, where he was raised with his three brothers, who also served in the Civil War. 

A young Civil War soldier in dress uniform looks at the camera as he holds a sword across his body
Army 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing,
Army 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing, Civil War.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 200108-O-ZZ999-195

After high school, Cushing attended the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, graduating in 1861 around when the Civil War began. He was assigned to the Army of the Potomac's Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, II Corps. 

Cushing trained volunteer troops and served as an ordnance officer and topographical engineer. But more importantly, he fought in several major battles over the first two years of war — at Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, among others. 

The American Battlefield Trust, a charitable group that aims to preserve U.S. battlefields, said Cushing was well-liked. The group's website notes that he was known for his "poise under fire, radiant grin and infectious smile, which gave a soothing effect during the chaos of battle." So, it's no surprise that the 126 men the 22-year-old led on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg followed his direction loyally. 

A painting depicts hundreds of Civil War soldiers fighting on a battlefield.
Longstreet's Attack
The Gettysburg Cyclorama, painted by French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux in 1883, depicts Army Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's assault on July 3, 1863. In this segment of the cyclorama, Army 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing is in the center, leaning against the left side of the cannon.
Photo By: Gettysburg National Military Park
VIRIN: 200108-O-ZZ999-442

On July 3, 1863, Cushing was commanding Battery A and six cannons positioned on Cemetery Ridge. Some of Confederate Gen. George Pickett's roughly 10,000 men were about to push through a hole in the Union's defensive line. 

When Pickett's soldiers fired their cannons on Cemetery Ridge, Cushing directed his artillery to return fire. After a few hours, all of Cushing's officers had been killed, and all but two of his cannons were destroyed. Cushing was wounded by shrapnel in the fight and was urged to move to safety, but he refused. 

He then ordered his cannons to move closer to the front and continue firing. He was struck again and suffered critical abdominal injuries that, according to The Battlefield Trust, caused him to have to hold his stomach to keep his entrails from spilling out.

A large headstone in a graveyard reads “Brevet Lt. Colonel Alonzo H. Cushing.” Other headstones are spaced out around it.
Cushing Headstone
Army 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing is buried at West Point Cemetery, N.Y.
Photo By: U.S. Military Academy
VIRIN: 200108-O-ZZ999-625

Cushing still refused to abandon his men. With the help of 1st Sgt. Frederick Fuger — who also earned the Medal of Honor for his actions that day — Cushing stood up and continued to direct artillery fire onto the rebels headed their way. 

A short time later, Cushing was hit in the head by a bullet and died. The American Battlefield Trust said he died just as the final rounds from his battery tore through the advancing enemy lines. 

Thanks to Cushing's dedication, courage and training, Union soldiers were able to push the rebels back. From that day forward, the Confederacy never managed to mount another major offensive. 

President Barack Obama and the descendant of a Civil War soldier hold up a plaque that encases that soldier’s Medal of Honor.
Medal Ceremony
President Barack Obama and Helen Loring Ensign, a descendant of U.S. Army 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, hold an encased Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House, Nov. 6, 2014. Cushing was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Laura Buchta
VIRIN: 141106-A-VS818-186

Cushing was buried at West Point and posthumously promoted to lieutenant colonel. But it wasn't until almost 150 years later that he was formally recognized for his heroics, thanks to a nearly 30-year campaign by his family to award him the Medal of Honor.

On Nov. 6, 2014, that dream was realized. President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Honor to one of Cushing's two dozen descendants who attended the White House ceremony. Shortly after that, the Navy's guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg renamed its officers' dining hall the Cushing Wardroom in Cushing's honor. 

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.