Civil War hero to receive Medal of Honor, 151 years delayed

First Lt. Alonzo Cushing will receive a Medal of Honor Thursday for his gallantry at the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg. The tale of his heroism – and a family's long memory of it – punctuate a remarkable story.

Wisconsin Historical Society/AP
First Lt. Alonzo Cushing is shown in an undated photo. On Thursday, President Obama will award the Medal of Honor to Cushing posthumously for his actions during combat operations in the vicinity of Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg, Pa., on July 3, 1863.

First Lt. Alonzo Cushing will become the latest Medal of Honor recipient Thursday, 151 years after the heroic fighting that earned him the nation’s highest award for valor in one of the most crucial battles of the Civil War.

One day before the White House ceremony, Lieutenant Cushing’s relatives gathered in a hotel conference room just down the road from the Pentagon to discuss their cousin, thrice removed, and the remarkable path to his inclusion in the pantheon of the American military’s greatest heroes.

It was only a few days ago that Helen Loring Ensign, an octogenarian who hails from Massachusetts, learned that she was the nearest next-of-kin to Cushing and would be receiving the Medal of Honor on his behalf from President Obama

Ms. Ensign recalls hearing the stories of Cushing’s heroics as a young girl of 5, “practically when I could first understand.” Her father’s name, William Cushing Loring, was a respectful nod to the young soldier’s legacy. 

Ensign’s niece, Jessica Loring, recalls “tidbits” told around the Thanksgiving table about Cushing’s bravery – and the stoicism of his mother, who lost three sons at a young age. “His whole family was a very brave family,” she says. 

“His mother would say ‘Death before dishonor’ when she sent her sons off to war,” Ms. Loring adds of the tales told around the table. “Now 151 years later, we’ve all kept him in our hearts.”

But it wasn’t until a non-family member, Margaret Zerwekh, bought a Cushing family home in the war hero’s birthplace of Delafield, Wis., and learned about the family lore of its previous owners that the 30-plus year campaign to award Cushing a Medal of Honor began.

Ms. Zerkwekh, now in her 90s and in a wheelchair, flew into town for the ceremony. She says she felt a connection to Cushing after “studying the property” she had bought, “and then studying who lived there and what happened to them.”

“My heart is filled with thanks for her,” Ensign says, nodding to her across a table. 

The thought of applying for a Medal of Honor for Cushing simply “hadn’t occurred to us,” she says. It had been a century and a half since the battle, after all, she says. 

Plus, the family was aware that, at the time, it wasn’t common practice for officers to receive Medals of Honor.

That was because of “the idea that officers have a certain responsibility to perform acts in combat,” says retired Col. Paul Jussel, a historian and professor of military studies at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., who attended the Tuesday discussion.

That practice of not handing out medals to officers had changed earlier in 1863, just months before the Battle of Gettysburg

It was there that First Lieutenant Cushing was in command of 126 men and six cannons – and silencing those cannons was the No. 1 focus of Confederate artillery fire. 

Within a few hours of the battle, all of Cushing’s officers had been killed. 

Cushing, for his part, had been shot three times and wounded grievously in the abdomen. Only two of his six cannons were still operational, but Cushing refused to leave the battlefield, ignoring pleas from his men to be evacuated.

“His first sergeant had begged him – pleaded with him – to go to the field hospital,” says Mark Bradley, historian for the US Army Center of Military History, who was also in attendance Tuesday.

“He would have been in intense pain, and lost a lot of blood,” Dr. Bradley says. “If he was not mortally wounded, he was grievously wounded.”

The fact that he wouldn’t give up and kept fighting would have been stirringly apparent to his troops, who were themselves dying by the dozens.

“His mere presence there was a tremendous inspiration to his men who are falling,” he says. “While we can’t say that it turned the tide of the battle, it definitely contributed to the Union victory.”

Ensign and Loring say that they plan to make make sure the Medal of Honor travels far and wide to places like Gettysburg, West Point, and Cushing’s hometown of Fredonia, N.Y. 

“Our idea is that it shouldn’t sit on somebody’s mantlepiece and stay there,” Loring says. By seeing the medal, she says, maybe “people today can understand the price of making our country free, and the sacrifice it takes.”

After the meeting with reporters, a Cushing descendent from Manhattan approaches Ensign and Loring introduces himself. 

Up until Monday, Frederic Sater had been told by the Pentagon that he was the next closest of kin and would be the one receiving the medal from President Obama at the White House.

Then he got the phone call that the Pentagon had found an even closer cousin, but since he had gone through all the White House security checks and the hours of media training, he was still welcome to attend.

He explains that he has no hard feelings. “They really know the history,” he says, nodding at his fellow cousins as he holds a leather portfolio, in which he is carrying the remarks he had been planning to give at the White House, written out in longhand on yellow legal paper.

He takes them out and reads a portion of what he had intended to share. “I believe in the practice of ‘non sibi,’ ” he says, citing the Latin phrase meaning “not for one’s self” – in other words, the practice of selfless service.

It’s also the motto of his alma mater, Philips Exeter Academy, he notes. “This family demonstrated that principal,” he says.

As they chat, Mr. Sater thanks Ensign and Loring for keeping the family history alive. 

“Well,” Ensign tells him, looking around at her fellow cousins and some of the US military officials in attendance, “We’re all family here.”

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