On July 3, 1863, Brevet Major Alonzo H. Cushing commanded an artillery battery on Cemetery Ridge outside the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The fate of the Union hung in the balance as Pickett’s charge, ordered by Robert E. Lee, swept across the field in front of the battery. The line of which Cushing was a part had to hold or the Confederacy would win the day and, perhaps, the war itself.
In the midst of the fury, a shell fragment tore through Cushing’s shoulder but he continued in command, barking orders. A second shell fragment hit him in the abdomen but, holding his intestines in with one hand, he continued to fight. Ordered to the rear, he refused to go. “I’ll stay and fight it out, or die in the attempt,” he said. Now unable to be heard over the din of battle his 1st sergeant held him up and repeated his orders to his men. Finally, a bullet hit him in the mouth and exited through his spine, killing him instantly. At the cost of Cushing’s and many other lives, the line held. The Confederates were forced to fall back, taking heavy casualties. The Army of Northern Virginia never really recovered from the disaster of Pickett’s charge, militarily or, crucially, psychologically, and would never again be on the offensive. The Union would live.
Alonzo Cushing was 22 years old. He lies today in the cemetery at West Point, from where he had graduated in 1861, beneath a tombstone that reads at the request of his mother, “Faithful unto Death.” Although he was posthumously given the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel, he received no other honors.
Now, finally, he is getting his due. Congress authorized the Medal of Honor in the last defense appropriation bill and President Obama announced on Tuesday that he would award Cushing the nation’s highest honor 151 years after he gave his life for that nation.
It’s about time.