WASHINGTON — 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing and his artillerymen stood amid the smoke and the noises of war, trying to keep their cannons firing, on the most consequential day of the Civil War.
It was the third and final day of a bloody fight in the fields and forests of Pennsylvania, what historians would later call the Battle of Gettysburg. Cushing, respected by his men for his cool under fire, commanded the last cannon left firing in his battery. Though struck by enemy fire that day, he continued to fight. Finally, with Confederates only 100 yards away, he was killed by a shot in the mouth. He was 22.
More than a century later, in a ceremony at the White House on Thursday, President Obama bestowed the nation’s highest military distinction, the Medal of Honor, on the lieutenant as distant family members looked on.
Obama said: “151 years ago, as our country struggled for its survival. … Today, the nation that lived pauses to pay tribute to one of those who died there.”
During a crowded White House ceremony, Obama handed the medal to Helen Loring Ensign, 85, Cushing’s cousin twice removed and closest living relative. He was joined by Wisconsin Congressmen Ron Kind, a Democrat, and Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican, who helped bring about Cushing’s award.
Obama credited Cushing’s actions for helping to turn the tide of the decisive battle in the Civil War. “It was thousands of unknown young soldiers, committing unsung acts of heroism, who saved our union, and freed a people, and reaffirmed our nation as one nation,” Obama said.
Cushing’s award is unusual. Most Medal of Honor recipients must receive their distinction soon after their service. Obama credited historian Margaret Zerwekh, who attended the ceremony, for her research and advocacy.
Zerwekh first became interested in Cushing when she discovered she lived on a property in Wisconsin owned by Cushing’s father. She spent 25 years petitioning on Cushing’s behalf.
Cushing rests in the cemetery at West Point, where his tombstone reads “Faithful Unto Death.”