What took so long? Gettysburg hero to receive Medal of Honor

1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing stood his ground

WASHINGTON, D.C. - On the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing stood his ground against the Confederate infantry. Leading a small force of Union troops against Pickett’s Charge of 13,000 infantry, Cushing and his soldiers helped turn the tide.

Wounded in the shoulder and groin, holding his intestines with one hand, Cushing refused to retreat before he was struck in the mouth by a bullet and died. He was 22.

That was July 3, 1863. Next month President Barack Obama will award him a Medal of Honor, fully 151 years later.

What took so long?

Cushing’s heroism was never fully forgotten by history. An image of him falling to his death is painted in a cyclorama at Gettysburg. His exploits were memorialized in a 1993 book, “Cushing Of Gettysburg” by Kent Masterson Brown.

But Cushing probably had no better ally than Margaret Zerwekh, who has lived on the property in Delafield, Wisconsin, that was once owned by Cushing’s father. Zerwekh, the granddaughter of a Union veteran of the Civil War, took up the case for Cushing, who also was from Delafield.

Time was not on her side. By law, recommendations for the Medal of Honor must be made within two years of the heroic action. After that, Congress can take up the cause.    

Zerwekh, now in her 90s, says she wrote her first letter to then-Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis., in the 1980s. She has thick folders with replies from various elected officials. She later got the attention of then-Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who joined her in the effort. The Army eventually agreed Cushing was worthy of the honor.

There were still more twists and turns. At one point Wisconsin lawmakers prevailed and got an amendment to the defense spending bill to give Cushing the award. But a conference committee stripped it from the bill. Then-Sen. James Webb, D-Va., objected to giving Cushing the award on the grounds it was impossible to accurately determine what happened 150 years ago. “The better wisdom would be for Congress to leave history alone,” he said.

The fog of time aside, the Medal of Honor does seem to be skewed toward the Civil War, which accounts for 1,522 of the 3,468 awards. That’s in contrast to four for Iraq, two for Afghanistan and 246 for Vietnam.

Nevertheless, Cushing’s latter day troop of Wisconsin allies pushed forward in a rare bipartisan effort. Democrats (Rep. Ron Kind and Sen. Tammy Baldwin) joined Republicans (Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Sen. Ron Johnson) and got a provision in the defense bill late last year on Cushing’s behalf.

And so on Sept. 15, Obama will award the medal to Cushing and to two soldiers from the Vietnam War.

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