Long battle to get Civil War officer Medal of Honor in final charge

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When the House this month voted to waive the time constraints on issuing the Medal of Honor for Lt. Alonzo Cushing, it brought the artillery officer and hero of the Union stand at Pickett’s Charge one step closer to the military’s highest honor — though in the eyes of his supporters, it’s 149 years late.

Cushing still has a few steps to go.

The Senate must pass the waiver, and then President Obama must concur with the Defense Department, which has recommended Cushing for the medal, a century and a half after he and his men faced the furious attack of Gen. George Pickett’s Virginians, whose repulsed assault on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg has been deemed the turning point in the war.

For Cushing’s supporters, the path to the medal has been tortuous, but they say seeing it awarded as the country nears the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg would be fitting tribute.

Congress must get involved because the law sets a time limit on how long after the action someone can be nominated. With the waiver moving now through Capitol Hill, backers are cautiously optimistic.

“We’ll believe it when we see it, but I am really happy about it,” said Kent Masterson Brown, a Kentucky lawyer who in 1993 published a biography of Cushing that has helped arm a disparate group of folks pushing for Cushing’s recognition.

Cushing, a Wisconsin-born West Point graduate, was in command of an artillery battery in the middle of what became known as “The Angle,” a stone wall that became the fulcrum for some of the fiercest fighting in the entire war. With Cushing’s battery down to two guns, Gen. Alexander Webb told him to withdraw to the rear, but the 22-year-old lieutenant instead asked for and was granted permission to advance.

Weak from two previous wounds, he gave orders through his aide, Sgt. Frederick Fuger, who called them out to the battery. A third bullet pierced his heart, killing Cushing on the battlefield.

Both Fuger and Webb were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during Pickett’s Charge, but Cushing was not.

Usually, those pushing for honors for long-dead military men are descendants. But this time, it’s people with much more tenuous personal connections, but who saw an injustice to be corrected.

Mr. Brown is one of those.

He first encountered Cushing’s story in 1964 when as a teenager his family stopped at Gettysburg, and he saw the park’s cyclorama, the giant 360-degree painting that depicts the furious final Confederate assault. At one point in the presentation, the spotlight focused on Cushing, the young lieutenant dying near his guns.

In the ensuing years, Mr. Brown dabbled with trying to track down information on the young soldier, finally hitting pay dirt when he learned of a trunk of Cushing’s letters sent back home to his family, then living in Chautauqua County in New York. His book helped spark interest in giving Cushing the Medal of Honor.

“I spent more years working on him than he did living,” Mr. Brown said. “I absolutely just love this kid.”

Even as Mr. Brown was working, Cushing was getting a boost back in Wisconsin from Margaret Zerwekh, a nonagenarian who lives on part of what used to be the Cushing family’s farm, along the Bark River in Delafield, west of Milwaukee.

“I’m interested in history, and I’m interested in the people who owned my land,” said Ms. Zerwekh, who helped spur Cushing’s case through letters to presidents, senators and congressmen, her first being written in 1987 to then-Sen. William Proxmire, Wisconsin Democrat.

She’s been written up in the New York Times, and her dedication to the cause has been infectious for those around her. Delafield’s government has written a letter pleading Cushing’s case.

And in recent years, Ms. Zerwekh has been aided by David Krueger, who serves as Delafield’s point man in trying to push for recognition.

“Not only the United States, but the world changed because of what a handful of guys did right there. This was the largest two armies to fight on this continent, the largest bombardment on this continent,” Mr. Krueger said. “After a series of defeats the previous two years, the boys in blue held fast.”

Alonzo Cushing never married, leaving him without the descendants who usually push for legacy recognition. But pressure has built organically, including a Facebook page “Give Alonzo Cushing the Medal of Honor.”

A decade ago, the situation came to the attention of then-Sen. Russell D. Feingold, who in 2003 officially nominated Cushing for the Medal of Honor. Mr. Feingold lost his re-election bid in 2010, but in true bipartisan spirit, the cause was picked up by Wisconsin Sens. Herb Kohl, a Democrat, and Ron Johnson, the freshman Republican who defeated Mr. Feingold.

In the House, meanwhile, Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Ron Kind and Wisconsin Republican Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. pushed for action and, along with the support of some members of Congress from New York, eventually won passage of the amendment as part of the annual defense policy bill earlier this month.

The legislation must see action in the Senate, but the defense bill is deemed a must-pass measure, so barring any calamity or unforeseen opposition from the Pentagon or White House, Cushing should finally get his medal.

The Defense Department didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Now out of office, Mr. Feingold said that with Cushing finally nearing the ultimate military honor, credit belongs to the Wisconsinites who wouldn’t relent.

“Sir Francis Bacon said that truth is the daughter of time, but in this case truth had some help from a group of devoted citizens with immense pride in Alonzo Cushing’s actions and Wisconsin history,” Mr. Feingold said. “They deserve our congratulations as well.”

It’s not unprecedented for Congress to get involved in Medal of Honor matters, though more often it has been to waive the time limits for awarding the medal to troops who fought in Vietnam or World War II.

One time Capitol Hill did intervene on behalf of Civil War soldiers came five years ago, when Congress passed legislation urging the president to award the medal to Pvt. Philip G. Shadrach and Pvt. George D. Wilson, who were part of Andrews’ Raiders, the two dozen Union men who made a daring raid into the Confederacy to cut telegraph and railroad lines.

Eight of the men were hanged as spies, and some who escaped became the first to receive the newly created Medal of Honor in 1863. Eventually, almost all of the men eligible received the medal, but Shadrach and Wilson still remain unrecognized.

As for Cushing, he appears to be on a glide path. But there still remains the matter of who would actually accept the medal.

Mr. Krueger and Ms. Zerwekh both hope the medal would come to Delafield to be displayed there in a community that has a Cushing Park and a Cushing Elementary School. But Ms. Zerwekh said Chautauqua County in New York, where Mr. Brown found the bundle of Cushing’s letters in a trunk in the historical society, also might like the medal.

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