- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Seldom has the Army faced the challenge of staging an award ceremony like the one Thursday, when President Obama is slated to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to distant relatives of 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing, who died leading the artillery defense that halted Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.

Historians say the medal, while well-deserved and long overdue, could just as easily be going to one of two other Cushings who served in the Civil War. William, who has been labeled the first Navy SEAL, conducted a daring commando raid to torpedo a Confederate ironclad. Howard died a decade after the war while fighting the Apaches in Arizona.

Even figuring out the logistics of the award 150 years later has proved to be troublesome. With no living direct descendants for Alonzo or any of his siblings, Pentagon officials found a first cousin three times removed to receive the medal, only to have historians say they had overlooked a cousin twice removed who should collect the medal on the Cushings’ behalf.

None of which takes away from the honor Alonzo is poised to finally get 150 years late and thanks chiefly to a curious coalition of lawmakers in Congress, Civil War buffs and average citizens who decided to take up the cause of the Cushings.

“All of them were amazing in terms of what they did for the country,” said John Paul Wolfe at the Chautauqua County Historical Society in upstate New York. Chautauqua County includes Fredonia, where the Cushings’ mother brought them from Wisconsin after her husband died.

Alonzo earned the medal at what’s become known to military history as the Angle, a Union position at Gettysburg that took intense fire from Confederates amid Pickett’s Charge, which soldiers at the time termed the high-water mark of the Confederacy — the closest the South came to winning the war.

As his artillery battery was destroyed around him, an already-twice-wounded Alonzo manned the remaining pieces, giving orders that his trusted Sgt. Frederick Fuger would call out to his men.

Alonzo would be cut down by a third wound, though his battery’s stand was successful. His subordinate, Fuger, and his superior, Gen. Alexander S. Webb, who led the overall defense against Pickett’s Charge and approved Alonzo’s request to advance, were both awarded the Medal of Honor, making it somewhat of a mystery why Alonzo wasn’t.

His younger brother, William, meanwhile, served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, gaining a reputation as brave — bordering on reckless. He cemented his name with his 1864 raid on the CSS Albemarle, which had dominated the Roanoke River in North Carolina, preventing Union encroachment.

Asked by his superiors for a plan, William presented two ideas, one of which ended up being used — a daredevil plot to ram a torpedo into the ironclad. That meant driving a steamer at the ironclad until they were close enough to touch it with a long pole, which had an explosive attached to it. Someone on the steamer then had to light the explosive — in this case, William, who lowered the boom and ignited it just as the Albemarle’s gun destroyed his own boat with a shot.

“He just literally rode a torpedo into the port side of that thing and detonated it,” said Kent Masterson Brown, who wrote a book on Alonzo titled “Cushing of Gettysburg.”

William was tossed into the water, told his men to save themselves, braved enemy fire from 15 feet away, ignored their demands for surrender and swam to shore, where he lay for hours, too exhausted to get out of the water.

Mr. Brown said William earned a citation of praise from Congress but has never earned the Medal of Honor.

A third brother, Howard, served in the Union army through Vicksburg before catching tuberculosis. He recovered, asked for a transfer to the cavalry and went to Arizona, where he was so successful an Indian fighter he became a top target for the Apaches.

He died in an Apache ambush in the White Mountains in 1871, earning the nickname the “Custer of Arizona” for both his bravery and questionable decision-making.

Mr. Brown said the Cushings traced both their parents’ lineages back to the Mayflower, making them literally among the founding families of America. With their father dying when they were young, he credited their mother Mary for their upbringing.

Alonzo’s case was dormant for years until Margaret Zerwekh, the granddaughter of a Union veteran, took up the cause. She lives near the site of the Cushings’ Wisconsin home and enlisted her state’s congressional delegation, which eventually won passage of a bill, waiving the time limit and making Alonzo eligible for the medal 15 decades after his death.

Mr. Obama announced over the summer that he had finally approved the award — but the actual ceremony was delayed while the Army searched for a next of kin, The Buffalo News reported.

After some extensive searching, the Army located two cousins, Frederic Stevens Sater and Frederic Cushing Stevens III, who the White House announced would attend to collect the medal.

That was a surprise to Mr. Wolfe, who was very familiar with the Cushing line because of their central role in Fredonia history. He did a comparison list of a family tree.

He determined that the Stevens family was related to Alonzo’s father, and the closest living relatives were cousins three times removed. Mr. Wolfe found a closer relative, Helen Bird Loring Ensign, who he said is a cousin twice removed, related to Alonzo’s aunt Margaret from his mother’s side.

Letters showing Alonzo was very close to Aunt Margaret — he signed one announcing his appointment to command the artillery battery as her “most affectionate nephew Lon,” Mr. Wolfe said — helped sway the military to rethink its decision and give the medal to the Ensign family.

Mr. Wolfe said they had a powerful ally in Sen. Charles E. Schumer, whose office took up the New Yorkers’ case with the administration after Mr. Wolfe raised it with them.

Mr. Schumer’s office didn’t return a call seeking comment, but Mr. Wolfe said the correction “happened because of Senator Schumer’s power and pull.”

The Army said it can be tricky in old cases such as this to figure things out.

“This is a process in which each case is unique,” Army spokesperson Tatjana Christian said in an email. “In some cases the records (birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, adoptions, etc.) are not available to trace family lineage, or we can’t find them.”

“As a result of newly presented information from the Ensign family Friday, the Army determined Ms. Ensign is the rightful family recipient of the Medal of Honor. She will accept Cushing’s Medal of Honor this week at the White House. She will be accompanied by other Cushing descendants and friends.”

Mr. Wolfe said Ms. Ensign’s family — the Loring name is the family line connected to the Cushings — has for more than 100 years kept a tradition of naming children after the war heroes. One of the Lorings, a major in the Marine Corps, along with her husband, a fellow Marine major, had a baby last year: Joseph Alonzo Cushing Mayne.

Alonzo is buried at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

For his part, William hasn’t gone without recognition. He’s buried at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and the Navy has named five different ships the USS Cushing — making him the only person in history to be so honored that many times, Mr. Wolfe said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide