The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a Civil War soldier will get the Medal of Honor — 151 years after his death

First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing was bleeding profusely from wounds to his abdomen and shoulder as thousands of Confederate infantrymen advanced on his artillery battery in the Battle of Gettysburg. At least one of his soldiers begged him to seek medical treatment, but he refused. He stayed on the battlefield another 90 minutes while under attack, ordering his men to keep firing their three-inch cannons right up until the moment that he was killed with a gunshot to the head.

The Union Army’s ability to stop that assault by at least 13,000 soldiers — known as Pickett’s Charge, after a Confederate general who led rebel troops taking part in it — is a key part of the Civil War’s most iconic battle. But the heroism of Cushing, 22, on July 3, 1863, was not honored with the nation’s highest award for combat valor, even though 63 other Union soldiers received the prestigious decoration.

U.S. officials will rectify that Thursday.

President Obama is scheduled to award the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony to descendants of the Cushing family, more than 151 years after the battle. They’ve passed his story down for generations with pride, but had not considered it possible that Cushing would receive the award, they said.

“His whole family was a very brave family,” said Jessica Loring, who is Cushing’s first cousin, three generations removed. “His mother would say, ‘Death before dishonor’ when she sent her sons off to war, and three of them died very young.”

It’s a highly rare, if not unprecedented, occurrence for battlefield bravery to be recognized with the Medal of Honor so many years later. Cushing initially was recognized posthumously with an honorary “brevet” promotion to lieutenant colonel, something that was common for officers at the time, said Mark Bradley, a historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History. But officers rarely received the Medal of Honor at the time. Some other Union soldiers who were awarded the medal for actions at Gettysburg received it posthumously; for decades, no one nominated Cushing.

About 40 years ago, a woman who lived on a farm in Delafield, Wis., once owned by the Cushing family began asking why not. Margaret Zerwekh, now 94, learned about the soldier’s heroism while researching his family, and began compiling an application to nominate him for the Medal of Honor. She enlisted the help of then-Sen. William Proxmire (D.-Wis.), and later received backing from other members of her state’s congressional delegation. Then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D.-Wis.) nominated Cushing for the Medal of Honor in 2002, Army officials said.

Even then, the process took years. The Army approved the nomination in 2010, but the amount of time that had passed since Cushing’s act of heroism required Congress to suspend the statute of limitations on the honor. Legislation to do so passed in 2013, paving the way for Obama’s approval of the award.

Zerwekh and many members of the Cushing family had not met until this week, turning the event into something of an extended family reunion. Helen Loring Ensign, 85, of Palm Desert, Calif., will receive the medal from the president at the White House. It will be displayed in numerous locations afterward, including Gettysburg and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., which Cushing attended and where he later was buried.

“The idea is that it shouldn’t just sit on someone’s mantlepiece and just stay there,” said Jessica Loring. “It needs to be shown so people today can understand the price of making our country free and the sacrifice it takes. We want to bring Alonzo to life in what he did for this nation.”

Although Medals of Honor awarded today require proof beyond a reasonable doubt of acts of valor, Bradley said it is difficult to determine the exact details of Cushing’s actions 151 years later. The standard at the time was not as stringent, however, and there is no doubt that Cushing faced a fearsome barrage and refused to give up his command.

“That area looked like a slaughterhouse,” Bradley said of the battlefield around Cushing, known as Cemetery Ridge. “There were dismembered horses… literally hundreds of Confederate dead and dying lying in front of the guns. This was not a sight for the faint-hearted, and that is where Alonzo Cushing spent his last hours on this hour.”

Two of Cushing’s brothers also are considered war heroes. William B. Cushing was a commander in the Union navy, and best known for playing a key role in the sinking of the CSS Albemarle, an ironclad Confederate ship. An older brother, Howard B. Cushing, was a soldier during the Civil War and later killed in a fight with Native Americans in the Apache tribe.