The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Civil War soldier is getting the Medal of Honor. This 94-year-old woman is responsible.

Katie Zezima/Washington Post
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DELAFIELD, Wis. – Margaret Zerwekh has spent years attempting to secure the Medal of Honor for a man who died decades before she was born.

Zerwekh, 94, spent decades lobbying Congress, the military and the White House to give the nation’s highest military honor to 1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing, who was wounded numerous times during the Battle of Gettysburg and died on the battlefield.

On Thursday, her work was rewarded when President Obama posthumously awarded the medal of honor to Cushing, a West Point graduate who was 22 when he died on July 3, 1863.

“He saved the Union,” Zerwekh said on a chilly fall morning at her home in a converted mill in this city about 27 miles west of Milwaukee. In Delafield, there is a Cushing elementary school and a Cushing Park, which holds  a memorial to fallen soldiers and a massive fort in which children play.

“He helped make this country what it is, and it’s still a great country,” Zerwekh.

Zerwekh moved into the mill, with its exposed wood beams, high ceilings and large windows that overlook cattails and a river, in the late 1960s with her second husband, who bought the property after World War II. He was serving in France and saw an old mill there, which inspired him to come back to Delafield and buy the property.

“He said I know a place like that in Wisconsin and I’m going to buy it,” she said of her late husband.

Soon after they moved in, she became curious about who had lived on the property before them.

She started research in the town historical society and discovered that the property was once owned by the Cushing family, who moved to Delafield from New York.

The more Zerwekh searched, the more intrigued she became. The Cushings were a military family: Alonzo’s brother William was in the Navy during the Civil War and helped defeat a Confederate ship. Brother Howard was also a military man, killed in Arizona.

On July 3, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg raged into its third day. In the afternoon, Confederate soldiers made what is now known as Pickett’s Charge at the Union Army, directly at the battery commanded by Cushing.

His battalion was bombarded and left with only two working guns. Cushing himself was wounded in the stomach and shoulder, but refused to leave the front lines. With Confederate soldiers just 100 yards away, he continued to give orders until he was shot again and killed.

According to a copy of a letter written by an Army lieutenant to Cushing’s sister, Cushing, after he was wounded, asked the lieutenant to stand by him “so that I could impart his orders to the battery,” it reads. “I wanted him to go to the rear. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay right here and right it out, or die in the attempt.’” Zerwekh found the letter in her research.

“The Civil War was a terrible situation,” she said.

Zerwekh said she was so inspired by his bravery that she decided she should try to get Cushing the Medal of Honor.

“Everybody knows what the Medal of Honor is and not everybody knows about the Cushings,” she said. “It’s a great honor.”

Zerwekh started writing to her local officials and then started a decades-long campaign of appealing to Washington. Her home is filled with file folders stuffed full with letters, photos, archival material and more that she’s collected or sent to people over the years.

She’s written to every member of Congress from Wisconsin, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, numerous presidents and even Hollywood, when in 1991, she heard that a miniseries was being made about the Civil War.

The whole time there was one goal: get Cushing the Medal of Honor.

“I thought at the time we started it would eventually happen,” Zerwekh, a black knit cap on her head, said. “It had to keep going. I had to keep going. It was the aim.”

Last year, Congress passed legislation sponsored by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) to suspend the time limit by which a person can posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor, allowing it to be given to Cushing.

"It's never too late to do the right thing, even after more than 150 years," Kind said in a statement.

In 1998, the plaque honoring the Cushings at Cushing Park was stolen; it was found, with the assistance of the Milwaukee Police Department, in Illinois.

“It should be noted that once this plaque had been returned to the City of Delafield, Ms. Zerwekh was overcome with great relief and joy upon her viewing the plaque she broke down as if a parent was reunited with a lost or missing child,” Delafield’s police chief, Reid F. Brueser, wrote to Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in 2003.

Zerwekh lives in the mill with her daughter, Sally Weber.

“Mom takes off like a shot” when she finds something she’s interested in, Weber said. “If she joins your gang, you’re going to work like crazy.”

On a recent morning the phone rang at their home. It was the Pentagon, inviting them to the ceremony. Weber fretted – she didn’t know her mother’s Social Security number, and they don’t have a computer to book the plane tickets. Yet they were determined to get to Washington.

Zerwekh, a bit overwhelmed after the phone call, smiled, her lips pursed.

“It’s an honor. It’s an honor for Cushing,” she said. “All of these years. There’s been a lot of them.”

Zerwekh got an honor of her own at the White House Thursday - personal recognition from President Obama.

Obama said Zerwekh spent years "researching, writing letters, and raising her voice to ensure that this American soldier received the recognition that he so richly he deserved."

Obama joked that he might ask Zerwekh for some post-election help.

"And what’s more, she even managed to bring Republicans and Democrats together to make this happen," Obama said at a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room. "Margaret, we may call on you again sometime in the next several months."