This undated photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society shows First Lt. Alonzo Cushing. (Wisconsin Historical Society / AP)
In an undated photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society, Alonzo Cushing, left, poses with, from left, Capt. L. Kipp; Major Clark; Lt. Col. Joseph Taylor; Major General E.V. Sumner; Capt. Samuel Sumner; Surgeon Hammond; Lt. Col. Lawrence. The White House announced Tuesaday that Cushing would receive the Medal of Honor 151 years after his death in the battle of Gettysburg. (Wisconsin Historical Society / AP)
WASHINGTON — Of the 3,487 men and one woman who have received the Medal of Honor, 644 have been awarded the nation’s highest military honor posthumously.
None has received a Medal of Honor longer after death than Lt. Alonzo Cushing.
The White House announced Tuesday that Cushing — a West Point graduate who died at age 22 in the battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863 — will be awarded the Medal of Honor at a ceremony next month.
The announcement caps a four decade-long campaign by Margaret Zerwekh, an amateur historian from Cushing’s hometown of Delafield, Wis., who lobbied Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to pass a law waiving the time limits for making the award.
Congress finally did so in the National Defense Authorization Act passed last December, clearing the way for Obama to make the award.
“That’s incredible,” said Zerwekh, now 94 years old and in failing health. She became interested in Cushing after marrying her second husband, who had purchased the Cushing family property in 1947.
“He saved the union is what he did,” Zerwekh said.
In its announcement, the White House said Cushing “distinguished himself during combat operations against an armed enemy in the vicinity of Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1863.”
Cushing wasn’t just any participant. He commanded an artillery battery that bore the brunt of the famous Confederate assault known as Pickett’s Charge. The spot where Cushing died would become known as the high-water mark of the Southern cause.
“Refusing to evacuate to the rear despite his severe wounds, he directed the operation of his lone field piece continuing to fire in the face of the enemy,” the White House said. “With the rebels within 100 yards of his position, Cushing was shot and killed during this heroic stand. His actions made it possible for the Union Army to successfully repulse the Confederate assault.”
Federal law requires the Medal of Honor to be awarded within three years of the event, unless Congress specifically waives the requirement. While the Civil War has generated more medals than any other American War, Cushing’s case was complicated by the fact that so few of them — 29 out of 1,522 — were awarded posthumously.
In the 150 years since, debates have raged inside the the War Department (now the Department of Defense) about the propriety of posthumous medals.
“You’re trying to evaluate something that happened so long ago,” said Laura Jowdy, an archivist with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. “The nice thing about Cushing’s case is it was written about at the time. It was something people saw and wrote about and remembered later in life.”
One unresolved issue is who will receive Cushing’s medal. The Army says it will accept the award on Cushing’s behalf, since he had no direct descendants of his own (although his brother, Navy Commander WIlliam Cushing — himself commended with a Thanks of Congress Resolution — did).
The city of Delafield — a town of about 6,000 people 30 miles west of Milwaukee — would like to display the medal at City Hall, said David Krueger, who serves as the mayor’s representative on the Cushing Medal of Honor Committee.
“It’s fantastic news,” he said. “We’re going to celebrate as a city regardless.”
Two others will be awarded the Medal of Honor in the Sept. 16 ceremony at the White House: Command Sgt. Major Bennie Adkins, an Army special forces soldier who is being decorated for his actions in Camp A Shau, Vietnam, over three days in 1966; and Spc. Donald P. Sloat, a machine gunner with who distinguished himself during combat near Hawk Hill Fire Base, Vietnam, in 1970.
Adkins will attend the ceremony. Sloat’s award is also posthumous.