The date was July 3, 1863, and one young man’s death, historians say, played a major role in changing the tide of the Civil War’s pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in favor of the Union soldiers.
That man was 22-year-old First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, who called Fredonia home for most of his life and stood his ground on Cemetery Ridge against Pickett’s Charge in the final moments of his time on earth.
Now more than a century and a half after his death, Cushing is set to finally receive the highest military distinction, the Medal of Honor, from U.S. President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black Commander in Chief after the war that ended slavery.
Last Tuesday, Obama approved Cushing to posthumously receive the medal on Sept. 15 after Congress granted a special exemption last December for the Fredonia war hero to attain it – even though it is well after the federal cap of three years to bestow the medal.
“It’s rare that this distinction would be anywhere near this long in the works,” Pomfret Town Historian Todd Langworthy, who plays the role of Alonzo Cushing in various local events, told the OBSERVER. “It’s way past the statute of limitations. For them to make an exception for him, I think they finally realized that this is one of those situations where maybe the rule says it’s not supposed to happen, but in certain cases you just have to do the right thing. Enough people, I think, made enough noise that it finally happened.”
Fredonia Mayor Stephen Keefe echoed Langworthy’s sentiments, calling Cushing and many of his family members Fredonia’s “neighborhood heroes.”
“This is probably going to be the last Medal of Honor given for someone from the Civil War,” Keefe added. “That in itself is going to be a great honor.”
According to a statement from the White House, “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. 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.”
Langworthy explained the long wait for Cushing’s medal may in part be due to the fact that his family did not really push for it; he did not have any direct descendants, with his closest relatives being two nieces who never had children. A lot of his immediate family members, including his brothers, also died young.
“So rather than his family pushing for it, it’s moreso been historians and Civil War buffs in the last 20 to 30 years,” Langworthy said. “There was an outcry that said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding that this young man didn’t receive the Medal of Honor.'”
Lawmakers from Wisconsin, the state Cushing was born in, attempted to push through an amendment to a defense spending bill to award Cushing the medal in 2010, but the amendment was shot down.
Langworthy said he believes the reasoning for that denial was mainly due to it being attached to a spending bill during the Great Recession, as well as a fear some lawmakers had of superseding the three-year cap and setting an unwanted precedent for a potential flood of new medal requests.
“Now that the medal will finally be awarded, I think now the big push will be for who is going to receive the medal because the medal is awarded to family, a blood relative,” Langworthy pointed out. “I’ve got my genealogy friends (including some at the McClurg Museum in Westfield) working on it feverishly because I’ve already been contacted by people wondering about if we have any kind of proof of his genealogy that would back up someone’s claim or disprove someone’s claim that they are the closest relative. Because this is such a high-profile thing, the Army is going to be extremely careful in deciding who is going to be the benefactor of this.”
More than 51,100 total casualties were incurred during the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, which ended with a Confederate retreat. President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address a few months after the battle.
Historians say the Confederate army was never truly able to recover after the Gettysburg events, as it never advanced any further into Union territory after that.
Cushing was born in Delafield, Wis., and moved to Fredonia around the age of 5. At just 22 years old, he commanded about 110 men and six cannons at Gettysburg.
“I’m interested in getting (together) some sort of a shared ceremony or a shared situation between Fredonia and Delafield,” Keefe said, adding he has been in touch with the mayor of Delafield since news of the medal broke. “There’s room for both communities to celebrate. My ultimate goal right now is to make sure both communities are represented in ceremonies that we’re aware of, including the medal presentation ceremony.”
Cushing is buried at his alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Langworthy said that while on vacation a few weeks ago, he and his wife made a stop at West Point to visit Cushing’s grave for the first time.
“It was kind of funny, my wife chuckled when she saw the news and she said, ‘Maybe your chat with Alonzo worked,'” he said with a laugh. “So I don’t know, maybe our little talk helped influence some people.”
Langworthy ended his remarks by reflecting on what Cushing’s award means to him personally.
“I kind of have identified with him and a lot of people look to me as the expert because I play him so often. It’s kind of a special thing for me just to see this kid that I’ve spent so much time studying and portraying finally get his just rewards for his sacrifice,” he concluded. “In my mind, this rights a terrible wrong.”
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