American Elephants

“There is No Expiration Date on Valor” by The Elephant's Child


Last Wednesday, in a ceremony at the White House, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, a soldier who died 151 years ago at the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Although he was only a lieutenant, Alonzo Cushing commanded the last two cannon of Battery A, 4th U.S.Artillery, that faced Pickett’s Charge. After two days of fighting, Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched the combined forces of George Pickett, Johnston Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble at the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. Pickett’s desperate charge headed straight for ground occupied by Cushing’s battery of six cannon. Historian Allen C. Guelzo describes the action in the Wall Street Journal.

The battery was 20 yards behind a low stone wall on Cemetery Ridge, ready to support the Union infantry sheltering behind the wall. The Confederates began the assault with a lengthy artillery bombardment that put four of Cushing’s guns out of action. But when his brigade commander, Alexander Webb, predicted that “the Confederate infantry will now advance and attack our position,” Cushing ordered the last two of his pieces run down to the wall, calling for volunteers from the infantry to replace his depleted gun crews and piling loose rounds of canister, a closed metal cylinder filled with round lead or iron balls, beside the guns.

Cushing was wounded in the shoulder, then in the groin. Instead of hobbling to safety, he was determined “to stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt,” according to Cushing’s first sergeant, Frederick Fuger, writing in his postwar account.

When the Confederates were 400 yards away, Cushing opened fire with deadly rounds of canister. At 100 yards, he called for double and then triple loads of canister, cutting “immense gaps” in the Confederate attackers. “I will give them one last shot,” Cushing cried, according to an article written by Gen. Alexander Webb in 1895. And then a slug slammed into Cushing’s head, and down he went for good. But Pickett’s Charge stalled, then melted backward, and the greatest battle of the Civil War was over. Sgt. Fuger counted “nearly six hundred dead Confederates in front of our battery.”

The Medal of Honor was only instituted the year before, and the protocols were vague. But a neglectful nation can do the right thing, if belatedly.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989 by The Elephant's Child

This video included the thrilling moment when the first people spilled across the border, twenty-five years ago.  The wall was erected to keep the people in the Russian Sector of a divided Berlin in. And so it did for forty-four years. The Wall stood 13 feet high and was augmented with watchtowers, alarms, trenches, mines, guard dogs and guards with machine guns all to keep the people of East Berlin in. More than 100 people were killed trying to cross the wall.

In Berlin, Christopher and Marc Bauder, light artists,  created ten miles of lighted white helium balloons to mark the route of the wall through Berlin, as a reminder of how the city used to be.The 8,000 balloons began at Bornholmer Street border crossing, one of the former checkpoints between East and West Germany, and were released into the night sky as a symbol of liberation.

As former National Review editor John O’Sullivan has noted “Communism had failed to retain enough true believers who would murder on its behalf.”

At the end of the War in Europe, a ruined Berlin was occupied by the three Allied powers: Britain, France and the United States, and the Soviet Union. A discovery of archival photographs in 2010 demonstrates the ruined, starving city and signs of life in the struggle for survival. The devastation of war was nearly complete. Here is the gallery of 20 pictures from der Spiegel. Here is a post from 2009 recounting German Chancellor Angela Merkel who spoke before a joint session of Congress  remembering the American and Allied pilots who flew food to a starving Berlin.

Does anyone remember the Berlin Blockade and the answering Berlin Airlift today? It was an incredible accomplishment made possible with courage and split-second timing. On June 24, 1948, Soviet forces blockaded rail, road and water access to the Allied-controlled sector of Berlin. The United States and United Kingdom responded by airlifting food and fuel to Berlin from Allied Airbases in western Germany.

It was a very tense time. The Soviets wanted to drive the Allies out of Germany. Airlifting food and fuel seemed nearly impossible to meet the desperate need. But Allied efficiency saved the day. Gradually the number of aircraft increased, At the height of the campaign one aircraft was landing every 45 seconds at Templehof Airport. Timing was so strict that a plane that was not able to land  had to turn back to make way for the next. As the Allies showed that they could maintain the airlift indefinitely, the blockade fell apart. Moscow lifted the blockade on May 11, 1949.

Mikhail Gorbachev spoke in Berlin today, warning of the potential for a new Cold War. It was the ordinary people of Eastern, Soviet controlled Europe who rose up in protest and deserve pride of place.  But history records, for different reasons, two major figures: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. John Fund notes the Reagan effect:

Reagan first saw the Wall in 1978, when he told his aide Peter Hannaford: “We’ve got to find a way to knock this thing down.” After he became president, he returned in 1982 and enraged the Soviets by taking a couple of ceremonial steps across a painted borderline. Then, in 1987, he overruled his own State Department by giving a momentous speech in which he implored the Soviet general secretary directly: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”


Here’s the lighted balloon wall. It must have been very moving to see them drift away, one at a time.

They did tear down the Wall and Berlin was unified only two years later.  In the wake of learning that a number of students at Texas Tech have no idea who won the Civil war, a little history seems appropriate. It’s a day and a history worth celebrating.

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