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.

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