Civil War officer receives Medal of Honor

Updated at: 11/06/2014 3:21 PM
DARLENE SUPERVILLE

(AP) WASHINGTON - WASHINGTON (AP) — Weak and bleeding, a Union Army officer who stood fast commanding his artillery battery and was killed as thousands of Confederate forces advanced on his troops received an honor Thursday from President Barack Obama that was more than 150 years in the making: the Medal of Honor.

It is the nation's highest military honor for battlefield valor.

Obama awarded the medal to First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, who was killed on July 3, 1863, during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The fight often is described as a turning point of the Civil War. A distant cousin, Helen Loring Ensign, of Palm Desert, California, accepted the framed medal.

"This medal is a reminder that, no matter how long it takes, it's never too late to do the right thing," Obama told about 60 descendants and supporters of the 22-year-old Wisconsin native during a brief ceremony in a windowless White House meeting room.

Cushing commanded about 110 men and six cannons, defending the Union position on Cemetery Ridge against Pickett's Charge, a major Confederate thrust that was repelled by Union forces.

On the final day of battle, Cushing's small force stood its ground under severe artillery bombardment and an assault by nearly 13,000 advancing Confederate infantrymen. Wounded in the stomach and right shoulder, Cushing refused to move to the rear and insisted on ordering his guns to the front lines.

Obama quoted Cushing as telling a fellow soldier who had urged him to go to the rear that he would "fight it out, or die in the attempt."

Obama also paid tribute to the thousands of unknown young soldiers "who saved our union" and observed "that I might not be standing here today, as president, had it not been for the ultimate sacrifices of those courageous Americans."

The presentation to Cushing was all the more extraordinary because recommendations for a Medal of Honor normally must be made within two years of an act of heroism, and the medal presented within three. Congress had to grant an exemption for Cushing's honor.

"Sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the passage of time," Obama said. He acknowledged efforts by Cushing's supporters, including members of Congress, who pushed for the posthumous honor. Included in that group is Margaret Zerwekh, a historian from Cushing's birthplace of Delafield. Obama said she spent more than 25 years researching and writing letters on Cushing's behalf.

"What's more, she even managed to bring Republican and Democrats together to make this happen," Obama said, two days after elections in which voters expressed their frustration over Washington gridlock by putting the GOP in control of the Senate. Obama told Zerwekh that "we may call on you again sometime in the next several months."

Wisconsin Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican, and Ron Kind, a Democrat, led the congressional effort to see that Cushing received a Medal of Honor.

Later Thursday, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were honoring service members, veterans and their families at a musical event on the South Lawn. Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, lead "Joining Forces," a nationwide campaign to rally the country to support its troops.

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