1st Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing is possibly the most famous 1st Lieutenant of the Battle of Gettysburg, perhaps of the Civil War. There is now a good chance that Cushing, who was killed on July 3 during Pickett’s Charge, will be posthumously awarded the
Congressional Medal of Honor. Details about the efforts to get Cushing the medal can be found here, http://www.latimes.com/news/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-civil-war-hero-medal-of-honor-20120604,0,605619.story
Cushing deserves the Medal of Honor. He deserved it in 1863 but the MOH in 1863 was different in important respects from the MOH today. The criterion to earn a MOH during the Civil War was quite vague, and initially, it was only for enlisted men. The War Department’s guidance, issued as General Orders No. 91 on July 29, 1862, stated that the medal was authorized for “non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities.” On March 3, 1863 this was amended to include officers and the “other soldier-like qualities” was dropped from the language. Because the criteria for what action was deserving of a Medal of Honor was so vague the army unofficially adopted their own and the capture of an enemy battle flag became the most common act to win a Medal. No officer with the Army of the Potomac received a Medal of Honor for Gettysburg in 1863. The first one issued to an officer was in 1869, posthumously to Captain Morris Brown, 126th New York. I will write another post in the future just about the MOH at Gettysburg, but for now, suffice it to say that the other officers who received the Medal after 1869 were nominated by friends, former comrades, and in some cases, themselves. This practice came to a halt around 1897 when the War Department published new guidelines for how the MOH could be awarded. This was the birth of the MOH we know today.
But back to Cushing. What Cushing did at Gettysburg needed no embellishment. His gallantry was recorded in after-action reports by every officer that served near his battery. But nevertheless, his actions at the height of Pickett’s Charge were embellished by one of his sergeants, Frederick Fuger. Fuger, a brave man in his own right, wanted a Medal of Honor and in the 1890’s actively pursued getting one. In his correspondence seeking a Medal Fuger naturally highlighted his own courage in the battle, but he also sought to further burnish Cushing’s reputation. Perhaps he felt some sense of guilt at seeking personal glory and attempted to reconcile this by portraying his dead commander and old battery in an even more heroic light, or possibly Fuger simply sought to strengthen his own case by inventing details about Cushing’s final moments.
In Fuger’s version, Cushing suffered all of his wounds and his death wound after moving his guns from the position they held during the cannonade to the stone wall beside the men of Company I, 69th Pennsylvania. Here, Fuger said Cushing suffered a slight wound in the shoulder and a more severe wound in the thigh or groin. But where this latter wound occurred depended upon which of Fuger’s accounts one reads. Fuger would claim that Cushing’s wounds were so severe he could not speak above a whisper, that “he soon became faint and suffered frightfully,” and that the sergeant had to hold him and relay his commands to the battery. Then a bullet killed Cushing, and another killed Lieutenant Joseph Milne, leaving Fuger in command. In one of his several versions, all of which differed in certain important details, he related that after Cushing’s and Milne’s deaths:
This placed me in command of the Battery, and I shouted to the men to obey my orders. We continued to fire double and treble charges of our canister, but owing to the dense
smoke, could not see very far to the front. At this moment to my utter amazement, I saw General Armistead leap over the stone wall with a number of his troops, landing right in the middle of our Battery. I shouted to my devoted cannoneers and drivers, who had no longer any horses, to stand their ground, which they heroically did, fighting hand to hand with hand spikes, pistols, sabers, ramrods and with help of Webb’s Pennsylvania Brigade and that gallant Brigade of Vermonters commanded by that gallant General Stannard coming up our left flank; Pickett’s charge collapsed. No one of the daring party who came over the stone wall ever returned, they were either killed, wounded or taken prisoners. Armistead fell mortally wounded but a few yard from where Cushing his young and gallant adversary, gave up his life.
If only it were true. The contemporary wartime evidence and post-war recollections by other veterans tell a different story. Cushing suffered his first wounds, to the shoulder and thigh, during the bombardment at his battery’s firing position, not at the stone wall, and neither was serious enough to incapacitate him. According to Captain Andrew Cowan, commanding the 1st New York Independent Battery, which relieved Battery B, 1st Rhode Island after the cannonade ended, on Cushing’s left , Cushing not only could speak above a whisper but that he made a “pleasant reply” to a question Cowan asked him, then turned and shouted orders for his guns to move by hand up to the stone wall. General Alexander Webb, who commanded the infantry brigade supporting Cushing’s battery, reported that the lieutenant fought his guns “for an hour and a half after he had reported to me that he was wounded in both thighs.” The two guns Cushing still had men enough to crew were pushed up into the position occupied by Company I, 69th Pennsylvania, which moved aside to make room for the guns. In a part of the story that Fuger omitted, the first round of canister fired from one of the two guns killed two privates in the company, who apparently did not clear the gun’s front quickly enough. Anthony McDermott, who served in Company I, saw Cushing observing the advancing Confederates with his field glasses and calling out adjustments to the fire of his two guns. In 1891 McDermott testified that Cushing’s two guns opened fire upon the advancing Confederates “and discharged three or four rounds, perhaps more, when their fire ceased and the cannoneers disappeared leaving the guns with us.” When McDermott was told that Fuger had testified that he had remained with his gun at the wall even after Armistead and his men crossed it, and fought the Confederates with handspikes and rammers, he was incredulous. “He is certainly mistaken,” said McDermott. “How could he stand there alive, when none of us were there, with that gun, firing it? When the enemy fell back there was no necessity for firing, and how could he have done it? He may have been back with the guns on the crest, but he was not there when Armistead’s guns came in range of us.” [Notes: Cowan described Cushing’s wound in Lewis R. Stegman, Webb and His Brigade at the Angle (City: Publisher, Date), 66. He also described Cushing’s wounds in a letter to John Bachelder, Dec. 2, 1885, in Ladd and Ladd, The Bachelder Papers (Morningside Press), 2:1157; Also see Frederick Fuger, “Cushing’s Battery at Gettysburg,” Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States v. 41 (1907): 408; Trial of the 72nd Pennsylvania, 220, 227-228, 238.]
Fuger’s embellishments to Cushing’s tragic story gained traction over the years, largely because no one questioned the sergeant’s account, and maybe because we all wanted to believe what he wrote and said about Cushing. After all, Fuger had been awarded the MOH. But this did not mean he was above spinning romances about the battle like others we have discussed on this blog. In this case however, how Cushing led and how he died needed no spin or embellishment and Fuger. As Colonel Norman Hall wrote two weeks after the battle, “Lieutenant Cushing, of Battery A, Fourth U.S. Artillery, challenged the admiration of all who saw him.” [Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, 27, 1:437]
[To read more about Cushing see, Kent Brown, Cushing of Gettysburg (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1998), and D. Scott Hartwig, "High Water Mark: Heroes, Myth and Memory," Papers of the 2008 GNMP Seminar, http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/gett/gettysburg_seminars/12/index.htm]
D. Scott Hartwig