On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, after a nearly two-hour long artillery bombardment that had nearly destroyed his battery of six three-inch rifled cannon, First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing looked across the field separating Union and Confederate positions at Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge.
In what became the culminating moment of the Battle of Gettysburg, he watched as roughly 12,000 Confederate troops advanced toward him and his remaining guns.
The next hour would come to define his military service and place him in the pantheon of Union junior officers killed while demonstrating superb battlefield leadership.
Pickett’s Charge, known as the “High-Water Mark” of the Confederacy, had commenced.
Born in Wisconsin in 1841 and raised in New York, Cushing attended and graduated West Point in the class of 1861. As his classmates were torn between northern and southern sympathies, Cushing received a commission as a lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Artillery. Two years of service exposed him to numerous battles where, as an artillery and staff officer, he not only led men into battle but had to make quick mathematical decisions regarding the aiming and firing of artillery at various ranges. Well-placed cannon fire often determined the success or failure of battle.
After the Battle of Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee moved north into Pennsylvania, and the armies found themselves engaged around the hills of the small town of Gettysburg. After two days of fighting, Lee had failed to decisively push Federal forces from their strong positions and launched an assault against the Union center.
Cushing’s battery’s position in the Union center placed it directly in the path of the Confederate assault. As several hundred rebel soldiers, mostly Virginians and North Carolinians, approached within yards of the Union lines, men and officers scrambled to secure the increasingly fragile Union position. While defending his battery, Cushing, already suffering from a shrapnel wound in the shoulder, received an almost certain mortal wound to the abdomen. He refused to leave the field, an inspiring sight to survivors of his battery.
While manning one of his remaining guns, Cushing was killed when a bullet smashed into his mouth. He was interred at his former school of West Point and received a posthumous promotion to lieutenant colonel.
In addition to his sacrifice, his three brothers also served. His younger brother, William B. Cushing, distinguished himself in the October 1864 raid that sank the CSS Albemarle. For this, he received the Thanks of Congress, a formal resolution of appreciation. Another brother, Howard, was killed in 1871 in Arizona during the Indian Campaigns.
Veterans continued to remember Alonzo Cushing’s sacrifice at this key moment of the battle after the war. On the 24th anniversary of the battle, veterans of the 71st Pennsylvania, a regiment that also took part in the repulse of Pickett’s Charge, dedicated a stone marker noting the position of Cushing’s battery.
His actions also received a place of prominence in a massive painting by artist Paul Philippoteaux known as the Gettysburg cyclorama. Among the numerous events portrayed in the work, currently displayed at Gettysburg National Military Park, a wounded Cushing is shown in a defiant pose against one his cannon pointing at the Confederate breakthrough.
The decades-long effort to secure Cushing a Medal of Honor began in the 1980s with a letter campaign by researchers in Wisconsin. On Nov. 6, 2014, 151 years after his death, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony.
Evan Phifer is a Research Historian for the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation.