After an act of Congress and years of lobbying by descendants and admirers, a Union Army officer who made the ultimate sacrifice more than 150 years ago will be recognized for his heroism when President Barack Obama grants him the nation’s highest commendation for battlefield valor.
Obama on Monday was bestowing the Medal of Honor on 1st Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, who was killed in July 1863 during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The battle is often described as the turning point of the Civil War, in which the North prevailed over a breakaway South.
Congress granted an exemption so Cushing could receive the medal, since recommendations normally must be made within two years of the act of heroism, and the medal presented within three.
Obama will also present medals to a pair of Vietnam War soldiers also granted congressional exemptions: Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins and Army Spc. Donald P. Sloat.
Cushing was born in Delafield, Wisconsin, raised in Fredonia, New York, and buried at his alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, after his death at age 22. He 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 third day of battle, Cushing’s small force stood its ground under severe artillery bombardment and an assault by nearly 13,000 advancing Confederate infantrymen. Already wounded in the stomach and the right shoulder, Cushing insisted on ordering his guns to the front lines. He eventually was shot and killed.
“His actions made it possible for the Union Army to successfully repulse the Confederate assault,” the White House said.
The Medal of Honor has been bestowed on more than 1,500 soldiers who fought in the Civil War, most recently Cpl. Andrew Jackson Smith of Clinton, Illinois. Smith was honored by President Bill Clinton in 2001 before Clinton left office. It was unclear why Cushing wasn’t similarly honored, but his descendants and admirers took up his cause in the late 1980s.
The Cushing name is prominent in Delafield, in southeastern Wisconsin. A monument to Cushing and two of his brothers — Naval Cmdr. William Cushing and Army 1st Lt. Howard Cushing — stands at Cushing Memorial Park, where the town holds most of its Memorial Day celebrations.
Wisconsin lawmakers in Congress attached an amendment to honor Cushing to a defense spending bill in 2010, but then-Sen. James Webb, D-Va., stripped it out. Webb argued that it was impossible to go back 150 years to determine who should receive a medal. He predicted that doing so could spark a flood of claims.
Adkins, who served 22 years and lives in Opelika, Alabama, planned to attend the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. Adkins was deployed three times to Vietnam with the Special Forces and is being recognized for actions during his second combat tour, in 1966, when he ran wounded through enemy fire to drag injured comrades to safety.
Sloat, of Coweta, Oklahoma, was killed in action on Jan. 17, 1970, at age 20. He picked up a live grenade that was triggered by a fellow soldier and used his body to shield the blast, saving other soldiers.
The Medal of Honor is given to Armed Forces members who risk their lives in acts of great personal bravery.
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