It was a hot day in early July in 1863 when 22 year old Major Alonzo Cushing stood upon Cemetery Ridge. He commanded a Union artillery battery that, as fate would have it, was positioned right next to a copse of trees which was the focal point of the Confederate charge on the third and final day of the battle of Gettysburg.
After an exchange of artillery fire that has been estimated to be the largest of the entire war, the Confederate infantry began the assault that would become known as Pickett’s Charge. Pickett’s men marched east over the rolling fields, towards the trees that marked the center point of the Union lines, the exact patch of earth where Cushing stood with his men.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the battlefield at Gettysburg. For those that haven’t done that (especially those in DC – which is less than a two hour drive away), you absolutely need to make that trip. You will quite literally walk the ground where the fate of our country was decided.
The end of my tour was at Cemetery Ridge. The bus stopped and we all walked out to stand around a group of cannons – an area that is called the high water mark of the Confederacy. It’s where Pickett’s charge met its end, briefly piercing the Union line, before being repulsed after a fierce skirmish. Their retreat not only signaled the end of the battle, but also the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.
When I stood near Cushing’s position and looked west, I thought what it must have been like that day. Hot, humid, and the air thick with the smell of gunpowder after the intense barrage, and the Confederate men slowly making their way through the three quarters of a mile that separated the two armies. I can’t imagine what Cushing thought as he watched the enemy approach. He’d seen action a little over a month before at the Battle of Chancellorsville (which resulted in his brevet promotion to Major), so I’m sure his mind was set squarely on his duty, which was to hold his ground at all costs, and prevent a Confederate breakthrough.
The southern troops were decimated as they made their way up the gradual incline towards the Union line, but they kept pressing forward. Cushing was positioned at a stone wall later dubbed “the angle,” that took the brunt of the Confederate charge. Cushing was wounded in his right shoulder when the enemy got to within 400 yards of his position. Moments later, he was hit by shrapnel, and when asked if he wanted to fall back, he is reported to have said “I’ll stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.”
Weakened by blood loss, he was propped up by his Sergeant Frederick Fuger, and though his voice lost its strength, Fuger passed along Cushing’s orders to his men. When the southerners got to within 100 yards of his position, Cushing was shot again, this time it was a fatal wound to the head. Fuger, inspired by his officer’s example, kept the remaining men together, and although the Confederate troops briefly overran the angle, the Union soldiers held long enough for reinforcements to arrive before the entire line collapsed, and drive the army of the south back into retreat off the ridge.
I have never served in the military, so I really have no idea what kind of courage it takes to stand tall when the enemy is bearing down on you bringing almost certain death. In the 238 years of our country’s history, thousands upon thousands of brave soldiers have made that stand to preserve this country and the ideals which we hold sacred: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I suppose that it’s a tragic irony that in order to preserve our lives, some must give theirs.
This past week, Cushing was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Battle of Gettysburg. Congress removed a statute of limitations involved in the awarding of this medal, so that this long overdue recognition of Cushing’s heroism could be rectified. It was a great example of our government doing the right thing for all the right reasons. Nothing political, just doing the right thing because, quite simply, it was the right thing to do.
I have stood where Alonzo Cushing fought and died for his country, and I have given him my thanks. This Veteran’s Day, I will ignore Veteran’s Day sales specials on patio furniture or mattresses. I will instead give my thanks to every single veteran who has fought for our country. And though they are all equal in their valor, and equal in deserving an entire nations’ undying gratitude, this year I will give special thanks to Cushing. Just one man, but one who didn’t hesitate to give his life, so that these United States might endure. We should give him and all veterans our gratitude, and strive to make sure our country is always worthy of their sacrifice.