WASHINGTON, Nov 8 – After more than 151 years, First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing finally got his day at the White House, even if he could not enjoy it personally. President Obama formally presented the Medal of Honor on Thursday to the family of Lieutenant Cushing, a Union soldier who died at the Battle of Gettysburg after standing up to a fusillade of Confederate fire.
“His story is part of our larger American story, one that continues today,” Mr. Obama said in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “The spirit, the courage, the determination that he demonstrated lives on in our brave men and women in uniform.” No other American soldier awarded the nation’s top military honor has had to wait as long for the decoration.
Mr. Obama approved the medal this year, after a quarter-century lobbying campaign by advocates, led by Margaret Zerwekh, 94, a Wisconsin history buff whose house sits on land once owned by Lieutenant Cushing’s father. At the time of Lieutenant Cushing’s death, the medal was not awarded posthumously, so he was ineligible.
But even the White House announcement in August did not end the tale. At that point, the Pentagon had to figure out who would receive the medal on his behalf. Since he died childless at the age of 22, he has no direct descendants. But a distant relative, working with a museum in Chautauqua, N.Y., and aided by an Army office called the Past Conflict Repatriations Branch in Fort Knox, Ky., managed to piece together his family’s genealogy and locate his nearest kin.
That would be Helen Loring Ensign, 85, of Palm Desert, Calif., who is Lieutenant Cushing’s distant cousin, descended from his maternal aunt. She was on hand at the White House on Thursday to receive the medal, as were two other distant cousins, Frederic Stevens Sater, from New York, and Frederic Cushing Stevens III, from Hoschton, Ga., and their families. Ms. Zerwekh also attended Thursday’s ceremony.
“Sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the passage of time,” said Mr. Obama, who put his arm around Ms. Ensign as the formal decoration was read. “This medal,” he added, “is a reminder that no matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do the right thing.” The medal will be displayed at Gettysburg and the United States Military Academy at West Point, where Lieutenant Cushing studied and is buried.
Lieutenant Cushing, born in Wisconsin and later raised in New York, was one of four brothers who fought for the Union. An artillery commander, he was at Gettysburg during the Confederate charge named for Maj. Gen. George Pickett on July 3, 1863. Although wounded by shrapnel in the right shoulder and groin, he refused to retreat, moved his cannon to a wall and kept firing.
He was eventually shot in the mouth and died, but the Union success at repelling the Confederates at Gettysburg was considered the turning point in the war. Mr. Obama alluded to the cause of racial freedom for which Lieutenant Cushing died. “I’m mindful that I might not be standing here today as president, had it not been for the ultimate sacrifices of those courageous Americans.”