Most students of the Battle of Gettysburg know what Cushing did. On July 3, 1863, he commanded Battery A, 4th U.S. Light Artillery, which defended the Angle during Pickett’s Charge. During the artillery bombardment that preceded the infantry attack, Cushing received two wounds, one in the shoulder and one in the groin. After the shelling disabled four of his guns, he pushed his two operational cannon up to the stone wall and continued to command them until he received his death wound (a shot through the mouth) just as Brig. Gen. L. A. Armistead’s Brigade made its forlorn rush for the wall.
It is pretty clear that Cushing exhibited bravery; however, his heroism is complicated by the fact that few historians know what happened, exactly. In 1893, one of Cushing’s men, Sergeant Frederick Fuger, applied for the Medal of Honor and won it, and in so doing, he perhaps exaggerated the tale of Cushing’s actions. (For instance, Fuger argued that Cushing could not speak above a whisper after receiving his wounds; other accounts from eyewitnesses disputed this.) Further, few of Cushing’s men offer a play-by-play account of the engagement. The well-known accounts of Private Christy Smith and Corporal Thomas Moon are littered with errors, and it is hard to tell what is truth and what is post-war fabrication.
However, we do know that every senior officer in the area noticed Cushing’s bravery and resilience. Even though artillery fire had wounded him, he stayed with his guns. He even pushed two of them into the most dangerous place on Cemetery Ridge. If any of these generals were alive today, I doubt they would openly question our decision to take Cushing’s posthumous application for a Medal of Honor seriously.
But what does it say about us that we have decided to award a Medal of Honor 151 years after the fact? What kind of courage are we taking seriously?
First, I should explain how this long-deceased officer has even been given the opportunity to win the Medal. Cushing’s post-mortem quest to win it is a recent thing. The campaign began in the late-1980s when a Wisconsin resident, Margaret Zerwekh, began writing letters. (Zerwekh had no direct connection to Cushing, except for the fact that she lived on property once owned by Cushing’s father.) Recently, she reflected, “I didn’t think it would take this long. I thought it would go much faster because he was a real hero.”
Zerwekh wrote to Senator William Proxmire, who offered her a sympathetic ear. At the time, Zerwekh and Proxmire faced an insurmountable obstacle. After 1963, all Medal of Honor nominations had to be made within two years of the action in question, and Congress had to approve the award within five years of the application. (Of course, this was not the state of affairs when the Civil War ended. Most Civil War veterans won the Medal of Honor decades after their action had passed. More than 600 Union soldiers and sailors received the Medal of Honor in the 1890s, thirty years after they had completed acts of heroism.) Thus, Proxmire required special legislation to waive the time limitations.
Although Proxmire did not live to see the fruits of his quest, the Wisconsin delegation eventually succeeded in initiating an Army investigation in 2002. After eight years of research, in February 2010, the U.S. Army approved the nomination. Congress, though, still had to confirm the waiver legislation, and to do that, they had to append it to a national defense appropriation act. The Wisconsin representatives attached the amendment, but in late-2012, one Senator had second thoughts. Virginia Senator Jim Webb, a former U.S. Marine and winner of the Navy Cross, was unwilling to hand out an award so long after it had occurred, and he consequently deleted the Cushing waiver.
Webb explained his decision this way: “It is impossible for Congress to go back to events of 150 years ago to make individual determinations in a consistent, equitable and well-informed manner. While one would never wish to demean any act of courage, I believe that the retroactive determination in one case could open up an endless series of claims. The better wisdom would be for Congress to leave history alone.”
Undeterred, Wisconsin’s delegation tried again, and nearly two years later, it succeeded.
So, here we are, on the cusp of an historic moment in American military history. I would like to ask, have we done the right thing?
Now, this may seem like a strange question to ask, so I want readers to get this straight: If I were the sole judge of battlefield courage, I would have given Cushing the Medal of Honor a long, long time ago. I believe he committed actions worthy of the Medal. That is my personal opinion.
But that being said, I’d like to consider Webb’s objection, particularly his last sentence, the one where he warned Americans to leave history alone. Did he have a point? Is it really worth revisiting battles from so long ago to make a formal commendation—even one as ennobling and sacred as our nation’s Medal of Honor?
Much of this debate centers on our conception of courage. (Undoubtedly, courage in combat is the hardest of all emotions to judge, and I know that I am no expert in it.) However, the most shocking thing about this award is that, in awarding it, we are attempting to hold a 19th Century officer up to 21st Century standards of courage. None of the 1,522 other Civil War Medal of Honor winners had to meet these demands. Perhaps it sounds strange, but this thought irks me just a bit. As a professional historian, I know it is unwise to judge characters from our nation’s past based on our own standards of morality. The same principle might also be applied to courage. Are standards of courage from two different centuries even compatible? Are we really awarding Cushing the Medal of Honor as he would have understood it, or are we honoring him with a meaningless commendation based on a conception of courage that only we can truly appreciate?
Maybe it is a moot point. Modern criteria for winning the Medal of Honor are far harsher than they were in 1863. During the Civil War, soldiers received Medals of Honor for relatively unassuming activities. Consider the Battle of Gettysburg, the same action for which Cushing has been nominated. Sixty-three soldiers have, to this point, received Medals of Honor for action at that engagement. Twenty-four of them received medals for the capture of enemy battle flags. Certainly, I do not mean to say that capturing an enemy flag is an easy thing. Some of the Medal of Honor winners—Corporal Francis Waller, for instance—captured a flag by ripping it from the hands of its color bearer. Unquestioningly, that took guts. However, many other soldiers won the Medal without similar trouble. On July 2, Sergeant Thomas Horan of the 72nd New York captured the colors of the 8th Florida. Veterans from the 19th Maine asserted that they, not Horan, had been responsible for killing the Confederate color bearer. Horan simply picked up the flag because his regiment followed in their regiment’s wake. A sergeant from the 19th Maine explained:
Just as we were ordered back, our attention was attracted by loud cheering in the rear. It was a portion of the Excelsior Brigade which had followed us about one-third of the distance we had charged and had come up to the Eighth Florida flag, lying upon the ground. These New York men were waving that Rebel flag and cheering wildly. The other Rebel flag over which we had charged was also picked up and some of the cannon from which the Nineteenth had driven the Rebels were hauled back as trophies of the valor of the Third Corps. Our honors were rapidly disappearing. The trophies of our victory, so dearly earned, were borne away by the men following in our footsteps, far behind. The honor of capturing the Eighth Florida flag went to Sergeant Hogan [sic] of the Seventy-second New York, of the Excelsior Brigade. When Hogan picked up the flag in question there was not a live Rebel soldier within half a mile of him, unless such Rebel soldier was a prisoner of war.
In Horan’s case, he displayed no valor, not as modern Americans would conceive it. Instead, Horan had simply done what any ordinary soldier would do; he picked up an enemy battle flag when he saw it lying in his path. The U.S. Army never launched a thorough investigation. Once Horan provided proof of the capture in the form of sworn affidavits, the War Department issued him a Medal on April 5, 1898.
To say that Horan and others like him hoodwinked the War Department would be a stretch. At the time, the War Department did not consider the Medal to be an unblemished symbol of gallantry. Instead, it served simply as recognition of participation in a battlefield act, kind of like a merit badge. Indeed, of the Civil War’s 1,522 Medal of Honor winners, only twenty-three received it posthumously, and none of that group received the Medal for the action that killed them (although four of Andrews’s Raiders were later executed for the action for which they received the Medal). In essence, the typical Civil War Medal of Honor winner was not a war hero who had been killed by going above and beyond the call of duty; instead, he was a veteran who lived to tell his tale. In order to win the Medal, he had to tell it often. Civil War Medal of Honor winners agitated for recognition, persistently appealing to the War Department as they entered their declining years. A Civil War Medal of Honor winner’s action might have been truly heroic, but also it might have come from a desire to create a sense of artificial fame out of postwar embellishment.
So what happened? When did the Medal of Honor become a revered symbol of unselfish courage? Eventually, the War Department got tired of handing out Medals, and in 1897, it published more stringent guidelines for receiving the award. Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Elihu Root, rigidly enforced these tighter qualifications, rejecting applications from aging veterans who reveled in their former glories. As an example, James W. King, a Michigan soldier who applied for the Medal in 1902 for actions performed at Missionary Ridge, snarled when Root rejected him. He wrote: “It is my opinion that if the present Assistant Secretary of War had been obliged to take that four-mile walk, under the same conditions that I did, to say nothing of the voluntary risk of life in battle, he would have though his conduct was of such a most distinguished character that it would have taken more than a bushel of medals to fully compensate him for his bodily sufferings, and mental anguish caused by the expectancy of losing his good right arm.” King never received his Medal.
As the years passed, the requirements for valor continued to change. By 1963, Congress standardized the criteria by arguing that the Medal could only go to those who distinguished themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” As a result, the number of issued Medals of Honor decreased drastically. As a point of comparison, of the 3,464 Medals of Honor awarded to date, 1,522 (43%) went to veterans of the Civil War. To equal the number of Civil War winners, a person would have to combine all of the winners from World War 1, World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, the Spanish-American War, and all the Indian Wars!
In short, the Medal of Honor meant one thing in 1863. It means something vastly different today. Consider what it currently takes to win the Medal of Honor. This is the citation for LT Michael Murphy, the U.S. Navy SEAL who was awarded the Medal in 2007 for actions that occurred on June 28, 2005, in Afghanistan:
While leading a mission to locate a high-level anti-coalition militia leader, Lieutenant Murphy demonstrated extraordinary heroism in the face of grave danger in the vicinity of Asadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. On 28 June 2005, operating in an extremely rugged enemy-controlled area, Lieutenant Murphy's team was discovered by anti-coalition militia sympathizers, who revealed their position to Taliban fighters. As a result, between 30 and 40 enemy fighters besieged his four member team. Demonstrating exceptional resolve, Lieutenant Murphy valiantly led his men in engaging the large enemy force. The ensuing fierce firefight resulted in numerous enemy casualties, as well as the wounding of all four members of the team. Ignoring his own wounds and demonstrating exceptional composure, Lieutenant Murphy continued to lead and encourage his men. When the primary communicator fell mortally wounded, Lieutenant Murphy repeatedly attempted to call for assistance for his beleaguered teammates. Realizing the impossibility of communicating in the extreme terrain, and in the face of almost certain death, he fought his way into open terrain to gain a better position to transmit a call. This deliberate, heroic act deprived him of cover, exposing him to direct enemy fire. Finally achieving contact with his headquarters, Lieutenant Murphy maintained his exposed position while he provided his location and requested immediate support for his team. In his final act of bravery, he continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded, gallantly giving his life for his country and for the cause of freedom. By his selfless leadership, Lieutenant Murphy reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Murphy won the Medal of Honor posthumously, as some of you may know. (As an aside, I wonder if LT Murphy had performed his actions in 1863, would he have won a Medal? Given that he would not have been alive to tell the story, I would guess probably not.)
By comparison, note the scantiness of the citations from some Battle of Gettysburg winners:
· Col. Joshua Chamberlain: “For daring heroism and great tenacity in holding his position on the Little Round Top against repeated assaults, and carrying the advance position on the Great Round Top.”
· Captain James Clarke Postles: “Voluntarily delivered an order in the face of heavy fire of the enemy.”
· Privates James Richmond: “Capture of flag.”
· Sergeant James Wiley: “Capture of flag of a Georgia regiment.”
· Corporal Munroe Reisinger: “Specially brave and meritorious conduct in the face of the enemy.”
You will see that Civil War citations tended to be terse and not terribly informative. Moreover, you will notice that some of the 1863 citations fail to meet the 1963 standard of risking “life above and beyond the call of duty.” Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s citation does not fit that standard. You will note that the citation honors him for defending Little Round Top, not for leading a bayonet charge. In essence, Chamberlain received an award for doing what he was supposed to be doing, carrying out orders that his superiors had given him. Many other regimental commanders at Gettysburg had a rightful claim to meeting that same standard of courage, even surpassing it. Yet, they received no Medals.
Okay, back the original premise. What about Cushing? Did his act of valor meet the standards of 1863 and does it meet the standards of 2014?
On the first point, did Cushing act heroically according to the standards of 1863? I think we can say, “yes,” he acted heroically and displayed bravery to such a degree that it would have entitled him to a Medal had he lived. However, one serious fact remains. He did not live, and that means he did not meet the same standards of his contemporaries.
Did Cushing meet the modern standard? Almost certainly, “yes.” Compare what Cushing did, line by line, to what LT Murphy did.
· “Lieutenant Murphy valiantly led his men in engaging the large enemy force.” Cushing did this too. He commanded, at most, 126 men and squared them off against an enemy attack consisting of 12,500 infantry. Cushing had the aid of other nearby units, of course, but at most, they counted only 6,000 officers and men.
· “The ensuing fierce firefight resulted in numerous enemy casualties, as well as the wounding of all four members of the team.” Cushing’s unit, Battery A, 4th U.S. Light Artillery, lost thirty-eight men killed and wounded. This was nine times as many as Murphy lost, but of course, a much smaller percentage.
· “Ignoring his own wounds and demonstrating exceptional composure, Lieutenant Murphy continued to lead and encourage his men.” Cushing did this too. He received two ghastly wounds, one to the shoulder and another to the groin. In leading their men while wounded, both Murphy’s and Cushing’s examples demonstrated great similarity.
· “When the primary communicator fell mortally wounded, Lieutenant Murphy repeatedly attempted to call for assistance for his beleaguered teammates. Realizing the impossibility of communicating in the extreme terrain, and in the face of almost certain death, he fought his way into open terrain to gain a better position to transmit a call. This deliberate, heroic act deprived him of cover, exposing him to direct enemy fire.” Cushing did not do this, not exactly, but he did perform a similar feat when he moved his only two serviceable guns closer to the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge. Probably, Murphy’s heroism exceeded Cushing’s in terms of degree, but both officers deprived themselves of cover and exposed themselves to enemy fire.
· “In his final act of bravery, he continued to engage the enemy until he was mortally wounded, gallantly giving his life for his country and for the cause of freedom.” There is similarity here too. Cushing continued to serve his battery, even though twice wounded. Indeed, he even took over tasks normally assigned to his enlisted men when they fell wounded. No one can doubt that both he and Murphy gave their lives for their country.
In short, Cushing’s final action at Gettysburg meets the modern standards of gallantry more than most Civil War soldiers. This leaves us with a curious answer: Cushing meets the more stringent requirements of the 21st Century, but he does not meet the more relaxed requirements of his own time. (Take a moment and let that thought sink in.)
What, then, have we done? By awarding Cushing the Medal of Honor, we have transformed him into a modern-day hero; we have not necessarily proven that he was a hero from his own time. As I said earlier, I support Cushing’s application for receiving the award, but I feel that all we have done is to make ourselves feel better about his death. If the U.S. Army had truly meant to honor him, it would have awarded him a Medal long, long ago, back when his mother, Mary, and his brothers, Howard and William Barker, would have been alive to feel a sense of pride about it. They could have felt that their nation remembered the sacrifice of poor Alonzo and believed that a grateful public mourned with them. That window of opportunity has long since closed.
Awarding Cushing the nation’s most important combat award is the right thing to do, undoubtedly, but let’s not forget this crucial fact: his receiving the award describes the ways that our generation venerates courage. It tells us nothing about what Cushing thought about it.
You might all say, “Better late than never.” I am unconvinced that such a phrase can even apply here.
(Here is Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, photographed in 1862.)