Monday, November 10, 2014

Alonzo Cushing’s Thumb

So, a few days ago, November 6, 2014, we had a big day for Civil War history. President Barack Obama awarded a Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing. If you’ve been reading my blog religiously, then you know my thoughts on this important event. For those of you who are new to it, or for those of you who are just stopping by, this is my opinion: I approve of the decision.

Unfortunately, in watching Obama’s address, I cringed at something he said. Obama said that, during the Battle of Gettysburg, Lieutenant Cushing burned his thumb to the bone while trying to plug the vent of one of his artillery pieces. This is a famous story, often repeated by historians.

What little we know about Lieutenant Cushing’s actions at Gettysburg comes from three primary accounts, all of them written years after the war, all of them written by enlisted men, and all of them written by veterans of Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery. These writers were Private Christopher Smith, Sergeant Frederick Fuger, and Corporal Thomas Moon. The “thumb story,” comes from Moon. Specifically, it comes from this passage: “His [Cushing’s] right thumb was burned to the bone, serving vent without a thumb-pad.”

Thomas Moon's postwar account of Cushing's injuries claimed that his right thumb was "burned to the bone." Here is the controversial passage.
What did Moon mean by this? Whenever a Civil War artillery crew loaded a new round, one man had to “thumb the vent.” This soldier—known as the “Number Three” crewman—placed his thumb atop a small vent that penetrated the breech. He did this because the manual that all Union artillerymen followed (called the Instruction for Field Artillery) required vent thumbing as a safety protocol. One soldier always had to block the vent to prevent air from reaching the gun tube. If air crept inside and burning embers were still present in the barrel, they would be kept aflame and, therefore, might ignite the next round when it got rammed into the tube. If that happened, it could potentially kill the two loaders (known as the Number One and Number Two crewmen). Essentially, this is the same principle as a chimney. If you close the flue, no air reaches the fire, and it goes out. Thus, every time artillerymen reloaded their cannon, someone always “thumbed the vent.” Safety demanded it.

An unlimbered piece of field artillery had a crew of seven. The Number 3 crewman was responsible for "thumbing the vent."
This cut-away shows the vent that required blockage.
However, if someone were to place his bare thumb atop a recently fired artillery tube, the super-heated iron would instantly sear his flesh. (After all, the gun had just been fired.) To prevent injury, the Number Three crewman wore a leather strap around his thumb called a “thumb stall.” Thus, he could plug the vent without burning himself.

This is a Union artilleryman's "thumb stall." This one is made of buckskin.
So, here is what Moon suggested. There were no enlisted men left with Battery A on July 3 who could operate as the Number Three crewman. Cushing handled that position himself. Lacking a thumb stall, he placed his bare flesh atop the vent, burning his thumb to the bone.

Baloney. There is no way that story is true. Consider these points and judge for yourself:

First, Thomas Moon’s account is full of suspicious claims. For instance, at one point, Moon claimed that he went to sleep on the night of July 3, slumbering atop Cushing’s mangled body, as if it were a mattress! Certainly, there is no way that statement is true. I’ve never slept upon a dead person, but I’d imagine that a bloody corpse cannot possibly be more comfortable than a grassy field. If Moon had been so callous as to attempt what he claimed, I’ll bet other members of the battery (and there were three who accompanied Moon to the Second Corps hospital) would not have allowed him to treat the corpse of their fallen commander in such a disrespectful way. And finally, although the time of Cushing’s burial is unknown, there is a distinct possibility that the corpse was already buried in the ground by the time night fell, and thus, Moon’s statement might not be true. This is just one doubtful piece of Moon’s narrative. A number of other equally suspect statements suggest that Moon rooted his account more in exaggeration (or fantasy) than in reality.

Second, if a Civil War artilleryman happened to be missing his thumb stall, he could always use something else in a pinch. Any strip of leather would do, and artillerymen had them in abundance. All they had to do was un-hitch their belt (or the belt of a dead or wounded soldier) and use that in place of the thumb stall. (In one account, two artillerymen who were caught in the middle of a harrowing battle simply tied a rock to the top of the tube, blocking the vent, while they loaded. They did this because all the other members of their crew had been killed or wounded.) When Cushing was serving his guns on July 3, the area around him would have been littered with debris, including hundreds of castaway leather belts. In fact, we know that Cushing wore a belt on July 3. This belt is still in existence, owned by the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg. (Interestingly enough, the belt has several dark marks on it. Is that where he pressed the belt against the vent?) If Cushing could not find anything in his immediate vicinity that might have served in place of a thumb stall, he must have been royally stupid.

Third, it is just about impossible for a person to hold his or her fingers to a hot metal object for too long. (Moon and all the historians who have repeated the “thumb story” have never been burned, apparently.) The brain contains a reflex action that prevents the hand from grasping a scorching hot article. If you’ve ever accidentally grasped a hot frying pan, you know that your brain will cause you to release it involuntarily. This is no matter of opinion; this is just simple physiology. A person might be able to condition himself or herself to endure heat—by, say, repeatedly sticking his or her hand over an open flame—but that takes practice, something that Cushing, I’m sure, did not have. In short, there’s no way that Cushing’s brain let him press down his thumb on a heated cannon vent for too long.

Some critics might say, “Well, Tim, Cushing had been severely wounded. Adrenalin had kicked in, so he couldn’t feel any pain.” All right, I’ll concede that such a circumstance might have happened. Perhaps adrenalin might have allowed him to press his bare flesh to a hot cannon barrel, but if so, he could only have done it for a short time. If he had done it long enough, his brain’s reflex function would have kicked in eventually, overturning the absence of pain. Cushing could not have left his thumb on the barrel long enough to let it burn down to the bone. That would have been impossible. Also, in a philosophical sense, if—and I stress the word, “if”—adrenalin had kicked in, why mention the thumb story at all? If Cushing felt no pain, then pressing his thumb to the vent was no big deal for him. When we consider Cushing’s heroism at Gettysburg, do we not prefer to focus on the fact that he gritted his way through the agony of several awful wounds, remaining at his post to the bitter end? Dismissing his pain by saying that he had so much adrenalin that he felt no pain at all defeats the point, I think.

So, my plea is this: Please kill off the Cushing “thumb story.” At long last, he has a Medal of Honor. Mission accomplished. We need not continue to mangle this poor officer’s body in our imaginations to prove a point. We have awarded him the highest honor we can give. Let sober history once more return to the story of Alonzo Cushing at Gettysburg.

Here is Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing, photographed with the 2nd Corps staff in 1862. I'm sure his right thumb was just fine on July 3, 1863.


  1. Although I agree it's implausible that he might burned his thumb "to the bone," I just don't share your skepticism that a man who regularly placed his thumb over a hot piece of metal might once have badly burned himself doing so. Put that way, though, it doesn't sound nearly as heroic: "...and also one time Lt. Cushing burned his thumb real bad. Ouchies!"

  2. Very good points all around. But I would refine this point a bit:

    "However, if someone were to place his bare thumb atop a recently fired artillery tube, the super-heated iron would instantly sear his flesh."

    It is true that after prolonged fire, the cannon would become hot. However, that was not the reason for the use of the thumbstall. After firing, the temperature of the air inside the bore remained high. And it was also of higher pressure than the outside air (being a confined space). When the sponge... or later in the sequence, the rammer... went down the bore, it further compressed that hot air. The only place for that to escape was the vent. Of course, as you point out, the vent needed to be blocked in order to safely load the weapon.

    Now that said, was it possible for someone's thumb to be "burnt to the bone" by not using a thumbstall? Indeed. Imagine a "jet" of compressed hot air against bare skin. BUT, as you aptly point out, that was likely not the case with Cushing.

  3. The belt purportedly worn by Cushing currently housed at the National Civil War Museum has little or no provenance connecting it to Cushing. It bothers me that they continue to advertise it as such.