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Generations of family proud of Civil War hero

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Nov. 05, 2014) -- Helen Loring Ensign will accept the Medal of Honor on behalf of her first cousin, twice removed, Alonzo Hereford Cushing, at the White House, today.

Then-1st Lt. Cushing was killed in combat, July 3, 1963, during fighting on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He was later posthumously promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel.

During a media event Nov. 5, in Arlington, Virginia, Ensign said she knew about her Soldier cousin from a young age.

"My father's name was William Cushing Loring," Ensign said. "I heard it daily in reference to him and I had to ask who he was. I was under five years old when I heard about Cushing. We've all gone to Gettysburg, and we've seen the plaque for him there."

"We're delighted to be here to represent our family's admiration of Mr. Cushing," Ensign said. "And the Cushing name has been passed down generation to generation. We are proud and happy that he is getting recognition at the White House tomorrow."

Another cousin of Cushing, Jessica Loring, said this recognition for Alonzo Cushing has provided an opportunity for her family and the other side of the family to meet for the first time. She is a niece of Helen Loring Cushing.

"His whole family was a brave family," she said of her Soldier cousin. "His mother would say 'death before dishonor,' when she sent her sons out to war. Three of them died young. Alonzo Cushing was the first, facing Pickett's charge at the Bloody Angle at Gettysburg. All of our family has honored the Cushing name down through all generations. All generations, from the start, some child born into the family has kept the name of Cushing."

She said even her own grandson carries the Cushing name.

Loring said that the paths of Soldiers today parallel Cushing's story in a couple of ways.

"Alonzo volunteered for his position," Loring said. "Soldiers today volunteer as well. They are extremely loyal, like Alonzo was, extremely brave and devoted to this country and freedom. And that's what carries through ... is people going beyond themselves to make the ultimate sacrifice. And everybody out there, in the military, in Afghanistan -- wherever they may be -- is putting their lives on the line. And I think that's how this message carries through to the young people in the service today."

The primary force behind getting Cushing recognized with a Medal of Honor was not a relative of Cushing, but rather Margaret Zerwekh, of Delafield, Wisconsin.

While not related to the Cushing family, Zerwekh lives now on the farm that had been owned by the Cushing family. And in Delafield, Cushing is a celebrity. Twenty-seven years ago, in 1987, Zerwekh started an effort to get Cushing the recognition she thought he deserved.

The impetus for all that effort was originally curiosity, Zerwekh said.

"My commitment started with moving to a piece of property, and owning it, and then studying it and who lived there, and what happened to them and where they went to in the country," she said.

Zerwekh said that as part of her efforts she had been able to trace the Cushing family roots back to the year 1000, in Ireland. About that time, she said, is when she believes the family actually changed their name to Cushing.

Mark Bradley, a historian with the Army Center for Military History, said that Cushing, as a battery commander, was in one of the most dangerous positions during the Battle of Gettysburg.

"I would say that Lt. Cushing's selflessness is evident in his decision to be a battery commander," Bradley said. "He was a staff officer, and he could have remained a staff officer for the rest of the war, and maybe even gone up to higher command in the infantry."

But Cushing chose to stay a battery commander, and that, Bradley said, "indicates he thought he could contribute the most to the Union War effort ... by putting his life in jeopardy each time the battle was fought, rather than being safe behind the lines, where he might have been as a staff officer. That resulted in his death at Gettysburg."

Cushing's first sergeant, Frederick Füger, also earned the Medal of Honor for the same battle, on the same day. Bradley said Füger had encouraged Cushing to leave the scene, to go to the hospital, but Cushing had been determined to stay.

"He said he'd fight there and die if necessary," Bradley said, recounting a conversation between Cushing and Füger. "His mere presence there, I think, was a tremendous symbolic boost to his men, who incidentally are falling -- close to the dozens. Cushing's stand there at Gettysburg, while we can't say definitively that it turned the tide of the battle, it contributed to the Union victory. It's difficult to say what might have happened if Cushing had taken up Füger's suggestion and gone to the rear. But he didn't. And he paid the ultimate sacrifice."

According to the Army website at www.army.mil/medalofhonor/cushing, Cushing commanded 126 men and six cannons positioned on Cemetery Ridge, July 3, 1863. In the face of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's assault, Cushing's battery took a severe pounding by Confederate artillery. Cushing and his battery stood at the apex of the assault where Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett intended to pierce the Union line.

Within just a few hours, all of Cushing's officers had been killed, and all but two of his guns had been silenced. During the Confederate cannonade, he was wounded in the abdomen, as well as the right shoulder.

Refusing to evacuate, despite his severe wounds, Cushing directed the operation of his two remaining guns -- firing in the face of the enemy. When the Confederates were less than 100 yards from his position, Cushing was shot in the head, and died instantly.

Cushing's actions materially aided the Union Army's successful repulse of the Confederate assault, according to his award narrative. History shows that the Confederacy would be on the defensive from this point forward, and never again mount a major offensive.