It is rare, symbolic and historic.
Those are the words that Gregory R. Goodell, museum curator at the Gettysburg National Park, uses to describe the Medal of Honor that was posthumously awarded to Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing by President Barack Obama in November 2014.
Cushing, who was born in Delafield but raised in Fredonia, New York, was awarded the nation’s highest honor for valor 151 years after he died gallantly while stalling the Confederate Army’s last-ditch effort to win the Battle of Gettysburg.
It took more than 30 years of effort by Delafield historian Margaret Zerwekh to convince military officials and members of congress that Cushing may have helped change the course of the Civil War and deserved the medal.
In the late 1940s, Zerwekh and her late husband, Richard, purchased a home and property on the site of a former grist mill on the Bark River. The property had once been owned by Cushing’s father.
Following his death, the Cushing family moved from Delafield to Fredonia.
Zerwekh spent years researching the history of the family before writing a letter to then US Sen. William Proxmire in 1987 urging him to nominate Cushing for the Medal of Honor.
Zerwekh was in attendance, along with distant relatives of Cushing, at the White House ceremony Nov. 6, 2014, when Cushing became the only United States Military Academy graduate to posthumously be awarded the medal for valor in the Civil War.
Cushing and his three brothers will be honored May 29 – Memorial Day – by the Sons of Union Veterans who will present their annual salute to the Cushings at 2 p.m. in Cushing Park in Delafield.
The park was developed in 1915 in honor of Alonzo, William, Howard and Milton Cushing’s military service.
William was a Civil War naval hero. Howard fought and died in wars with Native Americans and Milton was a Navy paymaster.
The park was rededicated on its 100th anniversary on Memorial Day weekend two years ago in ceremonies that included a display of the medal and were attended by the Cushing family.
Mary Ensign Dolan, a distant cousin, is the nearest family survivor to Cushing.
She, along with her daughter and niece, decided in February 2015 the medal should be donated to the National Park Service, which operates the Gettysburg National Military Park, according to Goodell
Goodell cites several reasons why the medal is unique, historic and symbolic.
It is the only medal to be issued posthumously to a Civil War hero.
It represents the longest period between the time of a heroic combat event and the awarding of the medal.
There is a monument to Cushing at Gettysburg near where he died.
Cushing’s medal is one of seven in the custody of the park service; however, all the other medals were awarded to Civil War veterans from the Pennsylvania.
The seven medals were included in a special exhibit that was displayed at the national park’s visitors center in 2015 that, according to Goodell, generated some visitor and news media interest.
When not on display, the medal, like the other 1.3 million artifacts at the museum, is stored in a protected environment intended to preserve it.
The medal is available for display by organizations approved by the park service who fill out an application to display the medal and can meet rigorous security and storage standards established by the park service.
The medal has traveled across the country.
After it was awarded, family members maintained it in California before it was sent to Delafield, where it was displayed on Memorial Day weekend in 2015.
It was later sent to Fredonia, New York, where it was later displayed and moved to the United States Military Academy Museum at West Point, New York.
While it was on display at the academy museum, the dean of the academy library, Christopher Barth, decided he also wanted it displayed in the library, where it has been for nearly a year, according to exhibit librarian Mary Ahenakew.
Ahenakew explained that Cushing graduated from the academy in June 1861 and is buried in the academy ceremony.
“Faithful until Death” is written on his headstone.
On July 3, 1863, the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lt. Cushing, 23, was the commander of Battery A, of the 4th US Artillery, II Corps, of the Army of the Potomac.
He was in charge of 126 men and six cannons positioned on Cemetery Ridge facing a mile-long charge of an estimated 13,000 Confederate soldiers who were trying to break through union lines in what would later be described as “Pickett’s Charge,” named after Confederate Maj. General George Pickett.
According to the Medal of Honor citation, Cushing distinguished himself “by acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty.”
“First Lieutenant Cushing directed fire for his own artillery battery.”
“He refused to leave the battlefield after being struck in the shoulder by a shell fragment,” according to the citation.
“As he continued to direct fire, he was struck again – this time suffering grievous damage to his abdomen.”
“He boldly stood tall in the face of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett’s Charge and continued to fire devastating fire into oncoming forces.”
“As the Confederate forces closed in, 1st Lt. Cushing was struck in the mouth by an enemy bullet and fell dead beside his gun.”
His gallant stand helped repel Pickett’s charge, win the Battle of Gettysburg, and, according to historians, end the Confederate states’ hopes of winning the civil war.
Despite receiving a posthumous battle field promotion to Lt. Colonel and having memorials built in his name, Cushing was not formally nominated for the Medal of Honor until 2010.
The awarding of the medal to Cushing is steeped in persistence and political intrigue.
“Once Alonzo was finally nominated for the Medal of Honor, it took nearly five years, more time than it took to fight the Civil War, for him to receive it,” explained David Krueger, who was appointed in 2011 as the city of Delafield’s representative in the Cushing medal effort.
Since Zerwekh began her efforts on Cushing’s behalf in the 1980s, Congress had passed new restrictions on awarding the medal.
“Congress had to pass legislation waiving those restrictions for Alonzo to receive the medal,” Kruger explained.
It took three attempts to get the legislation passed partly because of opposition from then Virginia U.S. Sen. James Webb.
Webb, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded the Navy Cross for his combat gallantry, questioned the validity of documentation nearly 150 years old that supported the awarding of the Medal of Honor.
However, after Webb retired from the senate in 2013, legislation sponsored in the House by Republican James Sensenbrenner and Democrat Ron Kind and in the Senate by Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson won congressional approval.
During the White House ceremony, President Obama acknowledged Zerwekh’s efforts to gain Medal of Honor recognition for Cushing.
“Sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the passage of time,” he observed.
“And, so this medal is a reminder that no matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do to the right thing,” the president later added.