Many people don't realize how close Pickett's Charge came to succeeding. The outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg hung very much in the balance in the late afternoon of July 3, 1863, when troops under the command of Gen. Lewis Armistead broke through the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. The spot is memorialized on the battlefield and in history as the "Confederate High Water Mark."
Fierce hand-to-hand fighting broke out, and all but one of the Union artillery batteries in that part of the field were captured by Armistead's men and turned against the Union defenders. Cushing commanded the only Federal battery in the area that had not been overrun.
The story of his heroism is well-known. A blast from one of the captured cannons disemboweled him. Propped up by one of his men, Sgt. Fredrick Fuger, he literally held his intestines in his abdomen with his left arm while brandishing a revolver in his right, and threatening to shoot any of his panicked men who ran away. Somehow, in agony which must have been beyond description, he kept his battery in action. When his men pleaded with him to retire and seek medical attention, Cushing replied,“No, I stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.”
All that was needed- mercifully- was a few minutes. Cushing's suffering ended when a Confederate bullet entered his mouth as he was shouting a command to his men, killing him instantly. At almost that very moment, reinforcements managed to drive Armistead's men back and plug the gap in the Union line. Armistead lay mortally wounded, a prisoner of the Union forces. The Virginian asked to see his best friend, Union General Winfield Scott Hancock, but was further dismayed by the news that Hancock himself had been seriously wounded not far away.
Armistead died the next day; Hancock would recover, and eventually lose the closest presidential election in history to another heroic Civil War general, James A. Garfield. Garfield's margin was fewer than 10,000 votes, nationwide.
But I digress. I'd always assumed that Cushing had received the Medal of Honor for his heroism. Certainly if anyone ever deserved it, it was he. Medals of Honor were awarded at Gettysburg for far less. Gen. Dan Sickles, for example- a militarily incompetent political general who almost single-handedly lost the battle by disobeying a direct order from Gen, Meade- managed to lose a leg in the process, and employed his political "spin" to the situation so adroitly that he somehow received the Medal instead of the court-martial he so richly deserved.
Sgt. Fredrick Fuger, the man who propped the mortally wounded Cushing up during the last terrible moments of the latter's life, received his Medal of Honor in due course. But incredibly, for nearly a century and a half, Cushing's own heroism was somehow overlooked by Congress, even though book after book and article after article year after year and decade after decade recounted the tale.
Finally, in 2012, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia (Armistead's home state; a nice touch, that) and Sen. Russ Feingold of Cushing's home state of Wisconsin managed to get a resolution awarding Cushing his Medal of Honor attached to an appropriations bill. On September 14 of last year, President Obama finally awarded Cushing his posthumous Medal of Honor.
As with the case with this blog post, it certainly took long enough.