By Tom Cushing
Brothers in ArmsUploaded: Nov 6, 2014
I discovered this morning that I am related to a war hero ? and as of today, a Medal of Honor recipient. I should add that our common ancestor was one Matthew, the first Cushing to inhabit this continent, twelve generations ago. That fact probably accounts for why the Prez did not see fit to invite me to the ceremony, despite all those nice things I've said about him here. Truth be told, I am pretty far behind in answering my correspondence from Mr. Obama.
Lt. Alonzo Cushing's history was indeed harrowing. A first-born, he was a studious, exemplary graduate of West Point who seemed bound for glory. He had seen much action during the Civil War, beginning with the Battles of Bull Run, Antietam Creek and Fredericksburg. He was twenty-two years old when he commanded a battery of artillery on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg in 1863. During the first days of that epic struggle, his battery and the Rebs a mile away exchanged a few ineffectual barrages.
Day three, however, dawned with a heavy Confederate bombardment, intended to soften the Union lines for the infantry assault, in what is now known as Pickett's Charge. Cushing's men were in disarray ? he had to order them back to post at the point of his pistol. They fought back furiously as 12,000 southerners advanced on "The Angle" a fence line that was to be the 'high water mark' of the Confederacy ? its furthest advance north. After losing several cannon, Cushing re-positioned his remaining firepower in The Angle, at the epicenter of the most furious, desperate fighting of that war.
The battery switched to canister ammunition ? pellets and miscellany that cut a wide swath into advancing troops in this dawn of industrial warfare, read 'human slaughter.' They eventually resorted to "double canisters" ? meaning that the opposing troops were so close that aim came in second to a maximum cloud of destruction. One soldier recalled two cannons firing simultaneously, whereupon the rebels bearing down on them "just disappeared."
The Lt. stayed on post, despite serious wounds to his shoulder and abdomen. It is said that he was killed by a bullet to his head, as he screamed and fired-off one last charge. His battery was breached, but there was no one left to hold it. Pickett's men retreated. Fully half their number had been killed or wounded, and the Army of Northern Virginia did not rise again. Cushing is buried at West Point.
Alonzo's younger brother William was arguably the more famous for his war exploits, at least until now. He was his brother's mirror image: a prankster, adrenaline junkie and academic under-achiever, he was booted from the Naval Academy just prior to graduation. The fall of Fort Sumter, however, pressed him back into service.
Known variously as "Lincoln's Commando" or "the first Navy Seal," his derring-do was suddenly useful to the Union cause, in behind-the-lines exploits and missions. Most famously, he destroyed the Confederate ironclad Albemarle as she lay at-anchor up the Roanoke River in Virginia. The Albemarle was the sister ship to the Merrimac, and wrought havoc on Union shipping.
He was built for the moment. In a likely suicide mission that others had refused, he steamed up the Roanoke accompanied by a few men in a skiff with a bomb tied to a spar at the bow. All he had to do was get close without detection, weather gunfire from the ship's guardians, ram the ironclad below the waterline (where it was wooden), leap out of the boat and light the fuse on the bomb. Then he was on his own. Miraculously, it worked. He was able to escape the carnage, swim into the current, hide on-shore and get away.
His exploits were much celebrated. He was awarded the high honor of the Thanks of Congress for the Albemarle raid, but his restless soul was not built for peacetime. He died at 32, leaving a widow and two young daughters. His cause of death was kindly referred to as complications from tuberculosis. We would call it acute alcoholism. They let him back into Annapolis for burial; five different navy ships have borne his name.
Two brothers who could not have been more different from each other, raised by a resolute mother whose last words to each as he deployed: "death before dishonor." Quite a woman; quite a horrible war. They didn't disappoint her.