The Congressional Medal of Honor (CMOH) was created in 1861 during the early months of the Civil War. It is the nation’s highest military honor and is awarded for “personal acts of valor, above and beyond the call of duty.” Since its inception, 3,469 CMOH have been awarded, more than half during the Civil War when acts of “uncommon valor” were more loosely construed than in subsequent wars.
Of the twenty-eight presidents who’ve served since the CMOH was established, only eight have had no military service, including a group of six consecutive presidents covering the period from March 1913 through April 1945. Those six were Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt was afflicted with polio and would not have been accepted into military service under any circumstance.
In more recent history, seventy-four CMOH have been awarded since 1992. Bill Clinton awarded thirty-eight during his eight years in office (22 of which were awarded, deservedly, to Japanese-Americans, even though their friends and relatives were being held in internment camps), George W. Bush awarded eleven medals during his eight years in office, and Barack Obama has awarded twenty-five CMOH in less than six years in office. And although I would not wish to accuse Obama of having anything but the most honorable of intentions, it sometimes seems as if every time he feels the need for a bit of face-time with the TV cameras he passes out yet another CMOH… almost as if they were Halloween candy.
On January 20, 1993, the day of the inauguration of George H.W. Bush, I attended an inaugural ball honoring the living recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor as a guest of the military officers who comprised the Honor Guard for the CMOH recipients.
The inaugural ball was held in the Grand Ballroom of the Capitol Hilton Hotel, in Washington, and as my lady friend and I stood at the center of the room, surrounded by a host of men and women in formal attire, I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful blue ribbons encircling the black satin collars of many of the honored guests, and the magnificent five-pointed star that dangled just below the black bow ties of their formal attire.
We were surrounded by no fewer than fifty-four Medal of Honor recipients, all gathered in one room, and as I attempted to envision the heroic deeds that those men had performed to merit those medals, a cold chill ran up my spine and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. It was a great honor for this former field artillery corporal just to be in the same room with them.
What causes me to recall that very special evening was the recent news that Barack Obama has awarded the CMOH, posthumously, to Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing, who was fatally wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, in the decisive battle of the Civil War known as Pickett’s Charge.
Cushing, a classmate of General George Armstrong Custer, graduated from West Point in early June 1861. Although he and other members of his class were not scheduled to graduate until May 1862, the need for infantry and artillery officers… in both the Union and Confederate Armies… was such that the graduation of the Class of 1862 was moved up to June 1861.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, Cushing served as commanding officer of Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery. He was mortally wounded on July 3, 1861, just twenty five months after graduation, on a hilltop near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The objective of the Confederate forces, under command of General George E. Pickett, was a spot of ground called Cemetery Ridge. It was an ill-fated and ill-conceived military assault that history has recorded as Pickett’s Charge.
According to historical accounts, Cushing was wounded three times. His first wound was caused by a shell fragment that passed through his shoulder. His second wound was caused by shrapnel that struck him in the abdomen and the groin. The abdominal wound was said to have been so severe that it exposed his intestines, which he then held in place with his hand as he continued to command his troops.
As he did so, a superior officer instructed him to go to the rear, where he could receive medical attention, but Cushing refused to leave and stood by his guns. However, because of the severity of his wounds, he was unable to make himself heard over the sounds of battle. As he was held erect by his First Sergeant, who communicated his orders to his cannoneers, Cushing was fatally wounded when a bullet entered his mouth and exited through the back of his skull.
The Confederate soldiers under Pickett’s direct command were almost exclusively from Virginia, with supporting troops from Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. And while the Union forces lost about 1,500 killed and wounded, the Confederate casualty rate was over 50% of their total strength. Pickett’s division alone suffered 498 killed, 643 wounded, and 833 wounded and captured… a total of 1,974 casualties.
The division commanded by General J. Johnston Pettigrew, which marched on Pickett’s left flank, suffered losses estimated at 2,363, including 470 killed and 1,893 wounded. The division commanded by General Isaac R. Trimble, which marched in support of Pettigrew’s division, suffered 855 casualties, with 155 killed and 650 wounded. The brigade commanded by General Cadmus M. Wilcox, which supported Pickett’s right flank, suffered 200 killed and wounded, while the brigade commanded by Col. David Lang lost approximately 400. It is estimated that total losses during Pickett’s Charge came to 6,555, of which at least 1,123 Confederates were killed, 4,019 wounded, and a good number of others wounded and captured.
And while Lieutenant Cushing and other members of the Union Army fought bravely and valiantly, the same can be said of the sons of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia who fought valiantly during Pickett’s assault on Cemetery Ridge.
On the Confederate side of the battle line there was much less attention paid to decorations for valor. On October 13, 1862, the Confederate Congress in Richmond, Virginia, approved legislation creating a wartime award called the Southern Cross of Honor. The statute was titled, “An Act to authorize the grant of medals and badges of distinction as a reward for courage and good conduct on the field of battle.” The text of the act read as follows:
The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to bestow medals with proper devices upon such officers of the armies of the Confederate States as shall be conspicuous for courage and good conduct on the field of battle; and also to confer a badge of distinction upon one private or noncommissioned officer of each company after every signal victory it shall have assisted to achieve. The noncommissioned officers and privates of the company who may be present on the first dress parade thereafter may choose, by a majority of their votes, the soldier best entitled to receive such distinction, whose name shall be communicated to the President by commanding officers of the company…”
However, Civil War historians tell us that the medals and badges of distinction were never conferred upon any officer, non-commissioned officer, or private, in spite of the fact that NCOs and privates of any victorious unit were given the right to confer the award, by majority vote, on one of their fellow soldiers.
The concept of a Southern Cross of Honor was revived in July 1898, some thirty-three years after the end of hostilities, at a reunion of Confederate veterans. The United Daughters of the Confederacy were authorized to confer the medal on any Confederate veteran who was found to have provided “loyal, honorable service to the South…. in recognition of this devotion.”
Although the last verified Confederate veteran died in 1951, the Commonwealth of Virginia continues to make it a Class 3 Misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than $500, for any person to wear the Southern Cross of Honor, “when not entitled to do so by the regulations under which such Crosses of Honor are given.”
Lorenzo Cushing’s story is a gripping tale of heroism and there is no doubt that his courage in battle deserves to be recognized and commemorated. However, the question arises, is it entirely appropriate and in good taste, 150 years after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, to continue to rub salt into old wounds by commemorating the valor of Union soldiers who killed and wounded large numbers of other Americans in a civil war? Is it not time we relegated the Civil War, the saddest chapter in American history, to where it belongs: the pages of history?
Would it not be more appropriate to erect a monument to Cushing’s bravery in the town square of his hometown, Fredonia, New York? Of course, such an event would not provide a photo-op for Obama, a man who lacked the courage to wear the uniform of the United States, even in peacetime, but who now insists, unashamedly, on being called the “commander in chief.”
Of the seventy-five CMOH awarded since 1993, thirty-eight were awarded by Bill Clinton, a Vietnam War draft dodger, while Barack Obama, a man who used a forged draft card as part of his identity documentation when he ran for president, is on a path toward awarding 35 CMOH during eight years in office. Were Clinton and Obama really concerned about the courageous acts of men in battle, or were they more interested in the photo-ops provided by passing out the CMOH as if they were Halloween candy for heroes? We’ll never know, but what we do know is that men often do very uncharacteristic things when they are motivated by a guilty conscience.