DELAFIELD – The lobbying on behalf of Alonzo Cushing isn’t over.
The Civil War hero killed in the battle of Gettysburg was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor Thursday in a White House ceremony. It came 151 years after his death and a more than three-decade campaign by Delafield historian Margaret Zerwekh, who persevered over Washington, D.C., politics and bureaucracy.
Now, officials in Delafield, Cushing’s birthplace in 1841, are hoping to convince Cushing’s distant relatives to allow the Medal of Honor to be permanently displayed in this Waukesha County city of just over 7,000 people.
“It’s important for the community and the whole area,” Mayor Michele DeYoe said. “I think people are very happy to take part in something that is a positive reflection on a community and the state of Wisconsin.”
The medal was presented Thursday by President Barack Obama to Helen Loring Ensign, 85, a distant cousin of Cushing who lives in Palm Desert, California. Alonzo Cushing only spent a few years in Delafield. The family moved to Chicago and then, after his father died in 1847, to Fredonia, New York.
Fredonia was settled in 1803 by Alonzo’s grandfather, Zattu Cushing, and is home to monuments to Alonzo and his brother, William, while the former mayor of the city, Michael Sullivan, lives on Cushing Street. But, according to a letter from Sullivan, sent to Zerwekh who started the campaign to award Alonzo Cushing the Medal of Honor, no relatives live in Fredonia.
“A few older residents remember his sisters living here, but that was when these folks were young children and the sisters were much older,” Sullivan wrote.
Zerwekh, 94, is in failing health but was among those in the audience Thursday at the White House. She was joined by Dave Krueger, another Delafield historian and Civil War buff, who was asked by Mayor DeYoe to “talk to everyone he can” at the ceremony about bringing the medal to Delafield.
One thought, according to DeYoe, is to build a display in the lobby of city hall while another idea would house the medal at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy that was founded here in 1884 and is home to teenage cadets from around the globe. Any display would likely cost $25,000 to $30,000 and require special lighting and bulletproof glass, DeYoe said.
The mayor believes Delafield is a natural for the medal, given the community’s association with Cushing. She’s also been told by city officials in Fredonia, that they are not interested in permanently displaying the medal.
“It’s always been talked about and taught in our schools,” DeYoe said. “Now, it’s on a national stage.”
The Cushing story began as Wisconsin was just becoming a destination for homesteaders. When Alonzo was born here on a farm overlooking the Bark River, Wisconsin was still a territory, lead mining was at its peak in Mineral Point and Shullsburg, and the Peck cabin, Madison’s first house, was only four years old.
Milwaukee had not yet been established. Instead, it was three communities — Juneautown, Kilbourntown and Walker’s Point.
Like so many families in the mid-1800s, the Cushings were not spared when the Civil War engulfed the nation.
Alonzo Cushing fought at First Manassas in Virginia and was later cited for “gallant and meritorious services” at the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. But it was the afternoon of July 3, 1863, at the height of Pickett’s Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg that Cushing’s bravery would become lore.
According to www.civilwar.org, the 22-year-old first lieutenant was commanding Battery A of the 4th United States Artillery when “a hole opened in the Union line” and “rebel troops poured through the gap.”
Just prior to the attack, Cushing, a West Point graduate, suffered shrapnel wounds in both his thighs and stomach. Despite his wounds and as the battle intensified and as other units withdrew, Cushing stayed and ordered his unit’s 3-inch cannons, called ordinance rifles, wheeled up to a stone wall. According to accounts, Cushing died from a bullet to the head just as shells from the cannons, fired on his orders, tore through the advancing enemy lines.
The elementary school in Delafield is named after Cushing, there is a street that includes his name, and the land where he was born is now Cushing Memorial Park. The park includes Fort Cushing, a massive wooden play structure constructed in 1999 and the Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Riverwalk, a three-quarter-mile boardwalk that follows the Bark River to a pond at St. John’s.
But the centerpiece of the wooded park is a 50-foot-tall granite monument to Cushing and his two brothers, William and Howard. A small stone marker in the park’s northwest corner marks the land as the site of the Cushing homestead. The eldest brother, Howard, was born in what is now Milwaukee while William and Alonzo were born in Delafield. All of the brothers fought in the Civil War.
“This was an open field, high tall grasses and not too many trees,” said Mary Daniel, president of the Delafield Hawks Inn Historical Society. “It was land ready for someone to do something with. And it was near water, which was vital for anyone starting out in the area.”
The site was a meeting place for the Potowatomi before Dr. Milton Cushing and his wife, Mary Barker, arrived and later was a gathering place for Civil War veterans and allied organizations. In 1915, the Waukesha County Historical Society dedicated the memorial, which resembles the monuments seen in Civil War battlefields.
This spring, the city will replicate the dedication with a ceremony that will try and follow the program used on May 31, 1915. The address was given by Francis E. McGovern, who had just completed a four-year term as governor and the previous fall had lost a bid for the U.S. Senate. It also included music from the St. John’s Military Academy band and songs sung by cadets from the school.
“The military academy is going to be a part of this ceremony because it was a part of it 100 years ago when it was dedicated,” Daniel said. “They’re going to come with everybody. All of the (bagpipes) and the pomp and circumstance that St. John’s can muster.”
The news of Cushing’s Medal of Honor has shone a light on this Lake Country city and for DeYoe brings surprises. She has received letters and e-mails from history lovers and about a month ago, a package arrived containing a Medal of Honor flag.
“It just showed up at my desk and here it is. We’ll do something with it, but I’m not sure what,” DeYoe said, as she showed off the flag. “I’m learning more and more about (Cushing) every day.”