Historian John Heiser: How a 94-Year-Old Woman Got the Medal of Honor for a Gettysburg Hero

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John Heiser, historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, was a guest of Breitbart News Daily with SiriusXM host Stephen K. Bannon for Memorial Day.

Heiser said new visitors to Gettysburg are often surprised by the pastoral beauty of the site, especially the ground covered by the notoriously bloody Pickett’s Charge.

“I think it’s one of the most famous farmscapes in the United States, especially among Civil War historians. A lot of people will come here, will look at that field, and they just can’t believe what happened here,” Heiser said. “It was such a terrible thing. One of the first questions we always get is, why would Lee order such an attack, over a mile of open ground? Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that, but it comes right down to this: that Lee, on July 3rd, knew that he only had enough time, ordnance, logistics to fight one more day of the battle. And as things were turning against him that morning, he thought one more strike, right towards the Union’s center, would do the job, would make the Union line on Cemetery Ridge collapse.”

“It should have worked, to be honest,” he added. “You line up 130-plus artillery pieces, concentrate them against a very small area to knock out three or four batteries, followed by a quick infantry assault of maybe ten to twelve, fifteen thousand men. It should have worked. Remarkably, it almost did.”

One of the major reasons it didn’t work was the courage of young Union Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing, who refused to abandon his position, even after shell fragments from the overpowering Confederate artillery barrage mortally wounded him. Cushing died while literally holding his guts in with his hands, using the last of his strength to command the last guns remaining to his artillery unit. He was finally awarded the Medal of Honor in 2014, thanks to a dedicated effort spanning three decades by Margaret Zerwekh, a woman from Cushing’s hometown of Delafield, Wisconsin.

“She found out the story of Alonzo Cushing, realized that he did not have any sort of recognition like the Congressional Medal of Honor for what he did at Gettysburg, and she began to campaign to get him the Medal of Honor – which, certainly, he deserved,” Heiser recalled.

Cushing faced down the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, “one of the leanest, best-fighting war machines ever created on American soil,” according to Heiser. It was led by “such stellar commanders as Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and prior to Gettysburg, Stonewall Jackson.”

“These were all veteran soldiers coming across that field,” he said. “They knew what was ahead of them. They knew what they were facing. The other side, too, on that thin Union line on Cemetery Ridge, were also some really hardcore true veterans – the Second Army Corps, the First Army Corps. These men had been through some of the toughest battles: Antietam, the Seven Days, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville. They knew what combat was about.”

“The toughest part had to be an infantryman laying under that artillery fire for an hour and a half, and finally being relieved, at least the fire died down so they could see the infantry coming and get it over with. More than one soldier remarked, ‘Whew, finally, here comes the infantry,’” Heiser said.

“There was courage on both sides that day, but I have to look at Cushing – by the end of the cannonade, his battery was destroyed, he barely had two guns operating, enough men to operate those two guns. Instead of withdrawing, he asked that he be able to push his guns down to the wall with the infantry. Against theology at the time, ordnance theology, he actually piled up the canister rounds right by the trail of the gun. And though he was wounded, he stood there and fired canister round after canister round. As the legend goes, he said, ‘I’ll give them one more shot,’ which is about the last round he had as the infantry was closing in, and just as he pulled the lanyard, he was shot through the mouth and killed, he fell over the trail of the gun. That’s courage, that’s devotion to duty,” Heiser recounted.

He explained that Cushing’s Medal of Honor was delayed by over 150 years because there were so many campaigns for recognition that the War Department felt it had to raise the standards for the award. Cushing got “lost in the shuffle,” although the place where he fell has long been marked for special recognition at Gettysburg.

“The real stories are here on the monuments,” said Heiser. “Not just the ones to the 20th Maine, that’s where the Joshua Chamberlain story comes in, on Little Round Top. But the statue to Gourverneur K. Warren, who was recognized for seeing the Confederate tack on the left on July 2nd, and got troops up there in time.”

“There’s many other stories. I’d say Bigelow’s the 9th Massachusetts Battery that fought so well on July 2nd, it was the first major battle that battery was ever in,” he continued. “What happened with them is the battery was literally destroyed by the 21st Mississippi Infantry, on the Peter Trostle farm. Usually it’s the infantry that’s supposed to support the artillery. In this case, it’s the artillery supporting the infantry so they could withdraw. The 9th Massachusetts Battery was sacrificed almost to a man, there on the Trostle farm. We know that from the photographic evidence, the horses of the battery still lying there, days afterwards, in their now bloated, grotesque conditions, showing there was something unique that happened at that site.”

Bannon recommended Chamberlain’s speech at the dedication of the Maine Monuments as one of the finest salutes to the spiritual nature of Gettysburg. “There’s something different about Gettysburg than from any place else you can visit,” he said.

Heiser explained how the establishment of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, one of the first national cemeteries on a Civil War battlefield, was part of that spiritual legacy.

“It was a great victory, but it wasn’t the end,” he said of the battle. “The Northern people needed something of encouragement, some words to tell them, ‘It’s going to be over soon, but we still have to sacrifice.’ And that’s why Abraham Lincoln came here on November 19th, 1863, to speak at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery here at Gettysburg.”

The spirit of Gettysburg was on display once again after the war, when it became a place of reconciliation between Union and Confederate soldiers.

“It’s remarkable that 50 years after the battle, 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans gathered on this battlefield, in what they called the Great Reunion,” said Heiser. That reunion included a unique invitation to the Pickett’s Division Association from the Philadelphia Brigade Association – “the same men who had opposed them on Cemetery Ridge, on July 3rd, 1863.”

“They met here on the field for about two days, in 1887, got along just like old friends and old comrades,” he recalled. “That kind of set the standard, I think, for what happened in 1913. It was a really unique event, veterans from all over the country, as far away as California. The oldest, they say, was about 110 or so. The youngest was John Clem, the drummer boy of Shiloh. But it was a national celebration. One veteran remarked it was more like a Methodist love feast than anything else.”

Among the many amazing stories to come from the Great Reunion was the chance meeting between a badly wounded Confederate soldier from Pickett’s Charge, and the Union soldier who saved his life that day, fifty years before.

“These veterans had seen the worst of war,” said Heiser. “They were combat veterans. They’d seen friends die, they bled on the battlefield, they’d seen the worst of everything. But they all realized that the best thing about the war was that they were all Americans, and America once again was strong.”

“It’s a place of healing,” he said of Gettysburg. “Not just a place of commemorating a war, commemorating death, commemorating a battle. It’s a place of healing, and the veterans made it that way.”

“There’s so much here to see,” Heiser added. “Not just the battlefield itself, but there’s so much supporting organizations nearby: the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association, the museums and other things in town that help bring the experience of the American Civil War to the family.”

“I think that’s one thing about Gettysburg National Military Park: we are geared towards the family experience and the visitor experience for them to understand this unique event of the American Civil War,” he added.

Heiser explained what distinguishes National Military Parks from other historical sites: “It goes right back to the establishing law. Gettysburg Battlefield was held by an organization of civilians, the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. It began in 1864 and began purchasing parts of the battlefield. By 1894, they were really unable to keep it up, keep up the maintenance, they had other issues with it, and then they transitioned it and turned it over to the federal government with legislation in 1895.”

“This is a brand-new concept, to turn over a Civil War battlefield, to the United States government for preservation,” he continued. “So they decided to make it like a military reservation, and that’s why the term ‘National Military Park’ is attached to Gettysburg. Chickamauga, Shiloh, several other battlefields, these early battlefields, Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina – these are some of the first National Military Parks, and that name has stuck today.”

He said the Gettysburg National Military Park has changed a great deal since its early days, when it was run by Civil War veterans. The site came under the administration of the National Park Service in 1933, making some changes necessitated by budget cuts over the years, although supporting groups like the Gettysburg Foundation have donated enough funding to make some improvements possible, such as a new gallery for the park’s collection of Civil War artifacts.

“What we’ve done, I think, with this transition is being able to tell more about the Civil War – how it began, the causes, what led the armies to this epic battle here at Gettysburg, right up to the very end at Appomattox Court House,” Heiser said. “Also, in the aftermath, how the struggle has continued till today, to understand what the war was all about, and understand the results of it, the fruits of it, how we still enjoy those today – and how we’re still fighting for certain things.”

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