Lt. Alonzo Cushing at Gettysburg

It was in the pre-dawn hours of July 2, 1863, when six 3-inch Ordnance Rifles of Battery A, 4th United States Artillery went into battery in a small, weed choked pasture on Cemetery Ridge. Partially enclosed by a stone wall that turned sharply west and then southward, later to be known as "The Angle", the position was right in the center of the Union's Second Corps line on Cemetery Ridge. Dawn revealed a broad plain of farm fields subdivided by rows of wooden fencing with the Emmitsburg Road, from Emmitsburg, Maryland to Gettysburg, a few hundred feet in front and almost parallel to the ridge. For the men of the battery, it was a perfect field for artillery to defend and with little activity occurring at that early hour, the gunners lounged by the guns.

1st Lt. Alonzo Cushing, 22 years-old and an experienced veteran of numerous battles, commanded Battery A. Born in Wisconsin in 1841, Cushing's family had moved to New York while he was an adolescent. Receiving an appointment to West Point, Cushing found that he loved the discipline of military life and was enamored with artillery. After graduating in the class of 1861, he served in staff positions to various officers until assigned to command the battery in the spring of 1863. Described by men who knew him as a skilled artillerist and devoted to duty, Cushing's battery was manned by men who had served in the army prior to the war and others who had transferred in from infantry regiments. Assigned to the Artillery Brigade of the Second Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, Cushing had thoroughly drilled his battery, preparing them for battle with strict discipline and his personal knowledge of the chaos a battle presented. Though experienced, no one in the battery could have predicted what lay ahead for them at Gettysburg.

 
 

Later that same day, the battery was first engaged in a brief artillery duel with Confederate cannon positioned on Seminary Ridge nearly a mile distant, and later in the repulse of the Confederate attack against the Union left that swept right up to the stone wall in front of Cushing's guns. There was some sporadic firing the following morning but then the field went silent. Cushing's gunners found shade by their guns or under the limber chests, the horse teams lazily hitched to their harnesses while the drivers brought buckets of water from the nearest wells. Around 1 o'clock, the sharp report of two southern cannon alerted the men. Almost immediately, the ground shook with the roar of over 140 cannon and the air came alive in a storm of exploding shells. It was the cannonade meant to destroy the Union guns and positions that would be charged by two and one-half divisions of southern infantry, including the command of General George E. Pickett. The shock of this southern barrage made the gunners jump up, some scrambling for cover while the horses pulled and strained against their harnesses. Through the dust and smoke raced the young lieutenant, barking orders to his men to get to their posts and within minutes, Cushing's battery was in action.

Battery A appeared to be the focus of the Confederate cannonade and was nearly destroyed by the furious bombardment. Gunners and horses fell dead at their posts. A limber chest exploded with a roar, killing and maiming the crew in charge of adding fuses to the shells. Guns were dismounted, carriages and limbers shattered. At one point, a wheel of one cannon carriage collapsed and the crew abandoned the piece. Furious, Cushing raced into the middle of the fleeing gunners, drew his pistol, and ordered the men back to their gun, threatening them with death if they ran again. The spare wheel was rolled up to the gun carriage, the piece lifted and set, and within minutes the cannon was back in action.

The cannonade left Cushing's battery in shambles. Only a handful of gunners remained, not enough to man the two remaining cannon that could still be used. Though painfully wounded by shell fragments, the young lieutenant was unwilling to personally leave the field or retire his shattered command. Receiving permission from General Alexander Webb, commander of the Union brigade stationed around the battery, to move his two guns down to the wall in the Angle, Cushing and his survivors rolled a gun forward adjacent to the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry where he ordered that extra canister rounds be piled by the piece. Canister- a tin can filled with iron balls- was specifically designed to use against infantry, turning the cannon into a giant shotgun.

 

Soon the southern infantry of George Pickett's Division crossed the Emmitsburg Road and surged toward Cemetery Ridge. Union infantry opened fire as cannon along the entire front sent hissing shells into the Confederate columns. Round after round tore into the southern ranks but they pressed on, steadily closing on the Angle, Webb's men, and Cushing's gun. Determined to fight to the last, Cushing personally directed every shot as his crew struggled to load and prepare the cannon for the next round. Switching to double charges of canister, Cushing could now see the Confederates were barely 100 yards away and would be up to the muzzle of his gun within seconds. Grasping the lanyard that fired the gun, he shouted above the din to Sergeant Frederick Fuger standing nearby, "I will give them one more shot!" Seconds later a Confederate bullet struck him through the mouth, killing him instantly. His lifeless body tumbled over the gun trail.

The young lieutenant died a hero's death and was later buried with full honors at his alma mater, West Point. Original cannon on cast-iron carriages and a narrative tablet mark the position of Battery A, 4th United States Artillery in the famous Angle at Gettysburg. Between the guns is a simple stone marker dedicated to Lt. Cushing, placed there by his family, former officers and friends of thr 71st Pennsylvania Infantry in 1887. Approved for a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor in 2010, it was announced on October 27, 2014, that the medal will be awarded by President Barack Obama in a special ceremony at the White House on November 6, 2014.

John Heiser
Gettysburg National Military Park

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