Obama Awards Civil War Medal of Honor

PHOTO: President Obama stands with Helen Loring Ensign as he awards the Medal of Honor posthumously to Army First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing for conspicuous gallantry, on Nov. 6, 2014 at the White House in Washington, D.C.PlayPablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
WATCH Civil War Hero Awarded Medal of Honor

First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing was decorated today with the nation's highest military honor -- more than 150 years after he was shot three times and later killed by Confederate forces in the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.

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President Obama made a rare presentation of the Medal of Honor to a Civil War veteran during a small ceremony in the Roosevelt Room with Cushing’s relatives.

“This medal is a reminder that no matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do the right thing,” Obama said.

Cushing commanded an Army artillery battery that was defending Cemetery Ridge in a grueling fight that would become a turning point in the Civil War. He continued to push his men forward despite being wounded.

PHOTO: A undated file photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society shows First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing.Wisconsin Historical Society/AP Photo
A undated file photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society shows First Lt. Alonzo H. Cushing.

“I’m mindful that I might not be standing here today as president had it not been for the ultimate sacrifices of those courageous Americans,” Obama said. “Today we honor just one of those men, Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, who, as Lincoln said, gave their last full measure of devotion.”

Helen Ensign, Cushing’s cousin twice removed, accepted the medal on his behalf.

The award marked the culmination of a 40-year effort by the family and lawmakers from Wisconsin, where Cushing was born. Congressman Ron Kind (D) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R) both attended the ceremony.

The honor for Cushing required a congressional exemption because under rules for the award, which was created during the Civil War, it must be presented within three years of a qualifying act of heroism.

More than 1,500 Civil War veterans received Medals of Honor, but only enlisted men were authorized to receive it initially. Congress changed that a few months before the Battle of Gettysburg, but Cushing was never nominated. It was widely thought that promotions were enough recognition for officers.

The 22-year-old Cushing, a graduate of West Point, where he is now buried along with 16 other Medal of Honor recipients, subsequently took on legendary status for his leadership under fire. It was not until a woman in his hometown of Delafield, Wisc., -- Margaret Zerwekh -- pushed forward his case 40 years ago that the military and Congress considered him for the award.

“When she discovered this story, she spent over 25 years researching, writing letters and raising her voice to ensure that this American soldier received the recognition that he so richly deserved,” Obama said. “And what’s more, she even managed to bring Republicans and Democrats together to make this happen. Margaret, we may call on you again sometime in the future.”