Civil War Soldier To Receive Medal Of Honor
GUY RAZ, host:
On the third and final day at the Battle of Gettysburg, it was July 3, 1863, a young first lieutenant from Delafield, Wisconsin, fresh out of West Point, was shot dead.
But before that happened, Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing and his band of 110 Union soldiers stood their ground as some 13,000 Confederates approached. Cushing manned an artillery canon, all the while nursing two shrapnel wounds; one so bad, he was literally holding shut a gaping hole in his stomach.
For more than 20 years now, Margaret Zerwekh of Delafield, Wisconsin has been campaigning for Cushing to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration. Well, this past week, she got her wish. Almost 150 years after his death, Alonzo Cushing will receive that medal. And Margaret Zerwekh's on the line from Delafield.
Ms. Zerwekh, first of all, congratulations.
Ms. MARGARET ZERWEKH: Thank you.
RAZ: Now, you are 90 years old, right?
Ms. ZERWEKH: Right.
RAZ: Okay. You've been trying to get recognition for Alonzo Cushing since you were in your late 60s. Did you ever think that you'd see the day?
Ms. ZERWEKH: No. No, because the first time, they turned us down.
RAZ: So what is your connection to Cushing? How did you first...
Ms. ZERWEKH: Well, I'm a historian for one thing, and the other thing is that he lives on my land.
RAZ: You live on land where he was - he lived?
Ms. ZERWEKH: Where he was born, right.
RAZ: Where he was born.
Ms. ZERWEKH: Mm-hmm.
RAZ: And this is in Delafield, Wisconsin.
Ms. ZERWEKH: Right.
RAZ: Ms. Zerwekh, what was the first thing you did to get the campaign rolling?
Ms. ZERWEKH: Well, I went to the mayor and I said: Hey, let's Alonzo belongs to us. Let's get him a Medal of Honor.
RAZ: This is the mayor of Delafield.
Ms. ZERWEKH: The mayor of Delafield, uh-huh. That was in 1987, which did not work. But in 2003, when we started out, I've got three folders an inch thick of letters that I wrote and letters that I got back. And I wrote to everybody in the country, including Senator Edward Kennedy and the first President Bush.
RAZ: And it was finally your current senator, Russ Feingold, who sort of took the cause, right?
Ms. ZERWEKH: He was the one. That guy deserves a lot of credit for this because he kept after it too.
RAZ: And now, how were you able to convince - eventually convince the army to do this? It's pretty unusual for a Medal of Honor to be awarded so long after a soldier has been killed. Usually, it happens within a year or two.
Ms. ZERWEKH: Within a year or so, right, uh-huh.
Ms. ZERWEKH: I could see that young guy, just out of school, out of West Point, standing by his gun and not backing down, and I thought if he can do that, I can keep after an honor for him.
RAZ: When you finally heard from the secretary of the army that Lieutenant Cushing will be getting a Medal of Honor, what was your reaction?
Ms. ZERWEKH: I jumped up and down, and then I sat down, and I picked up the phone again and I called everybody who had supported the effort. Unfortunately, I called the Fredonia Public Library, which had given me information, that's Fredonia, New York.
RAZ: Uh-huh. And that's where he actually moved to as a young boy.
Ms. ZERWEKH: That's where the family moved to. And so what happened when I called the library to tell them, they called the mayor, their mayor. And now the mayor of Fredonia is trying to get this medal.
RAZ: But you were the one who got the medal for him for Delafield, Wisconsin.
Ms. ZERWEKH: Well, I'm the one who did all the letter writing. Nobody else did.
RAZ: Now, Ms. Zerwekh, I understand that there will be a presentation ceremony, as there always is, with congressional medals. Will you go? Will you be there?
Ms. ZERWEKH: No, I won't be there.
RAZ: Why not?
Ms. ZERWEKH: Well, I'm too old and decrepit. And what I want is I want the mayor - I'm working on a plan to get the mayor to the White House and presented with this beautiful, beautiful medal, gold and blue, by the president of the United States.
RAZ: You'd better work quickly before those New York interlopers come in and try to snag the medal.
Ms. ZERWEKH: Well, I'm working on it. I don't know what they're doing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ZERWEKH: Interlopers is right.
RAZ: That's Margaret Zerwekh of Delafield, Wisconsin. For 20 years, she's been campaigning for a Congressional Medal of Honor on behalf of the Civil War hero Alonzo Cushing. And this past week, she got her wish.
Margaret Zerwekh, thanks so much.
Ms. ZERWEKH: You're welcome. Thank you for calling.
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