Obama awards Medal of Honor to Civil War hero

Last Updated Nov 6, 2014 4:44 PM EST

President Obama on Thursday awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, to a Civil War hero who made it possible for the Union Army to thwart a Confederate assault, known as Pickett's Charge, helping the Union win the critical Battle of Gettysburg.

First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing, who had graduated from West Point just two years earlier, served as a commanding officer for the Army of the Potomac during combat operations in the vicinity of Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1863.

Mr. Obama called his story "part of our larger American story, one that continues today." The "spirit, courage, and determination" that Cushing displayed, he said, "lives on in our brave men and women in uniform who serve today."

During Pickett's Charge, also known as Longstreet's Assault, Cushing's battery faced an aggressive onslaught of Confederate artillery. Cushing manned the only remaining and serviceable field piece in his battery as Confederate forces advanced. He was severely wounded in the abdomen and right shoulder but refused to evacuate to the rear.

Cushing was shot and killed once Confederate forces were within 100 yards of his position, but he helped the Union Army repel the assault.

Normally, the Medal of Honor must be awarded within a few years of a display of exceptional gallantry. However, Mr. Obama noted, "Sometimes even the most extraordinary stories can get lost in the passage of time."

With the passage of more than a few years--in this case, a century and a half--finding a relative to receive the medal for Cushing posed a challenge. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Cushing's closest relative, Helen Loring Ensign, 85, of California, received the medal, and it noted, "It took the Army Past Conflict Repatriations Branch weeks to find the closest living relative after the president announced in late August that he would present the posthumous medal to Cushing," who was 22 years old and childless when he died.

Awarding Cushing the Medal of Honor, Mr. Obama said, "reflects our obligation to our men and women in Armed services." He added, "No matter how long it takes, it is never too late to do the right thing."

In September, Mr. Obama also awarded the Medal of Honor to two Vietnam War soldiers.