By Mary Roll
His noble death . . . should present an example for emulation to patriotic defenders of the country through all time to come.
First Sergeant Frederick Fuger, a native of Germany, arrived on the field at Gettysburg with Battery A of the 4th U.S. Artillery early on the morning of July 2, 1863. This battery was attached to General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Fuger spent most of that day in command of a section of the battery, which volleyed with Confederate guns on and off throughout the afternoon. Despite the steady exchange of fire, Battery A reported minimal losses on the 2nd. However, July 3rd would prove to be the true test of the battery’s might and the loyal Sergeant Fuger’s leadership qualities.
On the afternoon of July 3rd, from their position near the Angle behind the now-famous stone wall that lines Cemetery Ridge, members of Battery A readily awaited the onslaught of southern troops charging across the open field before them. As Pickett’s Charge reached its climax and the great wave of grey swept up the ridge, the twenty-seven year old Fuger found himself in charge of the battery’s guns. Battery commander First Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, 22, had fallen dead in the melee, and all of Fuger’s superior officers were killed or severely wounded.
Lieutenant Cushing commanded the battery throughout July 3rd’s famed cannonade, which began around one o’clock and lasted for approximately an hour and a half. In his “Personal Recollections,” Fuger vividly remembered the simultaneous call and response of Union and Confederate cannon: “The very earth shook before our very feet, and the hills and woods seem[ed] to reel like a drunken man.” By the time the bombardment was over, Battery A had engaged the enemy’s guns so strongly that all ammunition, with the exception of canister, had run out. Not long after Confederate artillerists ceased firing on the Union lines, gray-clad troops began their advance forward in the direction of Cemetery Ridge. Aware of what was coming his way, Cushing prepared his guns for still more action by ordering Fuger to position the cannon of Battery A against a stone wall in the battery’s front.
Cushing is arguably best known for the devastating wounds he sustained at Gettysburg and his unshakable fearlessness through the ordeal. He received the first of his wounds, in the right shoulder, when the Confederate advance reached within 400 yards of his battery’s position. Just moments later, Cushing was hit in the lower abdomen/groin by a piece of shrapnel. Severely and painfully wounded, Cushing refused to leave his men. Though it is important to consider the potential influence the passing of time may have had on Fuger’s memory, we must note how he remembered Cushing’s gallant refusal to go to the rear: “I [will] stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.” Christopher Smith, also of Cushing’s Battery, recalled Cushing’s dedication in a similar manner, stating that “he was as cool and calm as I ever saw him . . .”
Though Cushing was weakened by his wounds, he continued to issue orders. However, as he grew weaker and fell into shock due to pain and blood loss, and with Battery A’s other lieutenants killed or wounded, responsibility for the execution of Lieutenant Cushing’s orders fell to Fuger. The approaching Confederates surged forward more and more rapidly. When they were 100 yards from Battery A, Cushing was hit a third and final time just below the nose. Fuger saw Cushing fall, caught him with his right arm, and held him up for a few brief seconds before placing the dying Cushing on the ground. “When I saw him fall forward I caught him with my arms, ordered [some] men to take his body to the rear,” Fuger explained in his chronicle of the battle. Fuger surely felt pressure to simultaneously issue his commander’s orders and watch over the wounded Cushing as best he could in the midst of battle. The nature of Fuger’s recollection of catching Cushing as he fell dead suggests that Fuger felt a profound sense of duty and loyalty to Cushing’s body and reputation; perhaps Fuger was compelled to protect and honor him, even in death. Of Cushing, Fuger stated:
Lieutenant Cushing, my commander, was a most able soldier, a man of excellent judgment, and great decision of character; devoted to his profession, he was most faithful in the discharge of every duty, accurate and thorough in its every performance; possessed of mental and physical vigor, joined to the kindest of hearts, he commanded the love and respect of all who knew him. His superiors placed implicit confidence in him, as well they might. His fearlessness and resolution, displayed in numerous actions, were unsurpassed and his noble death at Gettysburg should present an example for emulation to patriotic defenders of the country through all time to come.
Fuger lost no time in ensuring that the men of Battery A understood that he was now in command, and insisted that the gunners keep firing canister toward the rushing Confederates. If Fuger had allowed himself a moment to absorb his circumstances—a sergeant suddenly in command of a battery under heavy fire and extreme pressure—he could easily have given in to panic. Fuger remained astonishingly collected throughout his trial by fire, and exhibited the same degree of levelheadedness shown by Cushing. By this time nearly all of Battery A’s guns were out of commission, and it appeared that little choice remained but for the remaining men of Cushing’s Battery to break and run for the rear. But on the contrary, Fuger credited the successful rout of the Confederate assault to the combined efforts of his men and some nearby infantry regiments: “. . . my devoted cannnoneers and drivers stood their ground, fighting hand-to-hand with pistols, sabers, handspikes and rammers, and with the arrival of the Philadelphia Brigade [the 69th, 71st, 72nd and 106th Pennsylvania regiments, which Battery A supported], commanded by the gallant General Webb, the enemy collapsed and Pickett’s charge was defeated.” Fuger continued, “It has been asked, what other than Southern troops would have made that charge? Ay, sir: but what other than Northern troops would have met and repulsed it? Northern endurance and pluck were more than a match for Southern dash.”
By the close of the July 3rd fighting, Battery A had lost more men than any other light artillery battery in the entire Army of the Potomac. Following the battle, Fuger led the remaining members of the battery to a bivouac site near the Baltimore Pike. When the men arrived, much-needed rations were distributed. The physically and mentally exhausted Fuger lay down beside the body
of his dead commander, falling asleep with his rations still in his hands. He would spend the night of July 3 on the field next to Cushing, guarding his body.
For his actions on the afternoon of July 3, Sergeant Fuger was recommended for a second lieutenant’s commission in the regular army by General Hancock and General Webb. Fuger also received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg, a nomination that was met with some controversy. Those who opposed giving the award to Fuger suggested that the sergeant’s role was not as illustrious or integral as had been believed, in that his responsibilities at Gettysburg were placed upon him by circumstance, rather than his own independent will. It was by chance that Fuger was left to command the battery, not choice. However, what this claim discounts is the extreme loyalty Fuger showed to the battery and especially to Lieutenant Cushing. Even though the award is given for displays of exceptional bravery at grave personal risk, perhaps that loyalty was at the heart of what garnered Fuger the award. One also cannot discount the degree of collectedness Fuger exhibited in taking command of the battery. Fuger was not on a quest for glory, medals, or a place in the history books; he simply strove to do what he believed was right and to fulfill his duty.
Alonzo Cushing’s Medal of Honor nomination did not come until 147 years after his death on the field. There is no definite reason for why Cushing was not nominated for the Medal sooner, but the Medal of Honor was generally not awarded posthumously during the Civil War. In the decades following the war’s end, nomination rules were changed to include posthumous nominations. Despite this change in policy, Cushing’s name was never suggested for nomination, even though several other soldiers who arguably displayed lesser heroism – many of whom were politically well-connected – received the Medal. It is possible that the chronicle of Cushing’s actions was simply lost among the stories of numerous other men who displayed equally great bravery.
Cushing’s bravery at Gettysburg would likely have continued to go ignored except for the efforts of a group of dedicated residents of his hometown of Delafield, Wisconsin, who saw the value of Cushing’s contributions and felt that the lieutenant deserved recognition. Delafield citizen Margaret Zerwekh demonstrated a particularly strong dedication to Cushing’s cause, fighting for 23 years to secure the Medal of Honor for him. Zerwekh, 90 years old at the time of Cushing’s nomination in 2010, petitioned congressmen, senators, and presidents. In 2002 Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin officially began the process of petitioning the United States Army on Cushing’s behalf. The Army officially approved Cushing’s recommendation in 2010, but because more than five years have elapsed since Cushing’s death, awarding the medal requires a special act of Congress, which is still pending.
The story of Frederick Fuger and his commander Alonzo Cushing shows us that the spirit of loyalty and duty to comrades, commanders, and country cannot be overshadowed by controversy or delayed recognition. Though such recognition may be deserved, the absence or presence of accolades and rewards does not diminish soldiers’ commitments to each other and to their cause. The truly brave and admirably courageous soldiers of the Civil War, like Fuger and Cushing, do not need the Medal of Honor as a testament to their conduct or intentions. While honors and awards can recognize exemplary actions, they cannot create outstanding character; Fuger, Cushing, and countless others like them demonstrate that that trait is an inherent one.
For further reading:
On Cushing’s Medal of Honor nomination:
“Artilleryman awarded Medal of Honor 147 years later.”
“Winning a Battle to Honor a Civil War Hero.”
On Cushing at Gettysburg:
Brown, Kent Masterson. Cushing of Gettysburg: The Story of a Union Artillery Commander. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
On Fuger and Smith:
“Bloody Angle: The Story of Cemetery Ridge From the Blue and Gray.” Buffalo Evening News, May 29, 1894.
4th U.S. Artillery Battery A. Cushing’s Battery file, Gettysburg National Military Park Library.
“Lt. Col. Frederick Fuger’s Personal Recollections: Battle of Gettysburg.” Participant Accounts.
Frederick Fuger file, Gettysburg National Military Park Library.
“Events leading up to the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to 1st Sergeant Frederick Fuger, Battery A 4th U.S. Artillery at Gettysburg, July 3rd, 1863.” Participant Accounts Frederick Fuger file, Gettysburg National Military Park Library.