The Personal and Poignant Stories of Civil War Soldiers: Uncovering the Claims of Veterans and Their Survivors in Government Publications

First Lt. Alonzo Cushing, shown in an undated photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society, is expected to get the nation's highest military decoration this summer--the Medal of Honor--nearly 150 years after he died at the battle of Gettysburg. (AP Photo/Wisconsin Historical Society)

On May 19, 2010, the Associated Press (AP) released a news story about a U.S. Civil War soldier being awarded the Medal of Honor by the U.S. Army 147 years after sacrificing his life at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. This belated recognition of First Lt. Alonzo Cushing was made possible by the determined lobbying of several people, including 90-year-old Margaret Zerwekh who lives on the Wisconsin land where Cushing was born and an admirer who created the Facebook page "Give Alonzo Cushing the Medal of Honor."

A particularly poignant class of publications in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set is the extensive collection of claims made by Civil War veterans and their survivors. These claimants were seeking promised benefits based on their injuries or their status as survivors of men who died either in the war or subsequently as a result of incurred injuries. There are thousands of these claims and, often, they are shockingly detailed in describing wounds inflicted, diseases suffered, and pain endured. These claims were still being submitted as late as 1955. In 1890, Lt. Cushing's widowed mother submitted a claim seeking an increase in the $17-a-month pension she received as Alonzo's survivor.

The AP article briefly describes Lt. Cushing's situation:

"Cushing was wounded in the shoulder and groin, and his battery was left with two guns and no long-range ammunition. His stricken battery should have been withdrawn and replaced with reserve forces...but Cushing shouted that he would take his guns to the front lines....Within minutes, he was killed by a Confederate bullet to the head."

When we turn to the Readex digital edition of the Serial Set and search in Citation text for Alonzo Cushing, we find two documents, one House Report and one Senate Report, which are responses to Mary Cushing's claim. The text of these claims gives us vivid details. Alonzo is described as:

 "...holding his lacerated bowels in one hand and firing a cannon with the other having already been ordered to retire on account of his wounds, but answering, 'Let me give them one more shot.'"

We learn more. Alonzo's mother is the "widow of a direct descendant of Mr. Justice Cushing of the first Supreme Court of the United States." After her husband's death in 1850 she raised her children as a single mother. Another of her sons, an officer in the U.S. Cavalry, was killed in a battle with Indians in Arizona in 1871, while yet another son died serving in the U.S. Navy. And a fourth son, William, was a commander in the Navy during the Civil War "who received the thanks of Congress for his most brilliant exploit in destroying the Confederate ram Albemarle in 1864." And we discover that in 1890, Mary Cushing was 83 years old, and "in her great age and infirmity is living with and dependent upon a daughter for her support."

The AP story will catch the attention of anyone interested in American history, in the Civil War, in the courage of our warriors, and in justice delayed. But the Serial Set allows us to expand this story, to have a more vivid appreciation of Alonzo Cushing's valor and his mother's suffering. The full weight of this single tragedy is magnified by the thousands of similar claims, many of them even more graphic in the descriptions of wounds and disease. These first-hand accounts of the experiences of so many Civil War veterans bring the era strikingly to life in our time.

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