Awards and soldiering: My thoughts on the Cushing Medal of Honor

Likely you have seen the news item with a Civil War connection which broke yesterday.  If not, let me be the first to tell you that 151 years after his death, Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing will receive the Medal of Honor for actions on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg.  There is no doubt that Cushing’s actions that day were courageous.   Under our present day criteria for the award, Cushing more than qualifies. There is no argument there.

Some will ask why it took so long for him to receive recognition. Others will discuss the nature of the award in its Civil War guise, and how it was different than today.  Myself, I look at this and ask, “Does the medal make him a hero?”  As I read the article on Cushing, I thought to a passage from Colonel David Hackworth’s “About Face.”  Please pardon the language in this citation (which I’ll censor a bit to retain my PG rating):

[PFC James Aguda] stood up.  He didn’t go prone like the rest of us. He just walked to the forward slope and started mowing down the attacking Chinese ranks like John Wayne in the Sands of Iwo Jima. His BAR was singing as he fired magazine after magazine. And the whole time he was screaming to the Chinese, “Come down, you [Chinese], come and get me!” I yelled, “Get down! … Aguda, get down!” But he just kept firing and reloading, firing and reloading – the perfect killing machine.  Slugs were snapping all around him. I knew he was going to be killed. Then I could see he as getting it. In the leg, in the arm, then two more in the legs. But he just kept shooting and screaming, and I kept yelling for him to get down. Finally he took one in the chest. It spun him around and he dropped. KIA.

Hackworth goes on to relate the importance of Aguda’s sacrifice.  He broke a Chinese counterattack and saved the platoon, known as the Raiders.  For that, a man should get a medal, right?  Well in the military awards system, medals require documentation.  Hackworth related how that was gathered when the platoon went  into a reserve position for rest:

Reserve was where the heroes were recognized and legends were born and nurtured. It was also the time when award recommendations would be submitted. Normally, Company would call and ask for recommendations. We’d scratch them out in a crude fashion on C-ration boxes, cardboard from ammo cartons, or whatever writing material we could scrounge. “Hey, brother, how do you spell ‘machine gun’?” we’d ask one another – there were few Hemingways at platoon level. We were just a bunch of [dummies] trying to articulate a comrade’s courage, as in the case of Aguda.

All the old 3d Platoon guys wanted him to get the … the Medal of Honor…. we wrote it up as best we could: “We recommend PFC James Aguda for the Medal of Honor. James Aguda was a brave soldier. He shot a lot of [Chinese] and saved [us] on Logan. Aguda was a good man. He deserves the big one.” This recommendation went back to the rear, to a very literate captain … who determined who got what by reading our statements. With Aguda’s he probably said, “So what? ‘He shot a lot of [Chinese]’ – well that’s what we’re here for! He was a ‘brave soldier’ – well, we’re all brave soldiers!” So James Aguda got the Silver Star posthumously, and not the Medal of Honor he deserved.

Later, Hackworth reflected upon this and how it tainted, somewhat, his view of military awards.  Jaundiced by the handling of Aguda’s case, he just didn’t submit many recommendations.

It was only much later that I realized my own idealistic policy regarding decorations for the Raiders had been wrong, too.  For myself, especially after Aguda, decorations had lost most of their meaning.  But for the others, my prejudice meant that so many deserving fighters would grow old with nothing to show for their extraordinary gallantry with the Raiders – or just one tin medal for the last hurrah.

The should have had one for every damn time they suited up.

In these three passages, Hackworth provides a vignette which aptly summarizes the military awards system – benefits and ills.  And having looked at my share of Civil War Medal of Honor documents over the years, I dare say the forms that were filled out might have changed over the decades, but the nature of the system remains… as it probably was during Napoleon’s time.  The worst of those ills is, unfortunately, that many deserving soldiers do not receive due recognition in the form of an award or medal.

Combat is not a race where clearly defined winners are given medals for their placement in the contest.  We cannot judge a person’s courage simply by the number of ribbons on their chest.  We, distant from the battlefields, get fixated on particular statuses conveyed by those physical devices. Heroes are made, not by way of the ribbons and medals, but by how others relate and recount their actions.

Cushing didn’t need a Medal of Honor for us to recognize him as a hero.  Over the years, monuments, books, and countless battlefield guides have reminded us of his deeds.  He was a hero before anything was approved or signed.

Aguda doesn’t need a Medal of Honor to be a hero.  It is the story, passed onto us by Hackworth, that made Aguda a hero.

Robert Blake: Slave, Contraband, Sailor, and Hero

One of several interesting facets to the Christmas Day fighting at Legareville is the Medal of Honor awarded to Robert Blake.  The particulars for that Medal of Honor read:

Rank and organization: Contraband, U.S. Navy.

Entered service at: Virginia.

G.O. No.: 32, 16 April 1864.

Accredited to: Virginia.

Citation: On board the U.S. Steam Gunboat Marblehead off Legareville, Stono River, 25 December 1863, in an engagement with the enemy on John’s Island. Serving the rifle gun, Blake, an escaped slave, carried out his duties bravely throughout the engagement which resulted in the enemy’s abandonment of positions, leaving a caisson and one gun behind.

As mentioned yesterday, Blake’s was one of four awarded to crew-members of the USS Marblehead for actions on that day.  All four were issued under the same general orders.  While the other three citations indicate rank and assigned post, Blake’s identification was simply “contraband.”

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The timing of the orders meant Blake was not only the first African-American to receive the Navy’s version of the Medal of Honor, but also the first African-American to receive the award in any service.  Sergent William H. Harney, 54th Massachusetts, is often cited as the first such award, for his actions during the July 18, 1863 in the assault on Fort Wagner.  However, Harney’s Medal of Honor was not approved until 1900 – a gap of 37 years.  Blake’s was awarded a short four months after the action.

But while much is known of Harney and his life, we have precious few leads on Robert Blake.  We can trace Robert Blake back to an incident in June 1862.  A naval force under the command of Commander George Prentiss worked up the Santee River with the aim to destroy railroad bridges upstream.  Heading up the river, the expedition passed the plantation of Aurthur  M. Blake without incident (red arrow on the map below). The Confederates had used the plantation as a base for patrols on the Santee and forces protecting the blockade runners using the river.  But apparently any garrison there retreated when the gunboats arrived.  Finding the river upstream too shallow for the ships to reach the targeted railroad bridge, Prentiss returned.

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On June 26, 1862, when passing the Blake Plantation the second time, his ships took fire.  In response Prentiss returned fire and landed a party to chase away the Confederates contesting passage.  Considering the plantation a legitimate military target, due to the use of the buildings by Confederates, Prentiss had the house and mill burned.  His landing party brought back 100,000 bushels of rice.  And… important to the story of Robert Blake… some 400 slaves made their escape to the steamers.

Arthur Blake, of course, was none too happy about the destruction of his plantation and loss of his slaves.  The 1860 census indicated he owned $150,000 in real estate and $350,000 in personal property.  In May 1863, Arthur issued a claim against the Confederate government for damages totaling $288,375.

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Arthur offered a full list of the 402 slaves he recorded as “lost” due to the action.  Among those was a 28 year old “Robert” valued at $1,100.  (And for what it is worth, in 1871 Arthur submitted a nearly identical list along with a claim to the U.S. government for the loss of slaves and other possessions during the war.  That claim was denied.)

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Prentiss indicated he landed the escaped slaves, now contrabands, on North Island, between the sea and Winyah Bay, outside Georgetown, South Carolina.  The contraband camp established there soon grew in number as more escaped slaves joined the 400.  Fearing a Confederate raid, the Navy relocated the camp, which had grown to nearly 2,000, to Hilton Head in March 1863.

There’s no clear record of Robert Blake enlisting in the Navy.  I suspect sometime prior to the relocation of the contraband camp he signed on to serve on one of the ships operating off the South Carolina coast.  I’ve yet to locate any papers showing his enlistment.  And maybe he didn’t enlist, but rather volunteered to work as a servant.  After all, that was his station on Christmas Day 1863 off Legareville in the Stono River.

Consider the places I’ve mentioned within the narrative thus far.  The Blake Plantation, though some fifty miles north of Charleston, was in Charleston County.  And Legareville, some twenty miles south, is likewise in Charleston County.  Robert Blake was fighting within the county from which he’d escaped as a slave.  Certainly a “legality” which would not escape notice if the Marblehead‘s crew been captured.  And perhaps a little extra motivation for Robert Blake that morning.

Within four months of that incident, Robert Blake’s military career reach its high point.  He was ranked a seaman.  What’s more, a seaman with the nation’s highest military award.  Sadly, I find no record of Blake’s subsequent service and eventual fate.  But I can say the details we know of his life speak to a broad spectrum of experience – from slave, to contraband, to sailor, to hero.

Cushing deja vu? Medal of Honor considered

Didn’t we hear about this just a couple of years ago?

Wisconsin Civil War hero could get Medal of Honor

WASHINGTON — Alonzo H. Cushing is close to receiving the Medal of Honor, almost 150 years after his heroic actions at the Civil War battle at Gettysburg.

A little-noticed provision of a House-approved defense bill would waive the time limit for posthumously bestowing the nation’s highest military honor, allowing the medal to be bestowed on the 22-year-old Union artillery lieutenant who died during Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863.

If passed by the Senate and signed by President Barack Obama, the measure would end a decades-long struggle by a 92-year-old resident of Cushing’s native Wisconsin.

“I’m glad that it’s finally happening,” Margaret Zerwekh said by phone from Delafield, where she lives on land once owned by the Cushing family.

Her efforts date back to the mid-1980s, when she wrote then-Sen. William Proxmire, D-Wis. The campaign to award the medal to Cushing has been championed by other Wisconsin lawmakers.

Yes, it was just two years ago…. Like many things these days, Alonzo Cushing’s recommendation stalled in legislative gridlock.

I’m a fence sitter on this one.  Cushing’s actions on July 3, 1863 deserve every recognition a grateful nation can bestow.  The Medal of Honor is the least the nation could do.  However, I’m not fond of retroactive awards which are decades after the event.  I’ve always felt such awards open the door for more retroactive awards.  Eventually the law unintended consequences plays in.

Yes, I know there are extenuating circumstances here.  Yes, I know there were different criteria in 1863, and the Medal has evolved over 150 years.  But that is even more reason to think twice.   Same might be said for Richard Winters of “Band of Brothers” fame (that’s right, Brécourt Manor was just 68 years ago yesterday…).  Deserving? Yes!  Yes!  But for some reason Winters was not awarded the Medal of Honor…. again, extenuating circumstances. My first instinct is respect – both for Winters’ actions and to the decision of his contemporaries.

History is full of such circumstances.  It’s our role as the story tellers to explain it all.