Three Brave Officers, and the Closest of Comrades
by Gordon Thorsby
Who would have imagined that two of the three men standing would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, that their individual contributions would directly impact major engagements in the Eastern Theater of the War and that all three would be court martialed in 1863?
Looking at the photograph by Alexander Gardner, one sees six Union officers. They look proud but the image deserves a closer look.
The three seated officers in front are unidentified. One of the three has lost his hat insignia. Hats got lost and insignia got lost. It happened. The hat was most important to keep a head warm, dry or out of the sun. Another appears to have sewn on stripes on his shoulders instead of an officer’s set of patches with the proper insignia. A Temporary jacket? Yet the third officer has a unique insignia on his hat with laurel leaves that may have indicated an adjutant of some kind. All this is curious, but thew men standing is the most important.
Who were they and why are they important?
At the top left and just below was Lt. Rufus King of Battery C, 4th U.S. Artillery. It appears that King had
epaulets on the shoulders of his frock coat. This was not standard coat by this period in the war and it might indicate the coat was his backup coat. King commanded the 4th US Horse Artillery in 1862. Taking command of Batteries A & C at White Oak Swamp on the Peninsula in ‘62, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his action in White Oak Swamp on the Peninsula but it took until 1898 before it was passed by Congress and awarded to King.
The man in the top middle is Lt. Alonzo Cushing. Cushing was temporarily in command of Battery A, 4th US Artillery at Gettysburg. The battery’s role on Cemetery Ridge was decisive in support of the II Corps against the Pickett Trimble Charge July 3rd, 1863. It fired case and shell as Pickett’s brigades crossed the long field. As the Southern lines approached the Union lines, Battery A shifted to canister and double canister. During the charge, Cushing received several wounds, most disabling yet he remained at the guns until a final wound killed him. As many may already know, Cushing was awarded his Medal of Honor recently, in 2014, from President Obama, after repeated efforts over the decades by Congressmen and Senators.
On the top right is Lt. Evan Thomas. Thomas commanded batteries A & C when he was
wounded at White Oak Swamp. Rufus King took over command. Thomas returned to command Battery C at Antietam and through the rest of the war. At Gettysburg on July 2, Thomas’ Battery of Napoleon twelve pounders served in the Peach Orchard on July 2, at Gettysburg, and in Ziegler’s Grove on July 3rd. He served with the 4th U.S. through the rest of the war with the 6th Corps through Appomattox. Thomas stayed in the army after the war. In 1873, Thomas was killed while fighting the Modoc in California.
It was while researching the photo some information popped up in a Google Book. Unfortunately, the source was lost and it cannot be cited but allow me to summarize the story.
It is the friendship that the three men had and that the photograph captured for a brief moment. Prior to Fredericksburg in November, 1862, Thomas got into a brawl one night with another man on the street and was put into jail. Knowing the negative repercussions of the offense, King and Cushing attempted to force their way into the jail and free Evans. It was a risk that King and Cushing were willing to take for the welfare of their fellow comrade. Their effort failed and all three were then jailed. The three were brought up on charges of “conduct unbecoming of an officer,” court-martialed and found guilty. The sentences were reduced to time in the service and loss of pay for a year.
An interesting story and one not previously known. Can someone confirm the story?
Top Photograph: attributed to Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress.