JULY 4, 1863, GETTYSBURG PENNSYLVANIA
Sergeant Frederick Fuger must have been exhausted beyond measure when he reported to the headquarters of the 4th U.S. Artillery. He was present to turn over command of the decimated remains of Battery A to a Major Flagler. Sgt. Fuger was all that was left of the Battery’s command structure and nearly of the unit itself. All the officers were dead. So were 60% of the enlisted men and 83 of the 90 horses assigned to the unit. Of all the people who have ever said they lived through a hell on earth, Fredrick Fuger’s claim might ring the truest. His fortitude also might have been the most consequential.
EVENING JULY 2, 1863, GETTYSBURG PENNSYLVANIA
After two days of intense fighting, Fuger’s Battery A and the 4th Artillery stood between Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and a maze of roads vital to the control of the Pennsylvania countryside. Lee sensed an opportunity to break apart Gen. George Meade’s Army of the North, control the roads and place the South in a position to successfully press for an armistice and independence.
Lee enjoyed the benefits of geography and momentum. Meade knew that it is easier to hold than to advance. At stake was the fate of our union. If Lee prevailed the will of the North would be tested, perhaps beyond its breaking point. The empire we know today might look more like the European Union, a loose confederation of nation-states bound by economic ties, but sharing no distinct culture or language.
The horror of slavery would have continued for longer than it did. Other consequences of a Southern victory at Gettysburg are murkier but alarming. Would a balkanized United States been able to tilt the balance and end the misery of World War I? The collective might of America’s economy and military fought off the fascist threats of World War II and brought the end to the Cold War. A unified country put a man on the moon. And more than anything else, the American Dream served for centuries as a metaphor for the idea that self-determination was the right of a person and of a people. Which of those candles might have gone dark if we broke apart?
General Lee was not at Gettysburg to philosophize or nation build. He was there to lead an Army in a race against time and the industrial advantage the North held. Against the collective wisdom of his war council and particularly of General James Longstreet, Lee decided the South would split Meade’s army in the middle at Cemetery Hill. Meade correctly guessed where Lee would aim.
JULY 3, 1863, THE PRELUDE
History refers to the third day of Gettysburg as “Pickett’s Charge,” but General Pickett was subordinate to General Longstreet who had overall command of the operation. Longstreet did not like his odds and Lost Cause enthusiasts have expended considerable ink wondering about his intentions that day. The details, however, make clear that Pickett’s Charge did not fail for lack of effort.
As the day started, Fuger served as First Sergeant to the Battery, subordinate to Lt. Alonzo Cushing and a Lt. Miller. Each lieutenant led the defense of one side of the battery, situated in Cemetery Ridge at what became known as the “bloody angle” a dear piece of land situated between the juncture of a stone wall, located closest to the Confederate force. Nearby stood a copse of trees that Pickett, commanding the center division of Longstreet’s army would use as the focal point of his advance.
Lee envisioned a sustained artillery barrage that would soften the Union’s defenses and neutralize their heavy guns. The artillery duel began in the morning and then quieted around 11:00 a.m. A tense two-hour guessing game ended at 1:00 p.m. when the Southern guns roared to life in a number and with a fury never seen before. The North responded in kind and the earth shook for the next hour and a half.
The display from both sides may have been more impressive than effective. The distance and smoke made precise targeting a pipe dream. The Northern guns consistently overshot, which meant the Southern guns continued. But the longshots tended to land in the wooded area where rebel infantry were taking cover, the beginning of a mounting casualty count.
The exchange also meant that both sides ran low on heavy ammunition. That scarcity prompted the lull in activity. The confederate generals conferred, trying to decide whether to bring in more ammunition and continue the barrage or begin their advance. Reasoning that additional delay would cost them any advantage gained through the day, the Southern leadership decided the appointed hour had arrived. General Longstreet, however, saw the carnage that was to come. When asked for the Order to advance, he could not bring himself to say the words, instead bowing his head in a solemn “yes” that doomed thousands of souls.
JULY 3, 1863, PICKETT’S CHARGE
A force of approximately 13,000 men marched across the undulating valley on the wickedly hot and humid day. At the Bloody Angle, Lt. Cushing prepared by ordering his two remaining guns moved next to the stone wall. Out of heavy shot, he could still load cannister ammunition that would be fatal to the advancing infantry.
Cushing and his colleague held fire until the Confederate force closed to about 400 yards. At that point, all hell broke loose. The cannister sprayed the advancing lines, blowing huge gaps into where humans once stood. As soon as a gap opened, more Southern bodies filled it. The calculus was cruel and unavoidable; the North had to destroy enough of those bodies so that those who remained by the time they reached the angle could not overwhelm them. Every second spent reloading, the North’s chances decreased; every round launched cleared scores of the South’s finest.
Within what seemed both a flash and an eternity, the South advanced close enough to return fire. Cushing absorbed some of the first shots, with wounds to his arm and, more seriously, to his intestine. Sgt. Fuger moved to have Cushing evacuated to the medical area, but the Lieutenant was not having it. Saying he would hold off the advance or die trying, Cushing grabbed his intestinal wound to keep himself together, leaned back into Fuger’s arms and began whispering his commands to his First Sergeant, for Fuger to relay to the troops.
After a while and as the target came closer, the Northern guns found their range, repeatedly ripping into the rebel lines. Lt. Cushing exhorted his troops telling them to keep giving them that shot. Those words were his last as another musket ball found his head. Fuger laid him down, realized Lt. Miller was dead also and realized if a command structure was to remain, Fuger was all that was left.
The remnants of Pickett’s division kept coming. A regiment led by General Armistead was the first to gain the stone wall at the Bloody Angle and the adversaries were now face-to-face. Fuger was an experienced soldier, having served for five years before the war in a variety of smaller conflicts. He would engage in 63 separate combat actions during the Civil War. The men rallied to him and fought as savagely as an Army could. Death was now coming by clubbing and strangulation as Meade hurried reinforcements to the critical spot.
JULY 3, 1863, STENCH AND SILENCE
Meade’s strategy turned out to be the right call. Thanks to Fuger and his men, Armistead’s advance over the stone wall at the Bloody Angle was as far as the Southerners could advance. The historians call it “the high watermark of the Confederacy.”
Those historians tell us about the “great men,” the statesmen and generals who bend the world to their vision. But history is made by men like Fredrich Fuger. Who knows what drove him and his enemy that day. By the time the fighting was in close, it was surely just survival. But before that point, they each had chances to retreat or stop. Yet men by the thousands knowingly consigned their fates to the Gods of war. Fuger was a prime example; he had served five years already as the War approached; his enlistment was ending. He had an out that he refused.
Why? We cannot know all of Fuger’s thoughts more than 150 years later. One thing is certain, however; Fuger fought for something other than his native land. Born in Goppingen, Germany, the Sergeant arrived on our shores in in 1854 at the age of 18. Despite his extraordinary service, Fuger did not become a U.S. citizen until being naturalized in 1888. Nine years later Congress presented him with the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor.
Fuger must have re-enlisted believing the cause to be just, but justice gives way to bitterness and cynicism when you stand alone in a field of dead and dying friends. Rage so easily grows in the fractures that conflict provides us that no one would have blinked an eye if Fuger had spent the rest of his life as a hermit, a drunk or a mad man. Instead, the quiet German continued his military career with distinction, married a Scottish woman and led a life of distinction.
JULY 4, 1863 GETTYSBURG. BEGINNINGS.
The most remarkable thing about this remarkable man turns out not to be his courage or his resilience. We know quite a bit about Fuger because he wrote his family about Gettysburg and what it meant. In remembering what had brought him to that Pennsylvania headquarters post “four score and seven years” after his adopted country came to be, he saw not just the victorious North. With almost poetic reverence, Fuger was able to describe his adversaries as something other than the mortal enemies they had been only hours before:
It has been asked: “What other than Southern troops could have made that charge?” Aye, but what other than our brave Northern troops would have met and repulsed it? It is a moment to American valor, both North and South. In this desperate charge, scores of the enemy’s officers went down. Armistead and Garrett were killed, and Kemper severely wounded. Of the whole number of field officers of the splendid division that advanced so proudly across the field, Pickett and one lieutenant-colonel alone returned. He brought out of his whole division barely 1,000 men. They had done all that mortal men could do, and could do no more.
Thus ended Gettysburg, one of the decisive battles of the world. More than forty thousand Americans dead and wounded at the hands of fellow Americans.
THE FRATERNITY +1; THE FIRST GENDER BENDER
3,508 have worn the Medal of Honor, established during the war in which Fuger served. In a sense, they are Fuger’s descendants. Their stories are remarkable reflections of the best we have to offer and the flaws we have to overcome. Start with the fact that of the 3,508 winners, there is a distinct gender imbalance: Dr. Mary Walker is the sole female Medal of Honor winner.
The idea that men dominate a combat award surprises no one. But Dr. Walker’s story is worth repeating because she was a woman 150 years-at least-ahead of her time. Born in Oswego, New York , Dr. Walker was raised with her six siblings by parents who gave “free thinkers” a new meaning. That free thinking started on the farm, where the Walker family did the jobs that needed doing, not the jobs “appropriate” for their gender. As a result, Mary saw nothing odd about her dad doing household chores or she and her mom working the fields. That field work led Mary to a life-long habit for which she became infamous—almost exclusively Mary Walker wore men’s clothing.
The Walkers’ commitment to reform society included education so Mary attended the co-educational school her parents founded with the idea that she would progress to higher learning just like her brothers. She did that, eventually graduating with honors and a medical degree in 1855. Unique to the time, Mary earned her own college tuition through a teaching job.
The sole female in her class, Mary met and married a classmate but remained true to her ideals. She wore men’s trousers under her short wedding dress, refused to include the “obey” language in her vows and kept her maiden name. The couple established a joint medical practice that failed when people refused to be treated by either of the young doctors because one of them was a female. Eventually, the marriage suffered the same fate.
A WOMAN AT WAR.
When the war came, the Union Army refused her enlistment as a surgeon, believing a nursing job to be more in line with Mary’s female sensibilities. Nothing if not persistent, Mary began volunteering her services at the first major engagement of the war, Bull Run. Union wounded soon flooded Washington, D.C. and Mary continued her volunteer services at a hospital in the US Patent office. Eventually the army offered her a contract position, perhaps convinced by her offer to serve as a spy.
Whatever the reason, Mary Walker was the first U.S. Army female surgeon. She traveled with the Ohio 52nd Regiment and often crossed enemy lines to treat wounded civilians. She was doing just that in April 1864, partnering with a Confederate doctor doing an amputation on a civilian when the Confederate Army decided she was a spy and took her as a prisoner of war. She returned to the Union as part of a prisoner exchange four months later. Although the reasoning for selecting prisoners subject to exchange is not expressed in writing, one wonders if the Southern gentleman responsible simply did not know what to do with Mary. She kept true to her refusal to wear women’s clothes even as a prisoner.
After the war ended, Mary petitioned for a commission based on her remarkable service record. President Andrew Johnson personally reviewed the application and could still not bring himself to commission a female officer; he decided on the Medal of Honor as a fitting substitute for her brave and unstinting service.
A WOMAN NEVER RESTS.
Mary never changed, a fierce defender of women in a man’s world. She was fairly well known and used her fame, energy and intellect on behalf of the suffrage movement, continuing to wear men’s clothes. That attire continued to really bother people. While in New Orleans in 1870, the police arrested her so as to interrogate her about whether the “man dresser” had ever had sex with a man, seeking evidence sufficient to convict her of homosexuality. Her failed marriage kept her out of jail.
Mary wrote often in The Sibyl: A Review of the Tastes, Errors and Fashions of Society repeating her theme that women’s dress was detrimental to their health and standing as full members of society. Dr. Walker earned respect among the early feminists and was a bit of a patron saint for a growing number of women doctors. She was fighter who died just a year short of seeing women earning the nationwide right to vote.
JULY 18, 1863: A STRANGER IN HIS HOMELAND.
Just as remarkable as Mary Walker, William Harvey Carney earned the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire defending the regimental flag for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at the battle of Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina in July 1863. Just two weeks after Sergeant Fruger fought so valiantly for his adopted country, Carney completed an even more ironic journey.
Born in 1840 in Norfolk, Virigina, Carney undoubtedly prayed to never return to the South when he escaped slavery, by most accounts through the Underground Railroad. So it must have been a special type of fear Sgt. Carney overcame to March back to the South and face death, or probably worse, recapture. That fear gives special meaning to Carney’s heroics. Regimental flags occupied a place of out-sized honor in the fighting. Losing one signified losing a battle.
Of course, when a flag transferred, by definition the enemy was upon you. Carney refused to flee and protected the flag, later joyously recounting that “the old flag never hit the ground.” That quote later found a home in a popular post-war song. Carney could smile about it then, but standing his ground against the risk of a fate worse than death meant he earned the honor. It took decades for Carney to receive the award, but his actions were the first ever to entitle an African American to the white star on a field of blue.
THE PANDEMIC CREATES A DREAMER.
When 27-year-old Silvestre Herrera received his World War II draft notice in El Paso, Texas he was ready to serve. He probably was not ready for the conversation he had with his dad that night. After dinner, Silvestre’s dad told him he did not have to go. Puzzled, Silvestre asked why. The answer turned the young man’s world upside down.
Silvestre’s “dad” revealed that he was not, in fact, Silvestre’s father; instead, he was Silvestre’s uncle. Unknown to Silvestre, he had been born in Mexico. Silvestre’s parents died in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. His uncle took him in and illegally immigrated to the United States. So not only was Silvestre an orphan, he was also not a U.S. citizen. Just like Fredrick Fuger, he had an out. And just like Fuger, Herrera said no thank you; I will fight for the country that has given me so much.
MARCH !5, 1945, THE DREAMER GIVES BACK
The war in Europe was drawing to a close when Herrera’s unit found itself in a heated fight with the retreating Germans in the Alsace. Herrera did enough to earn the medal when he saw his mates pinned down by heavy machine gun fire. He single handedly rushed the pillbox housing the German gun and subdued it along with the eight German soldiers inside.
The thing about war is, it is relentless. Later that afternoon, Herrera’s unit found itself in the same predicament. This time, however, a minefield stood between them and the source of the deadly fire. Again, the Mexican citizen took matters into his own hands. Grabbing a piece of wood that he pushed before him, Herrera began to crawl through the minefield. He hoped the wood was long enough to explode the mines in front of him without too large of an explosion. As he neared the enemy nest, Herrera realized his progress would not be quick enough for either him or his unit. Drawing a deep breath he stood and ran at the nest.
Luck was not with him and two small, but brutal explosions followed, costing Herrera both his feet. Silvestre Herrera had come that far and was not one to stop short. On his knees he moved forward, lacing the nest with covering fire. His unit was able to follow his path and overtake the enemy. The U.S. Army continued its advance, pushing the Germans back in the race to uncover the horrors that lay behind the Reich’s borders. Silvestre Herrera was on his way back to the States and a lifetime of prosthetics.
PAPERWORK, PROCLAMATIONS AND TWO PRESIDENTS.
Not knowing his citizenship status, Herrera’s officers completed the paperwork for the medal, which was clearly deserved. Soon, however, a mad scramble occurred to get Herrera citizenship status to avoid the administrative and practical problems that would come with acknowledging the legal truth. Good politics won out and soon Herrera was both a U.S. citizen and a member of the elite fraternity.
President Truman was concerned the young man’s injuries would prevent him from attending a public ceremony. Herrera had no qualms and a big smile when he was rolled into the East Room of the White House. Silvestre later said as excited as he was to meet the President, he puffed up even more when Truman told him that he would rather have won the Medal of Honor than to have been President. As Herrera’s story spread, his home country awarded him Mexico’s version of the same honor, making Silvestre Herrera the only person to hold the dual honor and an official hero in two homelands.
DECEMBER 7, 1941, TORRANCE CALIFORNIA: TED’S WORLD TURNS
Ted Tanouye was a popular young 21-year old in his hometown of Torrance, California. He had graduated from high school three years before and was working full-time in his family’s thriving store that served the town’s large Japanese-American community. Perhaps never in our country’s history has the store of a rising immigrant family turned so quickly or violently. As word of the attack spread over the airwaves, California wrapped itself in hysteria and suspicions turned towards Ted’s community.
Those fears visited the Tanouye family with a vengeance. Early the next year, Ted’s family was interred, spending the war behind fencing thousands of miles from home. Eventually, they served their interment in Arkansas. Ted, however, was not with them. Instead, he was in Italy fighting for the country that was imprisoning his family.
JULY 7, 1944, VENTOABBOTO, ITALY: WHAT IS AN AMERICAN
Ted Tanouye had been in Italy three days when he saw his first action. His unit needed to dislodge German forces from hilly countryside and was repeatedly pinned down. Perhaps he was extraordinarily brave or maybe he wanted to prove himself as the new guy. Most likely, though, Ted Tanouye had to prove he was as American as anyone despite his heritage. Whatever the reason, Tanouye repeatedly advanced ahead of his unit, just like Herrera had, paving the way for the advance. This pattern repeated itself throughout the day until a grenade exploded near him. Disabled but not defeated, Tanouye refused evacuation until he consolidated his unit in an effective fighting position from which they achieved the day’s objective. His undeniable valor earned him the Medal of Honor in the brief moment of service he had to give.
SEPTEMBER 1, 1944, SAN MAURO CILENTO, ITALY: TED TANOUYE IS AN AMERICAN
The thing about war is, it is relentless. Most men who earned the Medal of Honor might have been returned to sell war bonds. Ted Tanouye recuperated in a field hospital and returned to the front lines. On September 1, 1944, he was again leading his unit advancing through the beautiful Italian countryside. Like Silvestre Herrera, he encountered a minefield. Unlike Silvestre, the blast was fatal. Sgt. Tanouye never got to meet the president or have a parade in his honor. Instead, Ted’s parents learned of his death and his heroics locked in an internment camp thousands of miles from their home.
The family returned to Torrance after the war; Ted is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery there next to his close high school friend, another Japanese American soldier who died during the war. There are memorials to Tanouye in Torrance, but in 2018, someone removed the plaque next to the high school. Not entirely unexpected as the voters in 2002 rejected a petiton request to rename his elementary school in his honor. I can only imagine why.
OCOTBER 20, 1951, SANGSAN-NI, KOREA: THE WHITE SOX PROPSPECT
If there were questions about whether Fuger, Carney, Herrera, and Tanouye were Americans, no such doubts should have existed about Woodrow W. Keeble. In the mid-1950’s, baseball was truly the national pastime and Keeble’s huge right arm made him a prospect in the White Sox system. Plus, his family and ancestors had been on American soil since well before Columbus found the New World. Woodrow Keeble was a full blooded member of the Dakota Tribe, raised in poverty on the Lake Traverse Reservation.
Keeble served heroically in World War II, but earned his medal in the final campaign of the Korean War. The United Nations’ final push was meeting heavy Chinese resistance and Keeble’s unit was at the forefront. The thing about war is, it is relentless. Keeble first took fire on October 15, suffering minor wounds. October 16 was apparently an off day, but Keeble was wounded again on the 17th and the 18th. Keeble got treatment on the 19th; from his medical records we know how he went to war on October 20th for his sixth straight day of intense fighting.
Specifically, his left arm had been hit twice by rifle fire. He had twisted his knee. Most concerning, shrapnel from a grenade had nearly removed his nose; the day before Keeble’s last battle, the doctors separated 83 fragments from his face. By now, however, Keeble knew his men followed him. Their assigned hill was the last Chinese obstacle between the United Nations Army and Kumsong. Keeble would not be spending the day in a MASH unit.
The thing about Woodrow Keeble is, he was relentless. Three times he lead the charge up the hill; three times he was repulsed. He vowed that the next attempt would bring success or he would die trying. The fourth try was a solo venture. With several rifles and an arsenal of grenades, Keeble crawled up the hill, using trench work to avoid the enemy.
His objective was three separate pill boxes housing enemy guns. Keeble’s left arm might have been dangling, but it was the right arm that had attracted the baseball scouts. From the trenches that right arm started raining destruction on the enemy positions. When the Chinese understood what was happening, their entire platoon returned with fire with fury. One of Keeble’s men later described the grenades from the Chinese as simulating a flock of birds covering the sky. The Chinese platoon, however, was no match for Keeble’s prolific right arm, his speed in the trenches and his aim with a rifle. Single-handedly, Keeble cleared the hill and the war drew to a close.
PAPERWORK AND PROGRESS
Those who saw Keeble’s attack were awed. They submitted the Medal of Honor paperwork and the Army lost it. That was an injustice that would not stand, so they submitted the paperwork again. The Army lost it again. The thing about Keeble’s unit was that they learned from Keeble about being relentless. A third submission.
The rule was that submission had to be two years from the events. The Army awarded Sgt. Keeble the Distinguished Service Cross; that would have to be enough. Keeble returned to the reservation; lost a wife to disease and fell ill himself. He had a son to raise and bills. Sgt. Keeble pawned his medals to make ends meet. Eventually, Keeble remarried and found some stability, dying in 1982. His legend in the Dakotas never dimmed.
At a ceremony in 2006 in which Keeble’s family was to be given a new set of medals word came that after decades of work, the Secretary of Defense had recommended that Woodrow Keeble’s distinguished Service Cross be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Two years later, Woodrow Keeble’s descendants were at the White House for a wrong to be righted 57 years late; Woodrow Keeble became the 32nd native American to wear the honor.
MAY 21, 2021, WASHINGTON D.C.: COL. RALPH PUCKETT-A RANGER’S RANGER.
Keeble’s award resulted from legislation that allowed for the review of previously awarded Distinguished Service Crosses despite the two-year statute of limitations that had kept him from his medal. Less than two months ago, President Biden continued the solemn tradition of awarding then nation’s highest honor to a deserving soldier. Our latest award recipient grew up in Tifton, Georgia. Attended West Point and almost immediately after graduation found himself on Hill 205 in Korea.
Green lieutenants are a common script device for Hollywood war movies. But Ralph Puckett is a born leader with guts and charisma that far outweighed inexperience. The most recent ceremony recalled another horrific day of relentless assault and repulse. It took then Lt. Puckett six tries to take the hill. By the time he succeeded, his wounds prevented moving him.
War may either make or reveal relentlessness; I am not sure which is it. Regardless, when the Army offered Lt. Puckett his medical discharge, he politely declined and spent the next 21 years defending his country. In 1967 he found himself back in Asia, leading Army Rangers as a Lieutenant Colonel, still leading from the front. He earned a second Distinguished Service Cross before “retiring” in 1971. Leadership and service have a way of sticking. Col. Puckett’s second career was as program coordinator for Outward Bound and later Discovery, Inc. Teaching America’s youth about relentlessness, selflessness and teamwork.
JULY 4, 2021
Saying that history’s greatest republic faces an existential crisis seems both an exaggeration and an ill-timed remark for America’s birthday celebration. Shockingly, however, the Fourth of July has always been shorthand for an idea of which we might no longer be certain. The document that John Hancock and his friends placed their signatures on 245 years ago says that a people have the right to govern themselves; that the right is sacred. Crucial to that declaration is the understanding that “a people” can govern themselves. Can we?
Fredrick Fuger was able to see it. There is dignity and valor in all of us, even when we fiercely disagree. Sgt. Fuger’s descendants in valor have proved that point again and again. If we think divisions of class, race, heritage, or gender are hills too big to take, we have failed to heed the lessons our heroes offer. Despite the divisions and acrimony, we know that there are better angels among us. More importantly, better angels live within us. So, as you celebrate tonight, make yourself a promise and keep it.
America at its best is the world’s hope, a light that cannot go out. See the best in your fellow Americans and let them see the best in you. It is all that mortal men can do.
God bless Fredrick Fuger, the heroes who followed and the United States of America.