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Certificate rediscovered for local Civil War hero

OBSERVER Photo by M.J. Stafford This is the memorial in front of Fredonia Village Hall dedicated to Lt. William Cushing for his role in sinking the CSS Albemarle during the Civil War.

A certificate awarded in 1865 to a Civil War hero with deep Fredonia connections was recently rediscovered.

The document, awarding William Barker Cushing a Master Mason third degree from Star of Bethlehem Lodge at Chelsea, Mass., was found in the archives of Fredonia’s Forest Masonic Lodge.

Cushing and his family were originally from Delafield, Wis., but moved to a house on Forest Place in Fredonia following his father’s death while he was a small child.

Commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy when just 19 years old, Cushing’s best-known exploit was planning and helping to execute the sinking of a Confederate gunboat, the CSS Albermarle, during an October 1864 nighttime raid. A grateful Congress awarded him $50,000, which is close to $1 million in today’s value. The raid is memorialized in front of Fredonia’s Village Hall.

Cushing died in 1874, at only 32 years old, but his wife and two daughters lived for many more years and are buried at Fredonia’s Forest Hill Cemetery. (He is interred at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., which is indicated on an obelisk at the Forest Hill gravesite.)

William Barker Cushing

His three older brothers also served in the military. One of them, Alonzo, died fighting off Pickett’s Charge on the third and final day of the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg and received a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2014 for his actions.

Paul Scheeler, Forest Masonic Lodge historian, noted that a 1957 biography of William Cushing “credited the sinking of the CSS Albermarle as a turning point against mounting national sentiment that the Union could not win, boosting (Abraham) Lincoln’s bid for re- election in November 1864.” Scheeler added that another 2003 book called “Cushing: Civil War SEAL,” presents the mission as one of the foundations of today’s Navy SEALS special operations force.

With the war still raging, Cushing met with Lincoln in Washington in early March 1865, then traveled to Massachusetts to visit family and get the Masonic certificate. While there, he met with local civic leaders, was serenaded by a brass band and dined with the state governor.

Scheeler said, “Such certificates … were issued as a proof of membership in the Masonic fraternity, and often carried by those in the military in the event they were wounded or killed, as a basic means of identification and in the hope that aid might be rendered.”

Dave Ludemann, presiding officer of Fredonia’s lodge, and Scheeler are going to Boston for a June 9 ceremony to return the certificate. Star of Bethlehem Lodge, still in existence but now based in Wakefield, Mass., is taking it back.

This is a certificate a Massachusetts Masonic Lodge awarded William Barker Cushing in 1865. The certificate was recently discovered in the archives of Fredonia’s Masonic Lodge.

“This reminds us of the bravery of all who have fought in battles throughout the history of the United States, especially fraternal brethren during the bloody years of the Civil War,” Ludemann said. “We are glad to have preserved this historic artifact in our archives and pleased to be able to finally return it to the care of Brother Cushing’s fellow Masons in Star of Bethlehem Lodge.”

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