DELAFIELD, Wis. — Margaret Zerwekh and Alonzo Cushing were separated by more than a century, but united by a tie to the wooded land here along the Bark River, 35 miles west of Milwaukee.
Drawn by that bond, Ms. Zerwekh, a 90-year-old with a barbed wit, spent 23 years fighting to get Lieutenant Cushing honored for his brave service in the Union Army at the Battle of Gettysburg.
She petitioned congressmen, senators and presidents.
“He wouldn’t back down,” she said of Lieutenant Cushing, 22, who was killed in a storm of gunfire after refusing to retreat, so neither would she.
Ms. Zerwekh, the granddaughter of a Union veteran of the Civil War, spent years tromping to the Waukesha County Courthouse and the history museum to research the background of Lieutenant Cushing, a name of lore in this rural town. His baby brother is said to be buried near Ms. Zerwekh’s home in an unmarked grave that she still hopes to find before she dies. She wrote her first letter on behalf of the Civil War hero in 1987 to Senator William Proxmire.
Lieutenant Cushing had “distinguished himself with gallantry and intrepidity,” she wrote in 2003 in a letter to Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. In her home, she has thick folders stuffed with replies from Washington, including notes from President George Bush and Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
For many years, politicians responded mostly with form letters. But in the early 2000s, Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, took up her cause, moved by the elderly woman’s passion for a long-ago hero. He consulted historians, who affirmed Lieutenant Cushing’s valor, and began a long push to ask the Army to award him the Medal of Honor. Because more than five years had passed since Lieutenant Cushing’s death, the medal requires an act of Congress, which is expected to be passed in the next few months.
Mr. Feingold described both Lieutenant Cushing and Ms. Zerwekh as heroes, and said her work showed how ordinary people can shape the telling of history. He attended a ceremony at a monument for Lieutenant Cushing on Memorial Day in Delafield.
It was not that Lieutenant Cushing’s exploits were unknown. Indeed, an image of the soldier falling to his death is painted in a cyclorama at Gettysburg.
After becoming fascinated with that painting as a 12-year-old in 1964, Kent Masterson Brown, now a lawyer in Lexington, Ky., wrote a book about the life of the soldier depicted in it: “Cushing of Gettysburg” was published in 1993.
“This was some kind of kid,” Mr. Brown said of Lieutenant Cushing’s bravery, noting that the soldier refused to retreat even after being shot.
A graduate of West Point, Lieutenant Cushing had written to a cousin in 1861, saying, “I may never return,” but, he vowed, “I will gain a name in this war.”
Mr. Feingold’s office called Mr. Brown to corroborate Ms. Zerwekh’s account, and later asked the Department of the Army to consider awarding the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Cushing. After a review of the records, Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh agreed this year to recommend the medal. After some formal steps, the award will become official this summer.
Told that Lieutenant Cushing would be honored, 147 years after his act of valor at Gettysburg, Ms. Zerwekh, who uses two canes, said she got so excited about the news, “I jumped up and down.”
The Medal of Honor was not awarded posthumously during the Civil War, so Lieutenant Cushing was not eligible. Decades later, after the policy was changed to award the medal to the dead, Lieutenant Cushing’s name simply did not come up, even though politically connected soldiers of lesser heroism were honored.
“Nobody brought his case to the Army, simple as that,” Mr. Brown said. “He had no advocate for the medal until Margaret Zerwekh.”
Descendants of Lieutenant Cushing have expressed gratitude for Ms. Zerwekh’s work. One relative, Robert Cushing, who recently died, had sent her a book with a warm note and an inscription describing her as an “honorary member of the Cushing family.”
It has not been determined yet where Lieutenant Cushing’s medal will be housed. He moved to upstate New York from Delafield as a small child after the death of his father.
Mayor Michael Sullivan of Fredonia, N.Y., about 60 miles west of Buffalo, said that Lieutenant Cushing “grew up here,” adding, “We’ve got a nice museum — we’d love to have it.”
Mr. Sullivan said he planned to ask Senators Kirsten E. Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer of New York to make sure that Fredonia is recognized in some way. With a Wisconsin senator behind the award, he conceded, it is a safe bet that the medal will end up going to that state.
Ms. Zerwekh said she was exasperated that anyone would think that the medal could possibly go anywhere but Delafield. “I’m the one who did all the work,” she said. She has decided that the medal should be housed at the Delafield City Hall. She has not checked yet with the town’s mayor, Ed McAleer, but does not anticipate any resistance from him.
“When I tell him to do something, he does it,” she said.
The people who know Ms. Zerwekh say they are not surprised that her campaign has ended in triumph. Eric Vanden Heuvel, the archivist for the Waukesha County Historical Society, has fielded many calls and requests from Ms. Zerwekh.
“She is persistent,” Mr. Vanden Heuvel said. “Let’s put it that way.”
Hooray for feel-good stories! And my bb Russ Feingold, of course.