A Journey in Time to 1861: The Heroic Actions of Assistant Surgeon Bernard Irwin

By Ed Hooper

The story of the first actions awarded the Medal of Honor is older than you may think. The Medal’s origins in the U.S. Civil War dominates the decoration’s history and numbers, but it’s not the entire story of the nation’s highest award.

Bernard John Dowling Irwin was an Irish immigrant who had put himself through medical college in New York before following his countrymen’s tradition of military service and joining the Army. He was was stationed at Corpus Christi, Texas as an Assistant Surgeon, which was roughly equivalent to a lieutenant rank, and not long after found himself stationed at Fort Buchanan in modern-day Arizona.

In early February 1861, the frontier outpost received a message from Second Lieutenant George N. Bascom saying he needed aide and needed it fast. Bascom and 60 of his men from the U.S. Seventh Infantry were completely trapped and surrounded by Chiricahua Apaches under the leadership of legendary Chief Cochise.

The first Apache War had begun a few days earlier when the Army, on a rancher’s word, had falsely charged the Chief’s brother and two nephews with stealing cattle and kidnapping a child. There were many different Apache tribes, but, because they were closest to the scene, the Army arrested them. Cochise responded by kidnapping three white men to ransom for his relatives; the offer was refused and the Chief killed them. The Army responded in kind and a 25-year long war began between the U.S. Army and the Apaches.

All cavalry units from Fort Buchanan and elsewhere had been dispatched throughout the region to locate the child and deal with the uprisings of rogue Apaches. Assistant Surgeon Irwin was one of the only officers left on post and volunteered to relieve the trapped men. The horses were gone with the soldiers. Irwin’s only option was to round up and saddle the mules the Army used to pull wagons to cover the 100 miles from Fort Buchanan to Apache Pass where the soldiers were penned.

Irwin and 14 other men set out on mule-back and started putting distance behind them. They were a day or two away from the fort when Irwin and his men ran across an Apache war party holding stolen cattle and horses. They engaged the warriors in a running fight capturing horses and some Apache prisoners. With faster mounts, the 15-man rescue team raced to Apache Pass arriving February 13, 1861.

The Assistant Surgeon spent a day scouting the location of Lt. Bascom’s trapped soldiers and, when night fell, used some old-fashioned Irish guile to stage his men into various positions around the attacking Chiricahuas. They opened fire on them the next morning – making Cochise believe he was surrounded and outnumbered by a superior force. The legendary Apache leader had no option under the circumstances except to withdraw.

Assistant Surgeon Bernard Irwin’s heroic actions entered the pages of Army history as a soldier simply doing his duty. The Medal of Honor was created a year later. The Civil War and ensuing Indian Campaigns in the west dominated the American conscience and the decoration.

Doctor Irwin remained in the Army serving with distinction through the Civil War, Indian Campaigns and rose to the rank of Colonel. His actions in the Civil War would later see him promoted in accordance with an Act of Congress to the rank of Brigadier General while retired. It was during his last years of active service the distinguished surgeon’s actions in Arizona were reviewed and, unknown to him, submitted to an Army Board.

On January 24, 1894, Irwin received the Medal of Honor for his actions against the Chiricahua Chief Cochise rescuing the trapped soldiers in 1861. His actions occurred a year before the decoration was created thus making him the first chronological recipient of the nation’s highest award.