1861 Apache Campaign: First Action Awarded the Medal of Honor
For a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, there is no higher military decoration than the Medal of Honor, personally presented to the recipient (or family members, in the case of a posthumous award) by the President of the United States in the name of Congress. The Medal of Honor for Navy personnel was created in December 1861, and on July 12, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law a resolution designating the Medal of Honor for any member of the Armed Forces. It is awarded to those who have distinguished themselves by “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.”
The first military action to be awarded the Medal of Honor actually occurred before the military honor was created: the brave leadership shown by Assistant Surgeon Bernard J. D. Irwin in rescuing a detachment of U.S. soldiers during the Apache Wars on Feb. 13-14, 1861. Ironically, the first military action recognized was not the first Medal of Honor awarded, for Irwin had to wait 33 years before receiving his Medal of Honor. In another irony, the troops Irwin saved were only captured by the Apaches in the first place due to the soldiers’ treachery.
The conflict began when some Apaches raided the ranch of John Ward in New Mexico Territory [present-day Arizona], stealing cattle and seizing his 12-year-old stepson. In January 1861 Second Lieutenant George N. Bascom led 60 soldiers to rescue the boy, heading into Apache Pass—an area frequented by Chiricahua Apaches and their chief, Cochise. The Chiricahua, who had a long history of hostilities with the Mexicans down south but maintained peaceful relations with Americans, had not participated in the raid on Ward’s ranch.
When Bascom asked Cochise to meet him to see if he had any information about the boy’s whereabouts, Cochise complied. Having no reason to be suspicious, Cochise brought family members with him into Bascom’s camp: his brother, two nephews, his wife and two children. Once the Apaches were all inside Bascom’s tent, soldiers surrounded the tent with fixed bayonets and Bascom announced to the astonished Cochise that he and his family were prisoners until the boy was freed. Cochise explained he had nothing to do with the boy’s abduction, but Bascom was adamant. Cochise and his family were hostages of the U.S. government.
Enraged, Cochise pulled out a knife, sliced through the tent’s wall and escaped into the nearby hills. His family members could not get away. Back with his people, Cochise urged his band to capture three white men, and offered to do a prisoner swap with Bascom—who refused all attempts at settlement. The Chiricahua then lay siege to the soldiers’ camp.
A daring scout slipped through the encircling Apaches and brought word of the soldiers’ predicament to the nearest fort. Fourteen men offered to try and rescue their comrades, and Assistant Surgeon Irwin volunteered to lead the relief expedition. When they arrived at Apache Pass they managed to trick the Apaches into thinking a much larger force was coming to rescue the trapped soldiers. The Chiricahua fled—but not before Cochise killed his three captives. In return, the soldiers hanged Cochise’s brother and two nephews, and the Apache Indian Wars against the U.S. government were underway. The bloodshed would continue for 25 years.
On Jan. 21, 1894, as he was retiring from his 38-year military career, Irwin was awarded the Medal of Honor for his rescue mission against the Apaches back on Feb. 13, 1861.
This article about Irwin being awarded the Medal of Honor was published by the Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois) on Jan. 31, 1894:
Colonel Irwin Is Honored
Receives a Medal for Meritorious Service during an Apache Campaign
Colonel B. J. D. Irwin, medical director of the Department of the Missouri, who has an office at General Miles’ headquarters, has been awarded the bronze Medal of Honor which Congress, by an act passed in 1864 [correction: 1862—ed.], authorized the War Department to confer upon officers or enlisted men for any specially meritorious conduct in action.
In Dr. Irwin’s case the honor has been long in reaching the recipient, for the act for which it was granted was performed almost thirty-three years ago. Colonel Irwin was then a young surgeon with the rank of second lieutenant, and was serving in New Mexico, where the Apaches were on the warpath.
A band of the Indians surrounded a small detachment of troops in a lonely canyon, and held them in a position where they could defend themselves, but could not escape. The soldiers sent out a scout who evaded the Indians, and reached an encampment of troops several miles distant. When the situation of the besieged men was made known a detachment of twenty men [correction: 15—ed.] was organized, and there being no officer to take charge of it, young Irwin volunteered and led the rescuers mounted on wagon mules into the canyon. After a sharp fight with the Apaches, in which several were killed on both sides, the besieged party was reached and supplied with ammunition which enabled the soldiers to keep the Indians at bay until a cavalry force scattered the enemy and raised the siege. These events occurred on Feb. 13 and 14, 1861. Colonel Irwin has been connected with General Miles’ headquarters for several years.
The medal is about the size of a silver dollar, and bears the words “Medal of Honor,” and an allegorical figure of Minerva repulsing a man who holds in each of his outstretched hands a cluster of serpents. The male figure represents treason. The medal is struck from dies which were made while the War of the Rebellion [i.e., Civil War] was in progress. To receive it is regarded in the army as a distinction to be coveted, although it is given without regard to rank.
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