Army Doctor Receives Medal of Honor for Action vs. Apaches – Before MOH's Creation

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Army Doctor Receives Medal of Honor for Action vs. Apaches – Before MOH's Creation

Brigadier General Bernard J.D. Irwin, c. 1904-1917
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: February 13-14, 1861

For today's "Stroll Through Military History," I bring you an incident from the Indian Wars that both preceded and followed the War of the Rebellion. It involves an Irish immigrant U.S. Army surgeon, a kidnapped boy, and an Apache leader wrongly accused of the kidnapping. However, my research on the Internet revealed that the true story is a little different than stated in the MOH citation…


Bernard J.D. Irwin was born in County Roscommon, western Ireland, in 1830, and immigrated with his parents to the United States in the 1840s (remember that nasty little thing known as the "Great Irish Potato Famine"?). He attended New York University from 1848 to 1849, and served as a private in the 7th Regiment of the New York Militia. In 1850 he entered Castleton Medical College, but later transferred to New York Medical College, where he graduated in 1852. He served as a surgeon and physician at the State Emigrant Hospital on Ward's Island until his appointment as an assistant surgeon to the U.S. Army in 1856.

Irwin was posted to various frontier Army posts, mainly in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. He was serving at Fort Buchanan in southeastern Arizona Territory in early 1861. Several southern states had already seceded, and many soldiers in the fort believed they would be recalled to the eastern U.S. by the year's end. And then, trouble with the local Apaches developed.

Cochise and the Apaches and the "Bascom Affair"

On Jan. 27, 1861, a band of unknown Indians struck a ranch, stealing 20 head of livestock and kidnapping 12-year-old Felix Ward. The boy's stepfather reported the incident the next day to the commander of Fort Buchanan, Lt. Col. Pitcairn Morrison . He sent 2nd Lt. George Bascom, who commanded Company C, 7th Infantry, from Fort Buchanan, then located between Sonoita and Patagonia, AZ, with between 50 and 60 men of the 7th Infantry in pursuit. The fort was short of horse, so these men were forced to use mules as mounts.

Fort Buchanan, Arizona (just northeast of Monkey Springs); Note proximity of U.S./Mexican border; Image courtesy of
Fort Buchanan, Arizona (just northeast of Monkey Springs)
Note proximity of U.S./Mexican border
Image courtesy of

After arriving at Apache Pass, the soldiers reached out to Cochise and his Chiricahua Apaches for information about the crime. Bascom's men camped in the area of an Overland Mail station located in Apache Pass. Cochise was a well-known leader of the Chiricahua Apaches, but also was highly regarded by other Apache groups. At this time, he was on fairly good terms with the U.S. government. Cochise would take his bands across the border into Mexico to steal food, horses, and livestock. However, the Mexican government was putting pressure on the Apaches to stop their attacks. Consequently, Apache bands began attacking American ranches, stages, and wagon trains. This was the background as Cochise met with Lt. Bascom at Apache Pass.

Cochise met with Lt. Bascom in the officer's tent, where Bascom explained the situation. The Apache leader speculated that rival Coyotero (White Mountain) Apaches had snatched the youngster. Cochise said that he would help find the boy and arrange his return. Unfortunately, Lt. Bascom didn't buy his story. Instead, Bascom allegedly declared that Cochise would be kept in custody until the kidnapped boy was released. Enraged by the duplicity of the Army, Cochise escaped by using a knife to cut his way through the wall of the tent, but the soldiers apprehended three others, including, by most versions, Cochise's brother and other relatives.

Cochise subsequently captured four men – including employees of the Overland Stage Company – with the idea of swapping them for Bascom's prisoners. [Cochise apparently was sincere when he said he didn't have the kidnapped boy, who turned up alive years later.] The trouble intensified, when other nearby Apache bands came to join Cochise. Bascom's troops were in a bad spot, held in a virtual siege situation. They entrenched in the stage station, dug firing pits, and used grain and flour bags to build parapets.

Surgeon Irwin to the Rescue?

A messenger reached Fort Buchanan on February 8, seeking further help. Asst. Surgeon Irwin volunteered and left Fort Buchanan the next day with 11 men of the 1st Dragoon Regiment, who were the only men who could be spared. They were mounted on mules with the mission to reinforce Bascom. Along the 100 miles or so to Apache Pass, Irwin's party met and clashed with some Apaches, likely Coyoteros, with stolen cattle. He took three Indians prisoner, and recovered the cattle and took some horses, which increased their travel time.

Company of 1st U.S. Dragoons, miniatures in 1/72 inch scale; Mexican-American War period (1846-1848); (The trim on their caps and uniforms should be orange); Image courtesy of
Company of 1st U.S. Dragoons, miniatures in 1/72" scale
Mexican-American War period (1846-1848)
(The trim on their caps and uniforms should be orange)
Image courtesy of

Irwin's group reached Apache Pass on February 10, entering the mail station with no apparent resistance from the Apaches. Thanks to the re-capture of the stolen cattle, Irwin brought fresh meat to the small garrison. Lt. Isaiah Moore showed up with 70 men of the 1st U.S. Dragoons to help Bascom four days later. The negotiations were hopelessly bogged down, neither side yielding an inch.

At some time during the negotiations, Cochise's side upped the ante in a chilling way. For reasons that are still unclear, the Apaches tortured, killed and cut to pieces Cochise's four hostages. The Apaches were getting restless; even though there were an estimated 500 warriors in the hills and arroyos surrounding the mail station, they had no desire to attack the fortified men of the 7th Infantry. On about February 10th or 11th, the Apaches apparently slipped away and went home.


Apache Pass was quiet after the arrival of the Dragoons. On February 16-17, a reconnaissance-in-force was sent out but failed to locate any Apaches. During this patrol the mutilated bodies of the hostages was discovered.

In retaliation, Irwin insisted that the six Apache men held prisoner should be executed: Irwin's three and three taken by Bascom. Bascom was reluctant, but Irwin insisted he would do so in any event, so the lieutenant was persuaded to do the same with his own captives. Thus was initiated what turned out to be a quarter-century of Apache hostility.

[Certainly killing family members of Cochise only further antagonized the tough chief and started a war, but Cochise's role in the Bascom Affair also bewilders scholars and authors. Cochise must bear some responsibility for not controlling his rage or that of his people in the torturing of his four White prisoners, his only bargaining chips.]

Consequently, the history of the Bascom Affair was poorly recorded, even by U.S. Army documents. The citation below is probably the result of lax reporting or perhaps even outright "stretchers" by witnesses. Besides, when it was presented to Irwin 33 years after the events occurred, we have no idea who reported the actual events, or if corroboration was provided. [In addition, Lt. Bascom was unable to provide any information by that point; he had died in February of 1862 at the battle of Valverde. Readers interested in that battle may consult my BurnPit post of February, 2010, entitled: Battle of Valverde: Confederates Invade New Mexico ]

Medal of Honor Citation – Assistant Surgeon Bernard J.D. Irwin

February 13-14, 1861; Apache Pass, Arizona

Voluntarily took command of troops and attacked and defeated hostile Indians he met on the way. Surgeon Irwin volunteered to go to the rescue of 2d Lt. George N. Bascom, 7th Infantry, who with 60 men was trapped by Chiricahua Apaches under Cochise. Irwin and 14 men, not having horses began the 100-mile march riding mules. After fighting and capturing Indians, recovering stolen horses and cattle, he reached Bascom's column and helped break his siege.

Footnote #1: After his mission of February, 1861 Irwin left Fort Buchanan late in 1861, when the 7th Infantry was recalled east to participate in the War Between the States. He was present at the battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), and credited with the formation of one of the first tent field hospitals on the battlefield. He was also captured by the Rebels at a later battle in Kentucky, but soon released.

Footnote #2: At the end of the war in 1865, Irwin received brevet promotions to lieutenant and lt. colonel. He served in various Army medical posts until his retirement in January of 1894. Shortly before retiring, he was presented with the Medal of Honor for his actions 33 years previously. Ten years later, Irwin was promoted to brigadier general on the retired list. Gen. Irwin died in 1917, and is buried in the cemetery at West Point.

Footnote #3: An episode of the TV series Death Valley Days was devoted to this incident. Entitled, "The Hero of Apache Pass," it was the 11th episode of the TV show's 15th season, and was first broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1966.

Footnote #4: Irwin had an interest in natural history. While stationed at Fort Buchanan, AZ in 1858-1860 he collected reptile specimens for the Smithsonian Institution. In 1857 Irwin donated a meteorite to the Smithsonian that came to be known as the Irwin-Ainsa (Tucson) meteorite.

Footnote #5: His son George LeRoy Irwin, an 1889 graduate of West Point, served in the First World War and became a major general in the Army. His grandson Stafford LeRoy Irwin graduated from West Point in 1915, served in the Second World War, and became a lieutenant general in the Army.

Footnote #6: Felix Ward, the young boy who was the object of the "Bascom Affair," was raised among the Coyotero Apaches. He later joined the U.S. Army's Apache Scouts, serving from 1874-1878. He acquired the nickname of "Mickey Free."

Felix Ward, also known as
Felix Ward, also known as "Mickey Free," c. 1874-78
Dressed as U.S. Army Apache Scout

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Since Erwin got the MOH, there had to be more to the operation than this author describes. I think the Death Valley episode is the more accurate one. Wiki also follows closely the Death Valley episode. Robert Taylor mentions in the shows afterword, that Erwin later served as a Senior Medical Officer at West Point.

This author rather butchered this story.

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