The effort earned Irwin the sobriquet “The Fighting Doctor” and, 33 years later, a Congressional Medal of Honor. Despite this delay, Irwin’s feat stands today as the earliest act of heroism recognized by the Medal of Honor.
Bernard John Dowling Irwin was born in Ireland on June 24, 1830. Little is known of his early life except that his family immigrated to the United States while he was still young and settled in New York. Irwin attended New York University and later the New York Medical College, where he received his medical degree in 1852. Having served as a private in the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard from 1848-51, Irwin eventually joined the U.S. Army in 1856 and he was commissioned as first lieutenant assistant surgeon on Aug. 28, 1856. Soon thereafter he was sent to the duty on the western frontier in New Mexico and Arizona.
In early 1861, as the secession crisis deepened and the country moved steadily toward civil war, few Americans were aware of the conflict then heating up on in the west between the Army and various Indian tribes. In Arizona, relations between white settlers and the Apaches, led by the legendary Cochise, had disintegrated into bloody conflict and the Army was mobilized to intervene. One case in particular had their attention. In the fall of 1860, a band of Apache warriors had attacked a settlement and kidnapped a small boy. After considerable delay, the Army commander at Fort Breckenridge in late January 1861 decided to send a force of 60 men under 2nd Lt. George Bascom to retrieve him. Bascom, however, botched an attempt to arrest Cochise and soon found himself surrounded by a large Apache war party.
When word of Bascom’s predicament reached the commander at Fort Buchanan some 100 miles away, he quickly organized a rescue force. But with the entire area considered hostile territory, he could spare only 14 men. Worse still, he could only provide them with mules instead of horses to make the long trek through a foot of newly fallen snow. Before the fort’s commander could decide upon a leader, Dr. Irwin stepped forward and volunteered.
Irwin and his men traveled several days through snow before they encountered a band of Apaches in possession of a large herd of horses. They attacked, drove off the Apaches, and took the horses for their own use. One day later, on Feb. 14, they arrived at Apache Pass, where Bascom and his men were dug in.
With only 14 men, Irwin knew a traditional assault would be suicidal. Deception, he decided, was his only option. Accordingly, he instructed his men to take up positions forming a wide perimeter along the Apache Pass. On his signal, they began firing their rifles and side arms as rapidly as possible while yelling at the top of their lungs. The idea was to create the illusion that Irwin and his men represented a large detachment of the U.S. Army. It worked. Cochise and his men put up token resistance and then fled. Bascom and his men were free.
Irwin, thereafter known as “The Fighting Doctor,” was hailed as a hero for his courage and quick thinking, but no medal was forthcoming. Indeed, the Medal of Honor had not yet been created. That occurred on July 12, 1862. By then Irwin had been promoted to the rank of captain and assistant surgeon, and later again to major and surgeon (September 1862). Drawn east by the expansion of the Civil War, he served as medical inspector of the Army of the Ohio and the Army of the Cumberland and later as superintendent of the Army General Hospital at Memphis, Tenn. He stayed with the Army after the war, rising to the position of chief medical officer of the U. S. Military Academy (1873-1878) and medical director of the Department of Arizona (1882-1886). In 1891, the now Col. Irwin helped found the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States and served as its first vice-president.
It was probably as much this prestigious career as it was the heroic deed itself in 1861 that led the Army to push Irwin’s case for the Medal of Honor. Finally, on Jan. 24, 1894, 33 years after the event that made him famous, the 64-year-old Irwin received the Medal of Honor. None of the 3,459 Medals of Honor issued then or since has recognized an earlier act of heroism, making Irwin’s Feb. 14, 1861 exploit the first.
Incidentally, Irwin helped add to the already high number of Irish-born men to receive the medal. Of the 728 foreign-born soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor, 256 were born in Ireland, making the Irish the top immigrant group in that category.
Dr. Irwin retired from active duty six months after receiving the Medal of Honor with the rank of brigadier general. He died Dec. 15, 1917 at the age of 88.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Feb. 12, 1818: Chilean revolutionary Bernardo O’Higgins declares Chile an independent nation.
Feb. 13, 1866: The James Gang (so named for its leaders Jesse and Frank James) stages the first organized bank hold up in U.S. history in Liberty, Mo.
Feb. 14, 1847: Rescuers finally reach the survivors of the Donner Party, who had become snowbound in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains for months. Nearly half the original 89 pioneers perished from exposure or starvation.
Feb. 13, 1920: Opera soprano Eileen Farrell born in Willimantic, Conn.
Feb. 14, 1882: Actor John Barrymore is born in Philadelphia.
Feb. 15, 1809: Inventor and manufacturer Cyrus McCormick is born in Rockbridge County, Va.
Feb. 16, 1870: Reformer and labor activist Leonora O’Reilly is born in New York City.