U.S. Army Assistant Surgeon Bernard John Dowling “JD” Irwin rescued a kidnapped boy and 60 surrounded soldiers by the legendary Apache warrior Cochise on this day in history, February 13, 1861.
Irwin's heroic volunteer effort under dire circumstances in the Arizona Territory became known in American military lore as the first Congressional Medal of Honor action.
It happened before the award even existed.
The Medal of Honor, the country's highest recognition of value, was created the following year, during the Civil War.
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Irwin received the Medal of Honor in 1894.
The surgeon volunteered to lead 14 men and a mule train on a 100-mile journey through a blizzard during the rescue effort.
The dramatic encounter began days earlier when a band of Apaches kidnapped a boy who had settled in the Arizona Territory with his family, according to numerous sources.
The kidnapping led to a frantic pursuit by American troops from Fort Breckenridge, who were then surrounded by Apaches.
“Assistant Surgeon Irwin voluntarily assumed command of the troops and attacked and defeated hostile Indians he encountered on the way,” reads Irwin’s Medal of Honor citation, issued more than 30 years later.
“Irwin was determined to use his military skills to save his comrades.” -HomeOfHeroes.com
“Surgeon Irwin volunteered to rescue Second Lieutenant George N. Bascom, 7th Infantry, who with 60 men was trapped by the Chiricahua Apaches under Cochise… Irwin and 14 men, without horses, began the 160 march miles riding mules. After fighting and capturing Indians, recovering stolen horses and cattle, he reached Bascom's column and helped break the siege.”
HomeofHeroes.com, a website dedicated to the history of the Medal of Honor, offers a more dramatic account of the landmark day in military lore.
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“Accustomed to using his medical skills to save lives, Irwin was determined to use his military skills to save his comrades,” the outlet notes.
He only had mules and a handful of men because of the limited resources at Fort Breckenridge.
“Faced with a 100-mile journey through a winter blizzard, the logistics of the mission were as improbable as the possibility of encountering a much larger enemy force, defeating it, and rescuing the captives.”
What followed on February 13 at Apache Pass, Arizona, was an act of tactical ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds.
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“With a carefully laid plan and the maximum deployment of his 14 men, Irwin was able to convince the Indian warriors that he had arrived with a much larger force, causing them to withdraw,” reports HomeofHeroes.com.
“Bascom's 60 men were freed and joined Irwin and his 14 soldiers. The unified force then pursued Cochise into the mountains, where they managed to engage him and rescue the captive boy.”
Irwin was born in County Roscommon, Ireland, in 1830 and moved to the United States in the 1840s.
He joined the New York militia as a teenager, studied medicine, and became a U.S. Army surgeon in 1856.
He served as a renowned battlefield surgeon in the Civil War, most notably at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.
At one point during the war, he was captured and briefly held prisoner by Confederate forces.
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Irwin eventually achieved the rank of brigadier general.
He was highly gifted in battlefield medicine and surgery in addition to just his heroic exploits in winning the nation's highest award for valor.
“During the Indian Wars, Irwin served as an assistant surgeon and was credited with performing the first surgery in the state of Arizona and inventing the first tent hospital during the Civil War,” writes Health.mil, the Military Health System website. and Defense Health Agency.
The site adds: “Irwin was also an exceptional commander.”
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Irwin's son George and grandson Stafford served in World War I and World War II, respectively, and both became generals in the U.S. Army. He died in 1917 at the age of 87.
Brig. General J.D. Irwin is buried in the U.S. Military Academy Cemetery at West Point.
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