on this day in history february 13 1861 army surgeon j d irwin rescues 60 men first medal of honor action

U.S. Army assistant surgeon Bernard John Dowling “J.D.” Irwin rescued a kidnapped boy and 60 soldiers encircled by legendary Apache warrior Cochise on this day in history, Feb. 13, 1861.

Irwin’s heroic volunteer effort under dire circumstances in the Arizona Territory has gone down in American military lore as the first Congressional Medal of Honor action. 

It took place before the award even existed.

The Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest recognition of valor, 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 trek through a blizzard during the rescue effort. 

Bernard “J.D.” Irwin rescued 60 men and a kidnapped boy from Apache warriors on Feb. 13, 1861. It was the first Medal of Honor action in American military history.  (Public Domain)

The dramatic encounter began days earlier when a band of Apaches kidnapped a young boy who had settled the Arizona Territory with his family, according to numerous sources.

The abduction led to a frantic chase by American troops from Fort Breckenridge, who were then surrounded by the Apaches. 

“Assistant Surgeon Irwin voluntarily took command of troops and attacked and defeated hostile Indians he met on the way,” reads Irwin’s Medal of Honor citation, issued more than 30 years later.

“Irwin was determined to now use his military skills to save his comrades.” — HomeOfHeroes.com

“Surgeon Irwin volunteered to go to the rescue of Second Lieutenant 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 help break his siege.” 

HomeofHeroes.com, a website devoted to Medal of Honor history, 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 now use his military skills to save his comrades,” the outlet notes. 

He was allowed only mules and a handful of men because of limited resources at Fort Breckenridge.

Apache warrior Cochise

(Original Caption) Cochise (1812?-1874), American Apache chief. Undated copy of a painting. (Getty Images)

“Faced with a trek of 100 miles in the midst of a winter blizzard, the logistics of the mission were as improbable as the possibility of encountering the much larger enemy force, defeating them, and rescuing the captives.”

What followed on Feb. 13 in Apache Pass, Arizona, was an act of tactical ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds. 

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“With a carefully laid out plan and maximum placement of his 14 men, Irwin succeeded in convincing the Indian warriors that he had arrived with a much larger force, causing them to withdraw,” HomeofHeroes.com reports.

“Bascom’s 60 men were liberated and joined Irwin and his 14 soldiers. The unified force then pursued Cochise into the mountains, where they were able to engage him and rescue the captive boy.”

Actor as J.D. Irwin

Charles Bateman starred as Lt. Bernard Irwin, the U.S. Army doctor who was the first recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, in “The Hero of Apache Pass,” an episode of the TV series “Death Valley Days,” 1967. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

Irwin was born in County Roscommon, Ireland, in 1830 and moved to the United States sometime 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 battlefield surgeon of renown in the Civil War, most notably in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. 

He was at one point during the war captured and briefly held prisoner by Confederate forces. 

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Irwin ultimately achieved the rank of brigadier general. 

He was highly accomplished in battlefield medicine and in surgery, beyond just his heroic exploits in earning the nation’s highest award for valor.  

Union attack at Battle of Shiloh

“Plenty of Fighting Today”: Union troops of the 9th Illinois at the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War. The 9th Illinois Infantry was at Shiloh, Tennessee, on April 6, 1862, when the Confederate Army of the Mississippi struck at dawn. Oil on canvas by Keith Rocco, 1995. “Ben-Hur” author General Lew Wallace served at the Battle of Shiloh, where he took the blame for failures of the Union Army in the eventual northern victory.  (VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

“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 website of the Military Health System 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 age 87. 

Brig. Gen. J.D. Irwin is buried at the U.S. Military Academy Cemetery in West Point.

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