This Day in History: The First Medal of Honor
On this day in 1861, an Assistant Surgeon in the U.S. Army embarks on a rescue of 60 soldiers, then under siege. Bernard Irwin’s action was the earliest in our nation’s history to be rewarded with the Medal of Honor.
His action might have been the earliest chronologically, but it was more than 30 years before he actually received a Medal. At the time of his action, the Medal had not yet been established. “The Fighting Doctor’s” actions were later remembered and Irwin was awarded the Medal as he was retiring, on January 21, 1894.
Irwin’s action occurred during a series of conflicts with the Apache Indian tribes in the mid-1800s. His rescue came during an event that came to be known as the Bascom Affair. The chronology of that Affair has left many historians scratching their heads, and it’s made some of the events surrounding the Medal more confusing than one might typically expect.
“The [Bascom] incident,” one historian noted, “has been the subject of conflicting accounts by numerous historians of Arizona. That no two chroniclers agree on what happened stems largely from the scarcity of original source material, and from the fact that the few participants who did leave testimony themselves disagreed.”
Regardless, there seems to be plenty of blame to go around for much of what happened.
The trouble started in October 1860, when a group of Apache raided a ranch in Arizona. The Apache kidnapped a young boy and stole some livestock. Naturally, the commander at a nearby Fort dispatched soldiers to recover the boy. The task was delegated to 2d Lt. George Bascom. About 60 men went with him.
Unfortunately, some bad assumptions had already been made about which group of Apache had kidnapped the boy. Bascom was looking for Cochise, the Chiricahua Apache chief. But it was the wrong group of Apache! Naturally, Cochise denied any knowledge of the incident when he was confronted. Unfortunately, Bascom didn’t believe him; instead, he attempted to seize Cochise.
Some of Cochise’s family was captured, but Cochise himself slipped away.
Cochise wasn’t going to take any of this lying down, of course. He soon seized his own group of American hostages.
Things went badly from there. Neither side would negotiate with the other. Both sides killed hostages. At one point, a large Apache force found Bascom and his men and surrounded them.
It was at this point that Irwin enters the story. He’d volunteered to find and help Bascom with his own small force of only 14 men. Potentially, he wasn’t planning to embark on a rescue, but instead thought he was leaving to provide medical assistance. He didn’t have any horses, so the small group began their 100-mile march on mules. Along the way, they encountered a group of Indians with some stolen horses; they captured hostages and recovered the stolen horses.
When Irwin found Bascom, he dispersed the Apache siege by cleverly arranging his 14 men in such a way that the Apache believed a much larger rescue force was on the scene.
You will find some historians who question whether Irwin really deserved the Medal. Questions are raised about some of the hostages who were hanged and whether that should have happened. :/ Either way, his was, chronologically, the very first one.
America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (Jim Willbanks ed. (2011)
Benjamin H. Sacks, New Evidence on the Bascom Affair (Arizona and the West; 1962)
Dan L. Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, G-O (1991) (vol. 2)
Medal of Honor citation (Bernard J.D. Irwin)
Robert M. Utley, Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army and the Indian, 1848-1865 (1981)
Robert M. Utley, The Bascom Affair: A Reconstruction (Arizona and the West; 1961)
Terry Mort, The Wrath of Cochise: The Bascom Affair and the Origins of the Apache Wars (2013)