‘The Fighting Doctor’ Unwittingly Earns the First-Ever Congressional Medal of Honor


In February 1861, U.S. Army Assistant Surgeon Bernard J.D. Irwin defied long distance and a snow storm to ensure that soldiers wounded in the nation’s first major battle with the Apaches at Apache Pass, Arizona, could get medical care.  He then joined the fight and helped to break the siege, unwittingly carving his own path to the first-ever Congressional Medal of Honor in doing so.

His official MOH citation recounts his act of valor, as follows:

“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 help break his siege.”

The award was created and bestowed upon Bernard 32 years later, in 1894, according to Army Live.

A Nov. 2015 article in Military Medicine notes that the precise dates of these actions have been contested, but the Medal of Honor award package lists the dates as Feb. 13-14.

But Irwin’s accomplishments didn’t end there. According to a May 2006 Military Medicine article, he’s also credit with creating the U.S. military’s first field hospital during the Battle of Shiloh.

According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Irwin was born in Ireland on June 24, 1830, and enlisted in New York.

He retired from the military as a colonel in 1894, and was later promoted to the rank of brigadier general as the result of an act passed by Congress in April 1904, the U.S. Army Medical Department’s Office of Medical History writes.

“Despite the title of ‘the fighting doctor’ frequently bestowed upon General Irwin he was always interested primarily in his professional work,” the office writes. “Even in the reckless dash from Fort Buchanan in 1861 his first consideration was the need of his professional skill by his besieged comrades.”

Irwin is also the namesake of Fort Riley’s Irwin Army Community Hospital, opened in October 2016.

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