This day in history, February 13, 1861, the earliest military action to merit the Medal of Honor was performed by Colonel Bernard J.D. Irwin, an assistant army surgeon serving in the first major U.S.-Apache conflict.
The first U.S.-Apache conflict began when Chiricahua Apache chief, Cochise, kidnapped three white men to exchange for his brother and two nephews held by the U.S. Army on false charges of stealing cattle and kidnapping a child. When the exchange was refused by the army, Cochise killed the white men except for the boy, and the army responded by killing his relatives, setting off the first of the Apache wars.
Near Apache Pass, in southeastern Arizona, Irwin volunteered to rescue Second Lieutenant George N. Bascom, who was trapped with 60 men of the U.S. Seventh Infantry by the Chiricahua Apaches after attempting to go after Cochise. Irwin and 14 men of the 1st Dragoons, initially without horses, began the 100-mile trek to Bascom’s forces riding on mules. After fighting and capturing Apaches along the way and recovering stolen horses and cattle, they reached Bascom’s forces on February 14.
He strategically placed his small unit around Cochise and his men, tricking the Apache leader into thinking that Irwin had a much larger army with him. The Apaches fled as a result and Bascom’s men were saved. Together, they tracked Cochise into the mountains and rescued the young boy that was captured.
Although Irwin’s bravery in this conflict was the earliest Medal of Honor action, the award itself was not created until 1862. It wasn’t until January 21, 1894 that Irwin received the nation’s highest military honor.