b. 24/06/1830 County Roscommon, Ireland. d. 15/12/1927 Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 13/02/1861 Apache Pass, Arizona.
Irwin was born in County Roscommon, Ireland, and immigrated with his parents to the United States in the 1840s. He attended New York University from 1848 to 1849, and served as a Private in the New York Militia. In 1850, he entered Castleton Medical College, but later transferred to New York Medical College, where he graduated in 1852. He served as a surgeon and physician at the State Emigrant Hospital on Ward’s Island until his appointment as an assistant surgeon to the U.S. Army in 1856.
Cochise, the Chiricahua Apache chief, and a group of Apache warriors had been accused of kidnapping a boy and a small group of U.S. soldiers in the Arizona Territory after the Army had captured Cochise’s brother and nephews. When the Army refused to make a prisoner exchange, Cochise killed his prisoners. Soldiers then killed Cochise’s brother and nephews. Second Lieutenant George Nicholas Bascom led a group of 60 men from the 7th Infantry after Cochise but was soon besieged, prompting a rescue mission by the army.
In response to the siege of Bascom and his men, Irwin set out on a rescue mission with 14 men of the 1st Dragoons. He was able to catch up with the Apaches at Apache Pass in present-day Arizona. 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 and Bascom and his men were saved. Bascom and his men joined Irwin and together they were able to track Cochise into the mountains and rescued the young boy that Cochise had captured previously.
The Medal of Honor did not exist during the time of the Bascom Incident and would not be established until a year later in 1862. However, the actions of Irwin were remembered and he was awarded the Medal of Honor just prior to his retirement on January 24, 1894. Irwin’s actions were the earliest for which the Medal of Honor was awarded, pre-dating the outbreak of the American Civil War.
Irwin subsequently served with the army during the American Civil War. He was promoted to captain in August 1861, and the next year was appointed medical director under Major General William “Bull” Nelson. He improvised one of the first field hospitals used by the US Army at the Battle of Shiloh on April 7, 1862.
He was captured during the Battle of Richmond while attempting to save the wounded Nelson. He was promoted to major in September 1862, and after his release the following month he became medical director in the Army of the Southwest. From 1863 to 1865, he was superintendent of the military hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and in March of the latter year was brevetted to the rank of colonel.
He was a companion of the California Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States and the Order of the Indian Wars of the United States.
After the war, Irwin served as a senior medical officer at several posts, including at West Point from 1873 to 1878. He received promotions to lieutenant colonel in September 1885 and to colonel in August 1890. He was retired shortly after his 64th birthday, and promoted to brigadier general on the retired list in April 1904.
Voluntarily took command of troops and attacked and defeated hostile Indians he met on the way. Surg. 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 helped break his siege.
BURIAL LOCATION: US MILITARY ACADEMY CEMETERY, WEST POINT, NEW YORK.
SECTION XXVIII, ROW D, GRAVE 35.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: FAMILY.