On a cold January morning in what was then the New Mexico Territory but today is known as Arizona, 12 year old Felix Ward was tending his father’s herd of sheep and cattle. Felix was the adopted son of John Ward who had immigrated to America from Ireland during the Great Hunger and had traveled west to seek his fortune in the gold fields of California. While not finding gold in California, John Ward had prospered through hard work in the lands of the recent Gadsden Purchase, resulting in a handsome 160 acre ranch. John Ward had taken a young Mexican wife known for her beauty who, with young Felix and his sister, had been abandoned by her first husband. John Ward was away from the ranch that day leaving his stepson to his chores not knowing that a band of Aravaipa Apaches had targeted the homestead for a raid. They captured the boy and twenty head of cattle before fleeing at the sight of approaching riders. John Ward returned home to find his wife inconsolable over the loss of her son. He immediately proceeded to Fort Buchanan demanding the Army get the boy and the stolen cattle back.
The Commanding Officer of Fort Buchannan gave the rescue mission to a 25 year old Second Lieutenant George Bascom. Lt. Bascom left the fort with a force of fifty-four mule mounted infantry men. Bascom was a young officer eager to make a name for himself; this combined with orders that gave him a great deal of latitude was a recipe for disaster. It was not long in coming. There was evidence that the Apache raiders had made for a trail frequently used by the Chiricahua Apaches that led to the Apache Pass where the Overland Stage maintained a station. On this circumstantial evidence, Bascom wrongly assumed that the raiding party was Chiricahua Apaches who were led by their Chief Cochise. Bascom and his men made camp at the stage station and sent a message to Cochise seeking a parlay. Cochise arrive the next day with his wife, son, brother and three warriors unaware of Bascom’s suspicions. Cochise and his party were invited to join Bascom’s in his tent. Bascom secretly gave orders that guards were to secure the entrance to the tent once Cochise entered. Once inside the tent, Bascom accused Cochise of abducting Felix Ward and demanded the boy and the stolen cattle back. Cochise truthfully stated that his people were innocent and he did not have the boy, but pledged to help find him. Unconvinced, Bascom ordered that Cochise and his party be seized and held hostage for the boys return. Cochise and his brother made for the tent opening only to find it blocked by the guard’s bayonets. Cochise simultaneously turned and pulled his knife, cutting a hole in the tent through which he escaped. An hour later, Cochise appeared again on the ridge line overlooking the camp. Cochise appealed to Bascom that if the prisoners were released now, no vengeance would be taken and he would look for the boy. Bascom’s response was to order his men to fire a volley. Cochise swore vengeance.
Lt. Bascom soon realized the folly of his arrogance. The Apache Pass station was in a valley and Cochise and his Chiricahuas had the surrounding high ground; they were soon ringed by hundreds of Apache Warriors. The Apache made an attack on the station wounding several of Bascom’s men in addition to attacking two stagecoaches that had come into the station unaware of the danger. Bascom realized that he has allowed himself to be pinned and needed help. Five of his men volunteered for the dangerous mission of trying to cross the Apaches lines and travel back to Fort Buchanan. The volunteers reached the Fort late the next day. The commanding officer had few troops to spare from a garrison already depleted by the absence of Bascom’s men. Knowing that there were gravely wounded men at the Apache Pass Station, Assistant Surgeon Bernard J. D. Irwin volunteered to lead a relief party of sixteen volunteers while a messenger was sent to Fort Breckinridge for reinforcements. Dr. Irwin was born in Roscommon and had emigrated as a child with his parents to escape the Great Hunger. The commanding officer knew the incredibly long odds of this little party being able to cross hostile territory and sent for more immediate reinforcements as an equalizer, “Paddy” Graydon. Graydon was another recent Irish immigrant who had served with the U.S. Army Dragoons before leaving the army to open a saloon. Graydon was always up for an adventure and was described as “fearless” and “indefatigable”. In addition to speaking fluent Spanish, his service with the Dragoons had made him knowledgeable in the ways of fighting in the American Southwest. With the arrival of Graydon, Irwin’s small party of seventeen men mounted on mules began the journey to Apache Pass in a blinding snowstorm to relieve Bascom.
Despite the fierce snowstorm, Irwin and his party covered a remarkable sixty-five mile the first day. The next day, Irwin’s men sighted a raiding party of Coyotero Apaches driving stolen cattle and horses. This was tailor made for Paddy Graydon. The Irish former Dragoon led the mule mounted infantry in a wild pursuit that netted thirteen cattle, three horses and three prisoners. Pressing on, Irwin and his men reached Apache Station that night to the cheers of its defenders as they brought both badly needed medical attention and food in the form of the captured cattle. With these reinforcements and supplies, the besieged garrison was able to hold out until more substantial relief in the form of two companies of Dragoons arrived from Fort Breckinridge.
The participants of what came to be known as the “Bascom Affair” could not have known that they had participated in an event which would result in a 25 year war between the U.S. and the Apaches. The events of Apache station and their significance would be eclipsed with the start of the American Civil War. Dr. Bernard Irwin would distinguish himself again in that conflict. While serving at the Battle of Shiloh, Dr. Irwin would be credited with establishing the concept of the field hospital, the forerunner to MASH units, saving countless lives by treating and stabilizing the wounded while on the battlefield. Irwin would retire a Brigadier General after a long distinguished career in the Army Medical Corps. On January 21, 1894, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Apache Station, though they predated the creation of the Medal of Honor by a year, making it the earliest action for which the medal has been awarded. “Paddy” Graydon would go on to raise a unit of volunteers and fight in the Civil War, with his unit playing a major role in checking Confederate ambitions in the Southwest. He would die in settling an affair of honor by a duel, a swashbuckler to the end. John Ward would die a few years after the “Bascom Affair” without seeing his stepson again. Felix Ward would be assimilated by the Apaches and become an Apache Scout under the name “Mickey Free”, followed by a career as a bounty hunter and tribal policeman
Neil F. Cosgrove, Historian