TWICE A HERO
In the October 2005 “In Their Footsteps” department on the Shiloh battle tour, the author Jay Wertz says that at tour stop 11, “the first tent hospital of the Civil War was established by Federal assistant surgeon Bernard Irwin, who was later awarded the Medal of Honor for doing so.”
In fact, assistant surgeon J.D. Bernard Irwin was awarded the Medal of Honor January 24, 1894, for an entirely different act of heroism. And his act of heroism actually occurred almost two years before the Battle of Shiloh. The award reads: “Place and Date: Apache Pass, Ariz., 13- 14 February 1861; Citation: 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 2nd 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.”
There is quite a difference here!
Frank P. Bricker
JAY WERTZ RESPONDS: My apologies to Mr. Bricker and the rest of the readers. I combined two significant events in the distinguished military life of J.D. Bernard Irwin into one. The Act of Congress establishing the Army Medal of Honor was signed into law by President Lincoln on July 12, 1862, two months after Shiloh, and was first given for acts of heroism by Federal soldiers in the Civil War, beginning with survivors of the Andrews Raid. In 1894, at a time when some of the many medals issued during the Civil War were under review, Irwin, still a colonel in the Army, applied for his pre–Civil War deed to be recognized. It was approved, making Irwin’s heroic act the first event chronologically to gain a soldier the Medal of Honor. Bascom, as a Federal captain, was killed in the Civil War battle at Valverde, N.M., on February 21, 1862, a little more than a year after Irwin came to the rescue of his force. For more information see Above and Beyond—The Story of the Congressional Medal of Honor, by Joseph L. Schott.
A BIGGER BANG
In your December 2005 “Frozen Moment: Boom With a View,” you state that the 15-inch Rodman cannon [above] was the largest gun in the world at the time of the Civil War. This is not true. Both Rodman and Dahlgren manufactured a 20-inch gun. A 20-inch Rodman was cast at Fort Pitt, Pa., in February 1864 and mounted at Fort Hamilton, N.Y. It could fire a 1,080-pound solid shot with 200 pounds of powder up to 8,000 yards. The tube weighed in at an amazing 116,497 pounds, dwarfing the 15-inch Rodman of 50,000 pounds. The gun still exists and is at a park at 4th and 101st streets, Brooklyn, N.Y.
LINCOLN’S SECRET WEAPON?
If future president Abraham Lincoln had anything to do at all with George Pickett’s appointment to West Point—which, according to Richard F. Selcer’s well-reasoned article is doubtful—he was indeed a “seer” as things turned out during his tenure as chief executive.
Major General Pickett may only have been carrying out the orders of his superiors in his ill-fated attack at Gettysburg, but his inattention to command responsibilities at Five Forks on April 1, 1865, led to the unhinging of Lee’s entire defense of Richmond and Petersburg and brought about the end of Confederate resistance in Virginia just eight days later.
The ultimate victory of the Union is due in part at least to George Pickett.
A DEEPER MEANING
Your Ambrose Bierce issue (October 2005) was a good antidote to the antiseptic glorification that characterizes most Civil War writing. With due respect to Gordon Berg, however, he missed the point of the ending of “The Coup de Grâce.” The significance of Major Creede Halcrow’s appearing on the scene just as Lieutenant Downing Madwell puts Sergeant Cattal Halcrow out of his misery is not that Sergeant Halcrow may have died needlessly (with an abdominal wound, survival was unlikely). Instead, the point is that Madwell’s enemy, the major, now had the evidence and incentive he needed to end Madwell’s career (if not his life). “The Coup de Grâce” thus illustrates another recurrent theme of Bierce’s Civil War stories: Time and again, military authority is abused for petty, ulterior motives.
Speaking of “The Coup de Grâce,” your placing opposite the story an advertisement extolling officer swords illuminates another point: The tool Madwell used to end Sergeant Halcrow’s suffering was an object that personifies all the ideals Bierce considered betrayed by war—courage, nobility and earned authority. In the story, the one time a sword is actually used in service of these ideals, it spells the user’s doom.
Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.