SAN PATRICIO BATTALION
By the 1840s a significant proportion of the enlisted men in the United States Army were Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany. The Mexican government, aware of prejudice against immigrants to the United States, started a campaign after the Mexican War broke out to win the foreigners and Catholics to its cause. The Mexicans urged English and Irish alike to throw off the burden of fighting for the “Protestant tyrants” and join the Mexicans in driving the Yankees out of Mexico. Mexican propaganda insinuated that the United States intended to destroy Catholicism in Mexico, and if Catholic soldiers fought on the side of the Americans, they would be warring against their own religion. Using this approach, the Mexicans hoped to gain 3,000 soldiers from the United States Army.
In November 1846 Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna organized American deserters with other foreigners in Mexico to form the San Patricio Battalion, or St. Patrick”s Company, a name it probably received from its Irish-American leader, John Riley, formerly a member of Company K of the Fifth United States Infantry. The company saw action at Monterrey, again near Saltillo, and at Buena Vista, each time receiving praise for its thorough job. The most important conflict came at the battle of Churubusco in August 1847. By July 1, 1847, Santa Anna gathered enough deserters and foreigners to organize two San Patricio battalions of 100 men each. As American forces rapidly approached Mexico City, Santa Anna divided his forces into three armies to guard several entrances to the city. One of these, commanded by Gen. Gabriel Valencia, was surprised by the Americans at Contreras and defeated. Santa Anna then decided to concentrate his forces at Churubusco, where there was a fortified bridgehead and a Franciscan convent.
He stationed the San Patricio companies with a battery of five cannons on the bridge. The American forces advanced from the south and the west covering one side of the fort. Although they suffered heavy casualties, the Americans continued to advance. Suddenly they noticed a drop in gun fire as they made their cautious approach. With his supplies running low, Santa Anna now ordered one company of San Patricios into the fort, along with another infantry company and a wagon of ammunition. The cartridges in the wagon, however, were the wrong caliber for all the weapons except those used by the San Patricios. From inside the fort the San Patricios manned three of the seven cannons. (Later some said that their gunfire was aimed at former officers.) The Americans continued to press on, forcing the second company of San Patricios and other Mexican soldiers into the convent. Reportedly, Mexican soldiers inside the convent tried three times to raise the white flag, but the San Patricios, desperate because of their fate if captured, tore it down. At last Capt. James M. Smith of the Third Infantry entered and put his own handkerchief on the pole.
Once back with the United States Army, the San Patricio company did not fare well. Gen. Winfield Scott issued General Orders 259 and 263 establishing two courts martial for seventy-two deserters. Col. John Garland convened the first court martial on August 23, 1847, in Tacubaya. Col. Bennet Riley, an Irish Catholic officer, convened the second court martial at San Angel on August 26. Only two defendants did not receive the death sentence, one excused because of improper enlistment in the United States Army, the other because he was deemed insane. When General Scott received the verdicts for approval, the Mexican people faced him with cries of outrage at the treatment of their soldiers. After considering appeals from the archbishop of Mexico, the British minister to Mexico, and a number of foreign citizens resident in Mexico City (including United States citizens), Scott reevaluated the courts martial, giving close attention to the Articles of War.
Scott issued General Order 281 on September 8, 1847, and out of the twenty-nine men tried at San Angel, twenty received the death sentence. John Riley, the leader, technically deserted before the war between Mexico and the United States was declared, so he could not be hanged. He received fifty lashes and the letter “D” branded on both his cheeks. Scott issued General Order 283 several days later concerning the trials at Tacubaya, confirming the death sentence for thirty San Patricios, and allowing the same considerations he had with the group before. Several of the men received pardon due to their relatively young age; and one man was pardoned because he was not a willing deserter, but had been kidnapped by the Mexicans while he was drunk or so he said. Sentences for the men tried at San Angel were carried out in that village on September 10; sentences from Tacubaya were executed in the village of Mixcoac on September 13. The latter sentences were carried out under the command of Col. William S. Harney, who had the condemned men fitted with nooses at daybreak and then left them standing on the gallows while the battle for Chapultepec Castle raged nearby. The men were to be hanged when the United States flag was raised over the castle; United States troops took Chapultepec several hours later, at 9:30 a.m. The sentences imposed on the San Patricios outraged the Mexican public.
In Toluca Mexican authorities prevented rioters from trying to retaliate against American prisoners of war. This did not end the story of the San Patricios. Mexico continued its dubious recruitment of deserters and by March of 1848 had found enough original San Patricios and new deserters to form two more companies. Mexico did not forget its San Patricios still held by American authorities and continued bargaining for their release. However, it wasn”t until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, and the war ended, that the fourteen remaining prisoners were released. The San Patricios continued as a group, providing support by patrolling areas of Mexico to protect the people from bandits and Indians. They later became involved in revolts within Mexico until a presidential order of General Herrera stopped them. Under the order, Riley was arrested for suspicion of a plot to kidnap President José Joaquín de Herrera, and the San Patricios were recalled to Mexico City where the government could monitor their actions. Herrera, in order to end the problems with the San Patricios and dispel any further crises as well as to cut the postwar budget, dissolved the company in 1848, a short time after it received its last military expenditure in August. While some members of the San Patricio company petitioned the government of Mexico for help in returning to their European homelands, most remained in Mexico as they could not return to the United States.
In general, Irish-Americans have also been uncomfortable with the story of the San Patricios. They could argue, and convincingly, that the overwhelming majority of the 4,811 Irish-born soldiers who served in the U.S. army during the Mexican-American War did not desert. Even if all the San Patricios soldiers were Irish–and they were not–Irish-born deserters would represent less than four per cent of Irish soldiers. During the 19th century, when the Irish place in U.S. society was far from secure, when Irish immigrants faced the hostility of violent nativists and the Know-Nothing Movement, dwelling on the San Patricios was seen as giving ammunition to the enemy. And those instincts were correct–the Know Nothings in fact used the San Patricios in their propaganda as proof of the unreliability of Irish Catholic immigrants. Most of the leading generals of the Civil War–Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee among them–had served as junior officers in the Mexican-American War.
It is interesting to note that never again would U.S. military commanders make the mistake of sending Irish Catholic soldiers to face death under bigoted officers or without chaplains of their own faith. The well known blood sacrifices of the Irish during the Civil War–at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg–to a large extent put to rest the question of Irish loyalty to the Union. But it ushered in an era of historical myth-making in which the Irish became super-patriots, steadfastly loyal to the Republic and always fighting on the “right” side. Carried to its extreme, we have the claim that Irish Catholics were loyal patriots to a man and that Irishmen in fact composed half the forces of George Washington during the American Revolution. This school of Irish-American history, of which the leading exponent was Michael J. O”Brien of the American Irish Historical Institute, tolerated no exceptions to its message.So most Irish-American scholarship on the San Patricios, until recently, was devoted to proving that a) the unit was not really Irish, b) if it was Irish, it was not Catholic, and c) in case a and b were proven correct, it was an ineffectual band of drunks who had repudiated their Irish heritage.After watching the film, we know better.
Although men of Irish birth may not have made up an absolute majority of the San Patricios at all times, Irish Catholics did form its largest ethnic component–ranging by various estimates from 40 per cent to 60 per cent. And the ethos of the unit was undeniably Irish.Curiously, people in Ireland have no trouble in accepting and indeed embracing the San Patricios as national Irish heroes. I happened to be visiting Ireland last year shortly after the documentary was shown on RTE on September 18 –the anniversary of the San Patricio executions at San Angel. And the sense of excitement and pride among those who had seen The San Patricios was very palpable. But perhaps Irish people have a more realistic view of their own military history. They know that Irish soldiers could be found fighting on both sides of almost every major conflict from the 17th through the mid-20th century. In Europe, in the armies of France, Spain, Austria, Russia–and Britain. In the New World, on both sides of the American Revolution–we have eyewitness accounts of the Maguire brothers, who had been fighting on opposite sides, meeting after the battle of Saratoga. And they know that Lord Edward Fitzgerald, one of the heroes of the 1798 Rising, served in the British uniform in South Carolina during the Revolution.
They know that opposing the 144,000 Irishmen in the Union Army were some 30,000 in Confederate ranks, and that the Irish Brigade”s charge up Marye”s Heights at Fredericksburg was halted by the fire of Robert McMilllan”s regiment of Irish rebels. They also know that desertion and defection are part and parcel of every war. And that bodies of Irish soldiers have changed sides since at least 1586, when a regiment of Irish Catholics rounded up after the Desmond Rebellion and shipped to the Netherlands to fight for the Protestant Dutch, promptly deserted to their Spanish Catholic opponents.
They recall that during World War I, Roger Casement toured German POW camps and recruited some 50 Irish prisoners–captured as members of British units–to form the nucleus of an Irish Brigade fighting on the German side. So the fact that 300 or more Irishmen deserted and changed sides during the U.S., war with Mexico should not surprise us. Indeed, in the political and religious climate of the time, we could legitimately ask why the number was so small.
“The San Patricios were alienated both from American society as well as the US Army,” says Professor Kirby Miller of the University of Missouri, an expert on Irish immigration. “They realized that the army was not fighting a war of liberty, but one of conquest against fellow Catholics such as themselves.”
Riley has hardly an unfocused rebel. As an Irishman and Catholic he was undoubtedly appalled and shocked at the behavior of the Texas Rangers and other volunteers who Gen. Taylor admittedly could not control. Among their crimes were murder, rape, robbery and the desecration of Catholic churches.While held prisoner in Mexico City, Riley wrote to a friend in Michigan: “Be not deceived by a nation that is at war with Mexico, for a friendlier and more hospitable people than the Mexicans there exists not on the face of the earth.” After leaving prison, the remaining San Patricios rejoined the Mexican Army and continued to function as a unit for almost a year after the Americans left Mexico. Riley was made commander of the two infantry companies with the brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel, although he was actually a Captain. One unit was tasked with sentry duty in Mexico City while the other was stationed in the suburbs of Guadalupe Hidalgo. By late 1850, 20 of the original San Patricios left Mexico and returned to Ireland under the agreement Mexico had made with them when they enlisted to help them return should they choose to do so. Riley was not among them. John Riley died on the last days of August 1850 and was buried in Veracruz under the name “Juan Reley”, the name under which he had enrolled into the Mexican Army.
Mexicans celebrate the Irish soldiers on two days, Sept. 12 in honor of the anniversary of the first executions and on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. Numerous street names across the country honor their contribution to the Mexican cause. In front of the Convent of Santa María in Churubusco the street is named “Mártires Irlandeses”, or Irish Martyrs. The Mexican government has officially recognized the contribution of the San Patricios through official acts of government. In 1997, President Zedillo held a ceremony in honor of the 150th anniversary of their executions along with Ireland’s ambassador. On Thursday, Oct. 28, 2002 the 57th Mexican Congress held a ceremony where the inscription “Defensores de la Patria 1846-1848 y Batallón de San Patricio” or “Defenders of the Fatherland 1846-1848 and the San Patricio Battalion” was inscribed in gold letters on the Wall of Honor in the Chambers of the Congress. Three hundred and ninety-four Mexican congressmen, along with Irish Ambassador to Mexico, Art Agnew, attended the ceremony recognizing the sacrifices made by the young Irish soldiers. Riley”s attitude could serve as a role model in today”s multicultural society. In fact, the parallels between the Irish immigrants of the 1840”s and today”s newcomers from Mexico and Central America should be obvious. Historically, both groups have suffered domination from oppressors who sought to destroy their religion and culture.
Both groups have braved dangerous journeys to arrive in America. The Irish crossed rough seas in “coffin ships” laden with diseased and starving passengers, while their Latin counterparts continue to brave barren deserts and freezing mountains, not to to mention the barbs of nativists who see them as economic and cultural threats to the so-called “character of America.”