In March we think of St. Patrick and his story is on our national website AOH.COM, so this month we will tell of a remarkable military unit named for our patron saint. When America was a young country, not yet matured with the wisdom born of experience, we made mistakes. The acceptance of slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, prejudice against Catholics, and armed opposition to labor unions, were but a few. But the wisdom of our founding fathers and the form of government they established gave all people a voice, and in time saner heads prevailed in the electoral process and the nation became morally stabilized . . . . but there was a time.
The U.S-Mexican War of 1846 was one of those times. The war was an unjustified land grab by President Polk and expansionist politicians who claimed that the U.S. was destined by God to own all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The problem was that Mexico was in the way. Some of the land in this ‘predestined’ expansion was theirs, and they refused to sell us California, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Utah for a mere $15 million. A campaign was launched by the power brokers to take the land, just as they had taken it from the Indians. The Democratic Review newspaper declared, “it is our manifest destiny to overspread this continent, allotted by providence to our yearly-multiplying millions.” Manifest Destiny thus became a rallying cry for the theft of millions of acres and the dispossession of millions of people from land their families had owned for generations. The New York Herald added, “It is our destiny to civilize that beautiful country (Mexico)” which, according to historian Cecil Robinson, was “a stronghold of Roman Catholic superstition and the dwelling place of a racially inferior people.”
In 1836, Texas declared independence from Mexico and claimed all the land above the Rio Grande. Mexico claimed that the southern border of Texas was the Nueces River, 150 miles north of the Rio Grande. In 1846, President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to occupy the disputed area between the two rivers and bait the Mexican Army into a skirmish. When they responded, Congress would declare war on Mexico. From Sacramento to Vera Cruz, five U.S. army regiments were poised to invade. It was a sham that many Americans were ashamed of: young Abe Lincoln vigorously opposed the conflict; U.S.Grant called it the most unjust war ever waged by a stronger over a weaker nation; and John Quincy Adams died of a heart attack on the floor of the House while urging soldiers to desert rather than serve.
At that same time, thousands of Irishmen fleeing the Great Hunger of 1845 arrived with no means of support. As yet, they had no loyalty to America, but Congress offered 3 months advance pay if they would enlist in the Army. Many signed up to send the advance pay back to their starving families in Ireland, and marched off to fight for a country they didn’t know. One of those emigrants, John Riley of Galway, found himself in Taylor’s army which happened to be 47% new immigrants, and more than half of those were Irish. The rest were mostly Germans and Scots.
Life in mid-1800 America was hard for Catholics. The large number of Catholic Irish, Scots and German immigrants in the first half of the 19th century triggered a backlash among native-born Protestant Americans that evolved into the Know Nothing movement. Catholics became targets for the hostility of nativist mobs and the military was no better as bigoted Anglo-American officers treated their subordinates with contempt – especially the ‘potato heads’ as the Irish were called. Historian Michael Hogan noted punishments inflicted on the Irish went beyond what was allowed by the military code of the day and that the whole episode was denied for years by the Army and still remains deeply hidden in U.S. history.
Serving in the disputed Mexican territory, the Irish couldn’t believe the actions of the US military. In trying to initiate hostility, churches were desecrated, religious processions disrupted and drunken soldiers, who raped, pillaged and burned Mexican villages and churches, were only sent home. Riley and his fellow Irish emigrants began to question their decision to fight for men like these – especially in view of the anti-Catholic statements appearing in the American Press. Mexican leaders knew that a large number of Catholic immigrants were in the U.S. Army and they sent flyers to them explaining the injustice of the cause they’d been duped into supporting. They asked for help to defend the simple Catholic farmers who were being attacked for their land. The story was familiar to the Irish; it was the Penal times all over again. The Irish, who were driven from their land under the same conditions, felt solidarity with the Mexicans. The Mexican government promised Mexican citizenship and land to all who helped. Riley and his comrades didn’t have to think twice. They stole across the river and joined the Mexicans to fight for what they believed was the right cause.
The U.S. finally declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846, and General Taylor occupied Matamoros. Then, he marched on Monterey and drove the Mexicans out. The bravest in that battle were the Irish volunteers, who were then granted permission to form a unit of their own. They became Los Batallon de San Patricio – St. Patrick’s Battalion – and designed a banner to carry before them into battle. It was green with the figure of St Patrick on one side and a harp and shamrock on the other. They demonstrated enormous courage at Buena Vista before the American Army, under General Stonewall Jackson, forced them back. The San Patricios were acclaimed as one of Mexico’s most fearless units. Fortified by more Irish and Germans who had left the American side, they were assigned to defend the Catholic convent of Churubusco against the onslaught of Gen Winfield Scott. During the battle, the Mexican’s tried to surrender, but each time Riley and his men pulled the white flag down. They would not surrender a convent to the men whom they had seen rape and plunder Mexican villages and churches.
The convent fortress was finally overwhelmed, and when it was, only 85 members of the San Patricios were left. Captured and court-martialed, they were sentenced to be hanged, but Riley and 19 others had left before war was declared and impassioned appeals from outraged citizens led to their pardon, but not before they were whipped and branded on the cheek with the letter ‘D’. According to an eyewitness they would have been better hanged, registering surprise that they did not die under the lash which left their backs like raw meat. Then, in that condition, they had to bury their comrades who fell defending the convent. The remaining were hanged on Sept 10 thru 13, 1847 in the ‘largest hanging affair in North America.’ The Mexicans were horrified by this incident and, to this day, statues can be seen in many Mexican cities, erected in honor of Los San Patricios. The last group, with nooses round their necks, was stood on a cart where they could see the battle of Chapultupec across the valley. For hours they stood in the blazing sun until the American flag was raised over the city, then the cart was pulled away and the last members of the San Patricios were hanged.
After the war, Riley and his comrades were freed. They returned to Mexico and served out their time in the army. Colonel Riley retired in 1850. It is not known if he ever saw Galway again. After the war, the U.S. set its boundaries from the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the Army remedied many of the abuses that led to its 13% desertion rate in the Mexican War — the highest in U.S. military history. With the Civil War looming, the Army knew there would be heavy numbers of German and Irish Catholics asked to volunteer. What they didn’t need were stories of mistreatment of recruits being revealed. So, the story of the San Patricios was buried and so it remained.
Today, in the memory of three countries, the San Patricios are viewed differently. In Ireland, they are considered heroes and martyrs for human rights. In the US, reaction is mixed among the few who even know the story; from the viewpoint of the U.S. military, the less said about it, the better. Desertions reflect poorly on political leadership and military command; defections even more so for deserters run from the fighting, defectors follow their conscience and stand for a cause. However, Mexican historians still tell the story of ‘Los Colorados’ the red-headed Irishmen who had the courage to follow their conscience, lead their fellow Catholics and earn a prominent place in the hearts of the Mexican people. In 1959, a commemorative plaque was dedicated in Mexico City listing the names of San Patricios who gave their lives for Mexico. A major celebration was held there in 1983, and the Mexican government authorized a special commemorative medallion honoring the San Patricios. After a special mass, school children placed floral wreaths at the plaque, the Mexico City Symphony played the national anthems of Mexico and Ireland, Mexican officials eulogized the Irish Martyrs, and a speech was made by Irish Ambassador Tadgh O’Sullivan. In 1993, the Irish began their own annual ceremony in Clifden, Co. Galway, John Riley’s hometown, and in 1997, Irish President Mary Robinson traveled to Mexico City to lay a wreath at the base of the San Patricios’ Memorial. That same year, the Mexican government erected a memorial to the courage and conviction of John Riley in Galway. Perhaps film director Gonzalo Martinez said it best when he noted, “In every dirty war, there are a few good men who stand up for what is right. The U.S. invasion of Mexico was that kind of war, the San Patricios were those kind of men.”