One of the least-known stories of the Irish who immigrated to America in the 1840s is that of the Irish battalion that fought on the Mexican side in the U.S. – Mexico War of 1846-1848. They came to Mexico and died, some gloriously in combat, others ignominiously on the gallows. United under a green banner, they participated in all the major battles of the war and were cited for bravery by General López de Santa Anna, the Mexican commander in chief and president.
At the penultimate battle of the war, these Irishmen fought until their ammunition was exhausted and even then tore down the white flag that was raised by their Mexican comrades in arms, preferring to struggle on with bayonets until finally being overwhelmed by the Yankees. Despite their brave resistance, however, 85 of the Irish battalion were captured and sentenced to bizarre tortures and deaths at the hands of the Americans, resulting in what is considered even today as the “largest hanging affair in North America.”
The War Begins
In the spring of 1846, the United States was poised to invade Mexico, its neighbor to the south. The ostensible reason was to collect on past-due loans and indemnities. The real reason was to provide the United States with control of the ports of San Francisco and San Diego, the trade route through the New Mexico Territory, and the rich mineral resources of the Nevada Territory — all of which at that time belonged to the Republic of Mexico. The United States had previously offered $5 million to purchase the New Mexico Territory and $25 million for California, but Mexico had refused.
U.S. President James K. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to take a position south of the Nueces River in Texas with a force of 4,000 men. By January 1846, the general had built a fort in what was Mexican, or at least disputed, territory on the northern banks of the Rio Grande in an effort to put pressure on the Mexicans to agree to a settlement. Historian Bernard Devoto notes, Polk’s intention was clear. This was a show of force intended to give the Mexicans a sense of reality in the settlement of various matters he intended to take up, among them the purchase of California.
On April 26, 1846, a Mexican cavalry troop crossed the Rio Grande upstream of Taylor’s army. A patrol sent by Taylor to intercept them was attacked, and in the skirmish, 11 Americans were killed and 5 wounded. When Polk received word of the attack, he delivered his war message, declaring that since the Mexicans had “shed American blood on American soil,” a state of war existed between the United States and Mexico.
Before the declaration of war by the United States, a group of Irish Catholics headed by a crack artilleryman named John Riley deserted from the American forces and joined the Mexicans. Born in Clifden, County Galway, Riley was an expert on artillery, and it was widely believed that he had served in the British army as an officer or a non-com in Canada before enlisting in the American army. Riley’s charge was to turn this new unit into a crack artillery arm of the Mexican defense. He is credited with changing the name of the group from the Legion of Foreigners and designing their distinctive flag.
Within a year, the ranks of Riley’s men would be swelled by Catholic foreign residents in Mexico City, and Irish and German Catholics who deserted once the war broke out, into a battalion known as Los San Patricios, or “Those of Saint Patrick.”
The San Patricios fought under a green silk flag emblazoned with the Mexican coat of arms, an image of St. Patrick, and the words “Erin Go Braugh” [sic]. The battalion was made up of artillery and was observed in key positions during every major battle. Their aid was critical because the Mexicans had poor cannon with a range of 400 meters less than the Americans. In addition, Mexican cannoneers were inexperienced and poorly trained. The addition of veteran gunners to the Mexican side would result in at least two major battles being fought to a draw. At the Battle of Buena Vista, for example, the San Patricios held the high ground and enfiladed the Americans. At one point they even wrested a cannon from the Yanks and led General Taylor’s advisors to believe that the battle had been lost. Several Irishmen were awarded the Cross of Honor by the Mexican government for their bravery in that battle, and many received field promotions.
At the Battle of Churubusco, holed up in a Catholic monastery and surrounded by a superior force of American cavalry, artillery, and infantry, the San Patricios withstood three major assaults and inflicted heavy losses on the Yanks. Eventually, however, a shell struck their stored gunpowder, the ammunition park blew up, and the Irishmen, after a gallant counteroffensive with bayonets, were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. They were tried by a military court-martial and then scourged, branded, and hanged in a manner so brutal that it is still remembered in Mexico today.
In almost every Mexican account of the war, the San Patricios are considered heroes who fought for the noble ideals of religion and a just cause against a Protestant invader of a peaceful nation. In U.S. histories, however, they are often portrayed as turncoats, traitors, and malcontents who joined the other side for land or money.
Reasons for Defection
It seems odd that anyone would defect from a superior force sure of victory to join an obviously inferior one certain to be defeated, even if, as most U.S. accounts assert, there were offers of money and land from the Mexicans. There was plenty of free land to the west, much easier to come by than risking one’s life in combat against a Yankee army. Simple desertion and refuge in the rich valleys of California would have accomplished that purpose. To determine the true causes of the defection of these men, it is necessary to reflect on the temper of the times.
The potato blight that began in 1845 (roughly coinciding with the Mexican War and lasting for its duration) brought a devastation to Europe more horrible than the Black Death. For the Irish, it was the beginning of massive evictions, starvation, sickness, and death. Of the many fortunate enough to afford the fare for an escape to the New World, tens of thousands would die en route as a result of the inhuman conditions aboard Great Britain’s vessels.
Victims of oppression in the Old World, they were to experience it again in the New. Confronted by enormous numbers of Irish-Catholic immigrants in the 1840s, American nativism reared its ugly head. “All the world knows,” wrote historian Thomas Gallagher, “that Yankee hates Paddy.” And so it seemed to those who had survived the perilous journey to America only to be labeled inferior by demagogic politicians and feared by Anglo-American workmen. Victims of prejudice in the New World, it should not be considered strange that they would shortly find themselves becoming sympathetic to the Mexicans. Here was another Catholic people being invaded by Protestant foreigners. According to a contemporary account, “On reaching Mexico they discovered they had been hired by heretics to slaughter brethren of their own church. On top of this they were confronted with the hatred of their fellow soldiers.”
The intense prejudice of many of the American soldiers, especially the volunteers, has been commented upon by at least one careful historian. According to K. Jack Bauer, author of The Mexican War, 1846–48, the majority of American soldiers were products of a militantly Protestant culture that still viewed Catholicism as a misdirected and misbegotten religion. Although the regulars included a significant number of Catholic enlisted men, the volunteers did not. This strengthened the tendency to ignore the rights and privileges of the Church in a Catholic country as well as increase the harassing of that Church. Some of the volunteers’ acts, like the stabling of horses in the Shrine of San Francisco in Monterrey, so upset the Mexicans that they still mention it in modern works.
Origins of Anti-Catholicism in the United States
America was a nation founded by Calvinists who, in rejecting the Church of England, had rejected the hierarchy of both Anglican and Catholic institutions and, in throwing off the spiritual hierarchy, had done so with the temporal as well. Free to elect their own ministers, they were equally free to elect their own governors. To most Anglo-Saxons living in the United States, this is what it meant to be an American: free of European authority, both that of the pope and that of the king. Those who still clung to a hierarchical model were considered regressive and unfit for self-government.
The Catholic Church was, to the Calvinist way of thinking, connected politically to a repressive and antiquated system, even more than the Anglican model they had rejected. Catholics, it was widely believed, had not developed a habit of independent thought. They were still chained to a religion that accepted the pope, a foreign power, as their authority, rather than their individual consciences. It was believed that not only were Catholics unable to think for themselves in matters of faith or morals, they were equally incapable of being part of a democratic system. Thus, by the early 1800s the Catholic religion was seen at best as retrograde and — at worst — inimical to a democratic republic.
As early as 1830 the American Bible Society urged the unity of Protestant sects to combat Rome’s influence in the West and expressed the belief that “His Holiness the Pope, has, within his larger grasp, already fixed upon this fair portion of our Union and knows full well how to keep his fold.” While in the early Republic there was some tolerance of Catholic minorities, this was to change quickly with the increase in immigration of Irish Catholics during the 1830s and 1840s, reaching its crest during the years of the Irish famine as poor, rural Catholics flooded into the American towns and cities. Anti-Catholic riots broke out in Philadelphia in 1844, and when they were over, the Irish ghetto lay in ruins, hundreds of homeless Irish roamed the streets, and two Catholic churches were burned to the ground.
Since solidarity in the face of commonly perceived oppression is a universal characteristic of any ethnic or religious group, it is hardly surprising that Irish Catholics would find unity among themselves in the military service. As the war progressed and they witnessed more depredations against their coreligionists in Mexico, it is understandable that some Irishmen felt they had more in common with the Mexicans than the invading Americans. The destruction of Catholic churches in Mexico by the invading U.S. army and other depredations by Protestant volunteers had also been well-documented by both sides. And, just in case they needed a reminder of the connection between the Americans’ treatment of the Irish at home and the abuse of Mexicans abroad, leaflets written by the Mexican general Santa Anna were widely distributed. They read in part,
Can you fight by the side of those who put fire to your temples in Boston and Philadelphia? Did you witness such dreadful crimes and sacrileges without making a solemn vow to our Lord? If you are Catholic, the same as we, if you follow the doctrines of Our Savior, why are you murdering your brethren? Why are you antagonistic to those who defend their country and your own God?
Why indeed? Many Irishmen were quick to see that higher loyalties should prevail, and they joined the Mexican side. They simply had more in common with the Mexicans than with the invaders.
The Irish “Race”
The Protestants certainly saw similarities and were quick to point them out. The Mexican, they asserted, like the Irishman, was unstable, ignorant, feckless, easily led, and incapable of participation in a republic. Using both the pseudoscience of phrenology and the more respectable science of physiology, contemporary American scientists determined that the short, full figures of the Irish indicated that they were “inactive, slothful and lazy.”
This was a stereotype also applied to the Mexican. The coarse red hair of the Irish showed that they were “excitable and gushing.” Their ruddy complexions indicated that they were selfish “with hearty animal passions.” Irishmen of this period are variously described as having a “hanging bone gait … the low brow denoting a serf of fifty descents … dark eyes sunken beneath the compressed brows” with a look of “savage ferocity.” By the 1840s this legitimization of negative racial characteristics had reached its apex.
Most of those who had settled in America in the 18th and early 19th centuries had no real sense of national identity. Those in Virginia considered themselves Virginians, those in Texas, Texans or “Texicans,” and those from Maine, “Down Easters.” Allegiances were territorial rather than nationalistic. When the victorious American army finally entered Mexico City they played three “national” anthems: “Hail Columbia,” “Yankee Doodle,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But while there was no clear sense of nationhood, Americans were nevertheless in the process of defining who they were. And they did this essentially by stating quite clearly what an American was not. In the 1840s he was not a “Negro,” not a Mexican, not an Indian, and certainly not an Irish Catholic. Notes Dale T. Knobel, professor of history at Texas A & M:
[T]he Irish would be seen increasingly as set apart by visible conduct and appearance. This development coincided with national self-satisfaction that accompanied the working out of the United States Manifest Destiny through geographical expansion.
Manifest Destiny was another aspect of Calvinist belief. It held simply that the Anglo-American was predestined by God to inherit the entire American continent. Beginning with the “noble experiment” in New Jerusalem (Salem, Massachusetts), the “City on the Hill,” this new breed would spread over the entire land mass of the Americas, displacing indigenous people, and buying out or running off French and Spanish landholders on their inevitable march of progress. The inheritors of Manifest Destiny, it must be remembered, were white Anglo-Protestants, and they took steps to ensure that the distinctions between them and others, whether religious or racial or quasi scientific, were constantly emphasized to prove that they were deserving of this gift. Wrote one newspaper editor,
We are believers in the superintendence of a directing Providence, and when we contemplate the rise and amazing progress of the United States, the nature of our government, the character of our people, and the occurrence of unforeseen events, all tending to one great accomplishment, we are impressed with a conviction that the decree is made, and in the process of execution, that this continent is to be but one nation.
Even the highly respected Ralph Waldo Emerson would write that
men gladly hear of the power of blood or race. Everybody likes to know that his advantages cannot be attributed to air, soil, sea, or to local wealth, as mines or quarries, nor to law and tradition nor to fortune, but to a superior brain, as it makes it more personal to him.
The Scourgings, Brandings, and Hangings
In September 1847, the Americans put the Irish soldiers captured at the Battle of Churubusco on trial. Forty-eight were sentenced to death by hanging. Those who had deserted before the declaration of war were sentenced to whipping at the stake, branding, and hard labor. Most American historians contend that the punishments were neither particularly brutal nor unusual given the fact that there was no prescribed code.
However, clear documentation exists that the codified Articles of War (1821) and William De Hart’s Observations on Military Law, and the Constitution and the Practice of Courts-Martial (1847) governed courts-martial at that time and clearly stipulated the exact punishments these soldiers should have received. The Articles of War stipulated that the penalty for desertion and/or defecting to the enemy during a time of war was death by firing squad. Hanging was reserved only for spies (without uniform) and for “atrocities against civilians.” Nevertheless, 48 of the San Patricios were hanged, 18 in San Angel and 30 in a place called Mixcoac.
Desertion before a declaration of war was punishable by one of the following punishments: branding on the hip in indelible ink, 50 lashes, or incarceration at hard labor. However, the San Patricios received more than 50 lashes, “until their backs had the appearance of raw beef, the blood oozing from every stripe,” according to one American witness. In addition, the punishment was administered by Mexican muleteers who were threatened with the same lash if they did not “lay it on with a will.” These same Irishmen were also branded with “D” for deserter on the cheek by a red-hot branding iron, and they were sentenced to imprisonment and hard labor.
The sentence of the court, according to the Articles of War, should always be carried out promptly. “To prolong the punishment beyond the usual time would be highly improper, and subject the officer who authorized or caused such to be done to charges.” In the case of the last of group of 30 San Patricios to be hanged, this Article of War was cavalierly ignored.
The Hangings by Colonel Harney
General Winfield Scott had chosen an officer who had been twice disciplined for insubordination as his executioner of the last group of 30 San Patricios. Colonel William Harney had been soldiering for almost 30 years and was notorious for his brutality. During the Indian Wars he was charged with raping Indian girls at night and then hanging them the next morning after he had taken his pleasure. In St. Louis, Missouri, he was indicted by a civilian court for the brutal beating of a female slave that resulted in her death. The choice of Harney as executioner of the San Patricios seemed calculated by the American high command to inflict brutal reprisals on the Irish Catholic soldiers. Harney would not disappoint them.
At dawn on September 13, 1847, some days after the first group of 18 had been executed, Harney ordered the remaining San Patricios to be brought to a hill in Mixcoac a few kilometers from Chapultepec Castle where the final battle of the war was to be fought. Observing that only 29 of the 30 prisoners were present, Harney asked about the missing man. The army surgeon informed the colonel that the absent San Patricio had lost both his legs in battle. Harney, in a rage, replied, “Bring the damned son of a bitch out! My order was to hang 30 and by God I’ll do it!”
After the guards dragged Francis O’Conner out and propped him up on his bloody stumps, nooses were placed around the necks of each of the men, and they were stood on wagons. Harney then pointed to Chapultepec Castle in the distance and told the prisoners that they would not be hanged until the American flag was raised over the castle signifying that the Yankees had won the battle. The prisoners yelled out in incredulity and protest. Some made jokes and sarcastic remarks trying to goad the unstable colonel into giving an impulsive order. One prisoner asked Harney to take his pipe out of his pocket so that he might have one last smoke. Then, with a glint in his eye, he asked if the colonel would not mind lighting it with his “elegant hair.”
The redheaded Harney did not appreciate the joke. He drew his sword and struck the bound prisoner in the mouth with the hilt, breaking several of the man’s teeth. The prisoner was not intimidated, however. Spitting out blood and broken teeth, the irrepressible Irishman quipped, “Bad luck to ye! Ye have spoilt my smoking entirely! I shan’t be able to have a pipe in my mouth as long as I live.”
Meanwhile the Battle of Chapultepec raged on. Finally, at 9:30 a.m. the Americans scaled the walls of the castle, tore down the Mexican flag, and raised the Stars and Stripes. With that, Harney drew his sword and, “with as much sangfroid as a military martinet could put on,” gave the order for execution. The San Patricios, after four and a half hours of standing bound and noosed in the 90-degree sun, were finally “launched into eternity.”
Harney’s violation of the Articles of War requiring prompt execution did not result in charges being brought against him. Rather, his behavior was rewarded. A month later Harney was promoted to brigadier general and accompanied the commander in chief in a triumphal march in Mexico City.
The punishments ordered for the San Patricios and the way they were carried out conveyed more than the mere judgment of the court. They were clear examples of religious and racist reprisals. In spite of the fact that more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers deserted during the Mexican War, only the San Patricios were so punished, and only the San Patricios were hanged.
The Conquest of Mexico and Celtic-Americanism
Fueled by Manifest Destiny and its concomitant racial and religious animosity, the American government dictated terms to the Mexicans in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. More than two-thirds of the Mexican Territory was taken, one-half if one included Texas, and out of it the United States would carve California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and parts of Kansas and Colorado. It was a profitable American adventure, a conquest to put Napoleon to shame, and all done in the name of democracy and Manifest Destiny.
Among all the major wars fought by the United States, the Mexican War is the least discussed in the classroom, the least written about, and the least known by the general public. Yet, it added more to the national treasury and to the land mass of the United States than all other wars combined.
After the conflict, so much new area was opened up, so many things had been accomplished, that a mood of self-congregation and enthusiasm took root in the United States. The deserters from the war were soon forgotten as they homesteaded and labored in the gold fields of California or, as the 1860s approached, put on the gray uniform of the Confederacy or the blue of the Union. Prejudice against the Irish waned, as the country was provided with a “pressure valve” to release many of its new immigrants westward.
As Irish veterans returned from the Civil War and gained political power, they were increasingly seen as a branch of the white race (Celtic American) by the so-called scientific theorists who had previously denied them that privilege. Irish in the United States, anxious to be assimilated, gladly accepted the new designation. Ironically, the American Irish would be among the first to disassociate themselves from the San Patricios and promote the notion that it was not an Irish battalion at all! Moreover, anti-Catholic prejudice would so diminish that by 1960 an Irish Catholic would be elected president of the United States. The Soldiers of St. Patrick would disappear from the annals of U.S. history, an embarrassing reminder of a less-tolerant era in our Republic.
Each year commemorations are held in San Angel in Mexico to honor the Irish who died in the war. A marble plaque in the town square reads, “In Memory of the Irish Soldiers of the Heroic Battalion of San Patrick Who Gave Their Lives for the Mexican Cause During the Unjust North American Invasion of 1847,” followed by the names of 71 of the men. A color guard of crack Mexican troops marches forward with the Mexican and Irish colors to a spine-jarring flourish of drums and bugles. The “Himno Nacional” is then played, followed by “The Soldier’s Song.” Students and dignitaries place floral tributes on the paving stones, and an honor roll is called of the fallen soldiers as the crowd collectively chants after each name, “Murió por la patria!” (He died for the country!) In Clifden, County Galway, the birthplace of John Riley, a similar ceremony is held each September 13.
For most Mexicans, solidarity with the Irish is part of a long tradition. There is in both countries an emphasis on the spiritual center in the family and a non-materialistic viewpoint whereby a person’s worth is determined not by what he owns but by the quality of his life. And if Paddy and Bridget, like José and María, were considered incapable of being assimilated into Anglo Protestant society, their acceptance into Mexican society was seamless. In the words of John Riley, written in 1847 but equally true today, “A more hospitable and friendly people than the Mexican there exists not on the face of the earth … especially to an Irishman and a Catholic.”
Riley sums up what cannot be clearly documented in any history: the basic, gut-level affinity the Irishman had then, and still has today, for Mexico and its people. The decisions of the men who joined the San Patricios were probably not well-planned or thought out. They were impulsive and emotional, like many of Ireland’s own rebellions — including the Easter Uprising of 1916. Nevertheless, the courage of the San Patricios, their loyalty to their new cause, and their unquestioned bravery forged a seal of honor on their sacrifice.
This article originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of Crisis Magazine.