Wednesday, March 19, 2008

San Patricio

Batallón de San Patricio
The Irish Heros of Mexico
[This article is not only history that tries to be obscured by the Americans, it is very revealing of Americas invader mentality. It also shows Mexicos attitude towards peace.] Animus Mundi

by Martín Paredes

For Mexicans, the men of the San Patricio Battalion will forever be
enshrined in Mexico's hall of honor. Of the 175 members of the San
Patricio Battalion, who left the U.S. military to fight for Mexico
in the U.S.-Mexico war, 40 were from Ireland, 22 from the United
States, 14 from the German States and the rest from other countries.

Posted on March 17, 2008

On Sept. 12, 1997, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo held a ceremony
in Mexico City in honor of the 150th anniversary of the San Patricio
Battalion. Representing Ireland, Ambassador Sean O'Huighinn was also
present at the ceremony. Although at least two historical accounts
have been written about the Mexican Irish soldiers, for the most
part, the general population of the United States is not aware of
the Irish who fought for Mexico during the Mexican-American War.
Few, outside of Mexico, have ever heard of the Irish soldiers who
defected from the American lines and bravely fought defending Mexico
from the American invasion. This is the story of the Batallón de San
Patricio, a group of Irishmen fighting for Mexico. For Mexicans, the
men of the San Patricio Battalion will forever be enshrined in
Mexico's hall of honor.

The Mexican-American War lasted for two years, from 1846 until 1848.
It resulted in 25,000 Mexican soldiers dead or wounded. Mexico also
lost about 40 percent of its territory. The Americans suffered
17,423 dead or wounded and had over 9,000 soldiers go AWOL,
according to American records. The war started as a result of the
declaration of independence by the State of Texas in 1836 and the
subsequent annexation of Texas into The United States in 1846. On
May 11, 1846, U.S. President James K. Polk asked and received
approval by Congress to declare war on Mexico.

As America prepared for war, thousands of European immigrants hit
the American shores. Among these were the Irish who were fleeing the
Great Hunger of 1845. With the offer of free acres of land and three
months of advanced pay, many enlisted in the American army.

John Miller, in his book; "Shamrock and Sword" writes that the
desertion rate for American forces was the highest during this
conflict as compared to other wars. According to Miller, the rate
was 8.3 percent, compared to 5.3 percent for World War II and 4.1%
for the Vietnam War. Peter Stevens, in his book; "The Rogue's March:
The Saint Patrick's Battalion" wrote that no U.S. Army has ever
encountered the problems of desertion that plagued Generals Zachary
Taylor and Winfred Scott. He adds that of nearly 40,000 regulars,
5,331 deserted.

Very few historians have written about the San Patricios. There are
two reasons for this, on the American side the war was unpopular and
was ultimately over shadowed by the American Civil War. Besides the
debate within the United States about the war, the high desertion
rates from the American lines made the discussion of the war taboo
within the American military. On the Mexican side, the loss of a
substantial part of its territory and the ongoing civil strife
within Mexico has left a lack of historical record for the war.

Historians on both sides of the border have generally acknowledged
that the Americans were intent on instigating war with Mexico
through unprovoked crimes; such as rapes and plunder and especially
the desecration of Catholic Churches in Texas, the disputed
territory. Also, many immigrants in the American army not only felt
discriminated upon by their fellow soldiers but also could not
accept the American provocation for war. They began to desert and
cross the river to join the Mexican army in defense of Mexico.

German Christopher Friedrich Wilhelm Zeh wrote in his memoirs that
the U.S. Army was a multicultural group where one of every thousand
was an immigrant. Although the American Army was composed of recent
immigrants, discrimination permeated through the ranks. Catholic
prejudice and harsh treatment by superiors and the use of extreme
disciplinary measures such as flogging added to the reasons for the
desertions from Taylor's ranks. "Potato heads" as the Irish were
commonly called were particularly singled out for harsh treatment.
Under these conditions the immigrants had no difficulty abandoning
their army and joining the Mexican lines in defense of Mexico.
Mexico was especially active in recruiting the deserters.

Mexico has historically recruited foreigners to fight in its ranks
since its war of Independence.

Throughout the war, Mexico actively recruited American soldiers to
defect their lines and join the Mexican army. The German immigrant
Zeh, serving in the US Army acknowledges in his memoirs that the
Mexicans routinely passed out pamphlets directed at the American
immigrant soldiers printed in German, English and French. According
to Zeh, the pamphlets read; "We live in peace and friendship with
nations you come from. Why do you want to fight against us? Come to
us! We will welcome you as friends with open arms, take care of your
needs, we offer you more than the Yankees can provide, due to their
brazenness, we (sic) have been forced into this war. Join us and
fight with us for our rights and for our sacred religion against
this infidel enemy". Zeh adds, "Several hundred Irishmen, stirred up
by religious fanaticism, went over to the enemy, thanks to this
piece of paper."

In October of 1846, after an additional 50 or so American soldiers
had deserted the American ranks, bringing the total number of
deserters to about 100, Santa Anna, using war powers bestowed upon
him by the Mexican Congress, directed that two infantry companies be
formed. The two companies would form the Batallón de San Patricio.
According to a dissertation by author Dennis Wynn, the battalion was
formed in October of 1846 as a separate unit. Additionally,
according to Mexican army payroll records for November
1846, "Voluntarios Irlandeses" were receiving pay from the Mexican
government for that period. Although the San Patricio Battalion was
made up predominantly of Irish immigrants, other European
nationalities also comprised the element. Of the 175 members of the
San Patricio Battalion, 40 were from Ireland, 22 from the United
States, 14 from the German States and the rest from other countries.

John Riley of K Company, 5th Infantry deserted his American post and
joined the Mexican ranks on April 12, 1846 prior to the U.S.
declaring war on Mexico. Part of the confusion over whether Riley
organized the battalion is caused by the different spellings of his
name found in official government records. John Riley, himself
signed his name as Riley, other times as Riely, Reilly, or O'Riley
in his correspondence to others. Mexican government records list him
as Juan Reyle, Reley, Reely or Reily. His enlistment record for the
U.S. Army lists him as Reilly.

On Sept. 2, 1845, Riley enlisted for a five-year term at Fort
Mackinac. He left for the Texas border two days later. During the
last three weeks in March of 1846, Riley, under Taylor's Army, setup
camp in Texas, just across the river from Matamoros. On April 12,
1846, Riley obtained a pass from Captain Merrill to attend a
Catholic Mass, deserted and joined the Mexican Army. According to
the records of the period, Sergeant John Riley's ability was such
that he was in line for a lieutenant's commission although rising
through the ranks during this period was difficult at best. By most
general accounts, The San Patricios fought bravely throughout the
war. The Battle of Buena Vista and Churubusco is where the battalion
left its most notable war marks.

One of the most "vicious" battles of the war was the Battle of Buena
Vista fought on February 22 and 23 of 1847, near Saltillo. In this
battle 4,759 Americans engaged about 15,000 Mexicans. Rather than a
battle, it was a serious of fights with few positions changing
hands; consequently it was at first difficult to tell who had won.
General Francisco Mejia's Buena Vista Battle Report lauded the San
Patricios' "as worthy of the most consummate praise because the men
fought with daring bravery."

On Aug. 19 and 20 of 1847, Mexico suffered two devastating defeats,
the second of which saw the destruction of the San Patricios as a
unit in this war. Of the original 120 San Patricios, 35 were killed
in action and 85 were captured by American forces.

After the battle, the captured San Patricios were tried for
desertion during war time and all were found guilty and sentenced to
death by hanging. Under General Scott's, General Orders 281 and 283,
issued in the second week of September 1847, Scott upheld the
capital punishment for 50 of the soldiers, pardoned five and reduced
the sentences for the other fifteen. John Riley was included in the
last fifteen because he had deserted during peace time and therefore
could not receive the death penalty. Riley had deserted prior to the
official declaration of war.

Under orders of Winfield Scott, the last of the 50 San Patricios
were hanged facing Chapultepec Castle precisely at the time the
American flag was raised after the American victory during that
battle. The mass executions left a deep impression on the Mexican
population. Rioting broke out in Toluca after the news reported that
the executions had taken place. Mexicans intent on seeking revenge
threatened to kill American prisoners but were prevented from doing
so by the Mexican authorities. From the Mexican point of view, the
San Patricios should have been treated as prisoners of war, not

Instead of hanging, Scott ordered that the 15 San Patricios spared
the death penalty, be instead branded with a two inch letter "D" for
desertion with hot-iron on the right cheek and receive 50 lashes.
Scott also ordered that the San Patricios be imprisoned until the
American army left Mexico. Upon being mustered out, Scott ordered
that the men's heads be shaved and drummed out of the Army. Although
Scott intended to return the San Patricio men back to the United
States at the conclusion of the war, the Mexican government
prevailed in keeping them in Mexico.

The Mexican Government had called the punishments an act of
barbarism, "improper in a civilized age." Under the terms of the
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the San Patricio prisoners were to be
left in Mexico. Mexico had insisted on this clause in the treaty
during the negotiations. Maj. Gen. Butler issued General Orders 116
on June 1, 1848. In the last paragraph of that order, Butler ordered
that; "The prisoners confined at the Citadel, known as the San
Patricio prisoners, will be immediately discharged." After the
officer in charge of the Citadel read the orders, the 16 prisoners,
including John Riley had their heads shaved, the buttons of their
uniforms stripped off and marched out of the fortress while the
bugler played "Rogue's March." John Riley, instead of being branded
once, was branded twice according to some of the reports of the
time. The reports indicate that the double branding may have been a
result of the first "D" being applied backwards, either
intentionally or under orders. The second "D" was then applied

It can be argued that the defense of your homeland is a duty all
citizens must obey when an invading army threatens to destroy your
country. Many heroes have emerged from the defense of their nations.
No truer hero exists than those who give their lives for their
adopted nation.

Part of the reason for the lack of more concrete information
regarding the San Patricios and the distortion of their reasons for
disserting the American army may lie in that the whole affair was an
embarrassment to the United States. Continued Catholic persecution
in the United States after the war may have also contributed to the
distorted record. "Some newspapers in San Francisco cite that affair
to prove that Catholics are disloyal," wrote a private citizen in a
letter to the Assistant Adjutant General in 1896 requesting
information on the San Patricios. Because of sentiments against
Catholicism and the harsh treatment by American forces of the San
Patricios, the American Army seemed reluctant to discuss the affair
publically. In 1915, the American War Department was finally forced
to acknowledge the existence of the San Patricios and their
treatment of them at the end of the war. Ordered by Congress in 1917
to turn over the records to the National Archives the army complied.
The documents detailed one of the most embarrassing episodes for the
American Army. For the San Patricios, their story could finally be
told truthfully for all to know what was true in their hearts.

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 LVII 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.

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