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Deserters or unsung heroes: St. Patrick's Battalion


The St. Patrick Battalion ( El Batallón de San Patricio) was a unique unit of the Mexican Army during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.  Some say they were heroic men, some say they were just deserters.

What made this outfit exceptional was that it was composed almost entirely of deserters from the United States Army who, after defecting, fought on the Mexican side in five major battles.

In Occupied America, Rodolfo Acuña states that "there is ample evidence that the United States provoked the war...Zachary Taylor's (General of the US Army of Occupation) artillery leveled the Mexican city of Matamoros, killing hundreds of innocent civilians with la bomba (the bomb)...The occupation that followed was even more terrorizing.  Taylor's regular army was allegedly kept in control, but the volunteers (about 2,000 in Matamoros) presented another matter.

Taylor knew about the atrocities, but...little was done to restrain the men, of which Taylor himself admitted 'there is scarcely a form of crime that has not been reported to me as committed by them."

"An interesting sidelight is that many Irish immigrants, as well as some other Anglos, deserted to the Mexican side, forming the San Patricio Corps (El Batallón de San Patricio)...due 'to the inborn distaste of the masses of war, to bad treatment, and to poor subsistence.'  Many of the Irish were also Catholic, and they resented the treatment of Catholic priests and nuns by the invading Protestants.

According to Miller's book, Shamrock and Sword, renegades who crossed the Rio Grande formed the nucleus of the unique San Patricio unit of the Mexican Army.  The Irish-born deserter, John Riley, later claimed credit for organizing the outfit.  In a letter to the Mexican president he stated: 'Since April 1846 when I separated from the North American forces...I have served constantly under the Mexican flag.  In Matamoros I formed a company of 48 Irishmen...'  By July of 1847, the number of San Patricios had increased to more than 200.

During the two years of war, Mexicans called this unique outfit by various names; some designations were official, others coined by the people.  Unofficially, the group was called the Irish Volunteers, or the Colorados - or Red Guards - so named because of the many redheaded and ruddy-complexioned men in it, or the San Patricio Guards.  Officially, the unit began as the San Patricio Company, an artillery outfit that later expanded to two companies.  In mid-1847, the Mexican war department reassigned the men as infantrymen and merged the San Patricio companies into the newly-created Foreign Legion (Legión Extranjera), which some Britons and Americans called the Legion of Strangers.  In 1848, the Mexican president expanded the companies and formed the Saint Patrick's Battalion.

The San Patricios served under a distinctive military banner.  John Riley said the emerald green ensign had an image of Saint Patrick emblazoned on one side, with a shamrock and the harp Erin outlined on the other.  A Yankee soldier commented of the San Patricio's standard: "A beautiful green silk banner waved over their heads; on it glittered a silver cross and a golden harp, embroidered by the hands of the fair nuns of San Luis Potosí."

A wartime newspaper correspondent from New Orleans described the San Patricio flag captured at the battle of Churubusco: The banner is of green silk, and on one side is a harp, surmounted by the Mexican coat of arms, with a scroll on which is painted, 'Libertad para la República Mexicana.'  Underneath the harp is the motto 'Erin go Bragh' (Ireland for Ever).  On the other side is painting...made to represent St. Patrick, in his left hand a key and in his right a crook or staff resting upon a serpent.  Underneath is painted San Patricio."

The San Patricios fought in five major battles with the Mexican Army: On May 3, 1846 in Matamoros; on September 21, 1846 in Monterrey; on February 22, 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista (Angostura, for the Mexicans); on April 17, 1847 at Cerro Gordo, and August 20, 1847 at Churubusco.

Its name being derived from an Aztec word meaning 'place of the war god,' Churubusco became the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Mexican war, an engagement that also marked the military zenith of the San Patricios and their last battle in the war as a unit.

For the Americans, their victory at Churubusco was a momentous and dramatic event.  Besides its strategic and psychological importance, the battle yielded 1,259 prisoners, including 104 officers...Of special importance were the captured San Patricios, among them Brevet Major John Riley.

Although the San Patricios were defeated at Churubusco, their proficiency and bravery elicited praise from various Mexicans: Santa Anna said that if he had commanded a few hundred more men like them, he would have won the battle. 

San Patricio casualties at Churubusco were devastating: when the battle began, the two companies were apparently at full strength of 102 men each.  Three hours later 60 percent of the men were either dead or had been captured by the enemy; 85 were taken prisoner, 72 of whom were accused of deserting the US Army and the remaining up to 90 men had escaped.

In Occupied America, Acuña states that it is estimated that as many as 260 Anglo-Americans fought with the Mexicans at Churubusco in 1847.  Some 80 appear to have been captured...A number were found not guilty of deserting and were released.  About 15, who had deserted before the declaration of war, were merely branded with a "D," and 50 of those taken at Churubusco were executed.'  Others received 200 lashes and were forced to dig graves for their executed comrades.

With the exception of two prisoners, Ellis and Pieper, the military courts at Tacubaya and San Angel found all (the San Patricios) guilty of desertion and they sentenced 68 men "to be hanged by the neck until dead."

While these sentences were being reviewed by the commander-in-chief, dozens of individuals begged American authorities to spare the lives of the San Patricios.  In his General Orders 281 and 283, issued the second week of September of 1847, General Scott confirmed the capital punishment verdict for 50 San Patricios, but he pardoned five men and reduced the sentences of 15 others.

Instead of being hanged, John Riley and 14 others reprieved San Patricios were to be given 50 lashes, "well laid on their bare back," and to be hot-iron branded with a two-inch letter "D" for deserter; 12 were branded on the right cheek, the others of the right hip.

Still dressed in their Mexican uniforms, the Americans hanged 16 other San Patricio traitors, who had white caps drawn over their heads.  Their bodies were buried nearby; ordered to do it, John Riley and the other branded prisoners dug graves directly under the gallows for nine of their companions.  The other seven were interred by priests in the nearby cemetery of Tlaquepaque (Tlacopac).

The 16 San Patricios who were hanged in San Angel dangled from a wooden gallows erected for that purpose, but two American writers claimed that the culprits were hanged "from limbs of a large tree."

Two days after the San Angel hangings, Colonel William Selby Harney executed with unwarranted cruelty the remaining 30 convicted San Patricios.

With medals, memorial plaques, annual ceremonies and public schools honoring them, clearly the San Patricios are treated as heroes in Mexico.

North of the Rio Grande, by contrast, the story of the Saint Patrick's Battalion is hardly known.  Occasionally, there is a passing reference, often erroneous, in United States history books.  As for the individual San Patricios- at least those who deserted from the United States Army- they have always been regarded by North Americans as traitors.  Yankee writers invariably have maintained that  those defectors who were caught deserved their fate. 

For most, the story of the San Patricios is a tragedy, as all war stories are.

from Shamrock and Sword, Robert Miller and Occupied America, Rodolfo Acuña .  Special thanks to Prof. Roberto Treviño, UC-CS.






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