The San Patricio Battalion
The San Patricio Battalion
At the time of the Mexican American War, about 40 percent of the U.S. Army was made up of recent immigrants to the United States, many of whom had chosen military service because other jobs were not available to them. Living and working conditions were harsh, and immigrants were often viewed unfavorably and treated unfairly. This was especially true for Irish Catholics, whose religion made them particular targets for prejudice in a society that was mostly Protestant. These and other factors led a group of U.S. soldiers, most of them Irish, to desert from the U.S. Army and fight on the Mexican side in a special military unit called the San Patricio Battalion. Considered traitors in the United States, these men were highly valued by the Mexican army and are still fondly remembered by the Mexican people. The story of the San Patricio Battalion helps to illustrate not only an interesting aspect of the war but social conditions in the United States in the nineteenth century.
The hard lives of U.S. soldiers
In 1846, when the Mexican American War began, the regular U.S. Army was quite small. Military service was not viewed as a very promising, respectable profession and most young men considered it a last resort if they could not find other work. When Congress authorized funding for fifty thousand volunteer troops to help fight the war against Mexico, however, enlistment offices were crowded with men eager to sign up to travel to an exotic foreign country and fight an enemy they thought would be easy to beat. In time, however, these volunteers discovered the often unpleasant realities of a soldier's life, which included dirt, dust, nasty weather, disease, strict discipline and bad food, not to mention the risk of injury or death in battle.
All of these drawbacks led as many as nine thousand U.S. soldiers to desert, or leave, the army and head for home when they decided they had fulfilled their duty to their country. Less than one hundred of these men were tried for the crime of desertion, the punishment for which was usually death. However, members of the San Patricio Battalion who were still alive at the end of the war were captured after one of its final battles, and most received the death penalty. Among all the deserters of the Mexican American War, only the San Patricios were sentenced to death by hanging; the usual form of execution was by firing squad, which was considered more humane. Those who were not executed were severely punished with whipping and branding.
The low status of Irish immigrants
The reason that the men of the San Patricio Battalion were signaled out for such harsh punishments was because of the views of U.S. society during this period. In the 1830s and early 1840s, extremely poor economic conditions in Ireland brought a huge number of Irish immigrants into the United States. Unlike the Irish who had immigrated in the eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries, who tended to be skilled craftsmen and Protestants, most of these new Irish immigrants were poor farmers. They also were members of the Roman Catholic religion, to which only 1 percent of the total U.S. population belonged. The United States had been founded and long dominated by Protestants, and as a result, there was widespread prejudice against and fear of Catholicism. Many U.S. citizens thought that Catholics were superstitious, ignorant, and incapable of independent thought.
Although it is true that the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, most Americans did not think their society had to accept or accommodate people who were racially or otherwise different from those who currently dominated it. Thus, even people who thought slavery was wrong did not think that white Americans would ever live side by side, in equality, with blacks; instead, they envisioned that African Americans would either return to Africa or form their own state in the Caribbean region. The racial prejudice that was used to justify the unfair treatment of blacks was extended to Mexicans, who were considered lazy, irresponsible, uncivilized, and too excitable. And it also was often applied to the Irish, who were assigned many of the same qualities as the Mexicans, and who also were predominantly Catholic.
Long discriminated against at home by the British, who had been in control of Ireland for many centuries, Irish immigrants discovered that they were subject to much of the same treatment in the United States. Many of the Irishmen, who were unable to find other jobs, joined the U.S. military. In fact, immigrants, including the Irish, made up almost half of the U.S. military. These immigrants were generally held in contempt by their officers and fellow soldiers. It was believed that since these newcomers were not yet U.S. citizens, they lacked the patriotism that motivated other soldiers. Critics cited that these new immigrants were fighting for money, not to defend the United States, and thus they were not "real" soldiers. As a result of this discrimination, Irish-born soldiers were usually given the lowliest and hardest jobs, received harsher punishments and fewer promotions, and were prevented from practicing their own religion. In fact, some historians have found it surprising that more of the five thousand plus Irish soldiers who did fight on the U.S. side in the Mexican American War did not desert.
The United States sends troops to Mexico
In March 1845, the nation of Texas, which had declared its independence from Mexico nine years earlier, became a U.S. state. Mexico had promised that this action would mean war, since Mexico never officially recognized Texas as an independent nation. Thus, the United States and Mexico were now on the brink of war. At this time, U.S. society was infused with the spirit of expansionism (the movement of U.S. settlers across the nation's current borders) and by the idea of "manifest destiny," the concept that it was not only the right, but the duty, of U.S. citizens to spread their way of life across, and in fact take control of the rest of the continent. President James K. Polk (1795-1849; see biographical entry) was an ardent expansionist, and he was only the most prominent among a large number of Americans who hoped Mexico would make the first move and start a war. If this occurred, it was believed that the United States could take over parts or even all of Mexico.
Soon after the annexation (granting of official state-hood) of Texas, Polk sent several thousand troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850; see biographical entry) to Corpus Christi, a town on the Nueces River, the traditional border between Texas and Mexico. The following spring, Taylor was ordered to move his troops south to the Rio Grande, a river about 100 miles south of the Nueces that the United States was now declaring as its border. Across the narrow river was the pleasant Mexican town of Matamoros, whose citizens peered curiously across at the U.S. soldiers on the other side.
Deserters cross the Rio Grande
On Sunday mornings, the U.S. soldiers could hear the church bells calling the residents of Matamoros to mass, the Catholic church service. During the months between the arrival of the troops at the Rio Grande and the May 1846 start of the Mexican American War, about forty U.S. soldiers also answered that call, never to return to the United States. They deserted the army, swimming across the river to join the enemy on the other side, and fighting against their former officers and fellow U.S. soldiers. They did so for a variety of reasons—including the harsh discipline and treatment they had received from the U.S. Army, the lure of a friendly and welcoming people who shared their religion, and perhaps because of a feeling of sympathy for the Mexicans, whose homeland had been invaded.
At the head of this band of deserters was an Irish-born private (the army's lowest rank) named John Riley who may have earlier served in Great Britain's colonial army in Canada. Riley would later try to persuade more U.S. soldiers to desert, and he would become a leader of the San Patricio Battalion. Initially, though, this new unit was made up not only of the U.S. Army deserters, but of foreigners from Ireland, Germany, and other places who were already living in Mexico. It was called the Legión Extranjera (Foreign Legion) and, for the first year or so of the war, it was commanded by Mexican officers.
By August 1846, the unit had grown to include two hundred men who were known to the Mexicans as colorados (red heads; many people of Irish descent have red or reddish hair). It was then renamed the San Patricio Battalion (after Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland), and its men began to fly a distinctive flag of green silk with the traditional Irish images of Saint Patrick, a shamrock, and a harp sewn on it in silver thread. Even before this flag flew, however, and even before the official May 13 declaration of war, the men who would make up the core of the San Patricio Battalion had taken part in the first two battles of the war.
The battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma
The man in charge of the Mexican troops stationed in Matamoros was General Pedro Ampudia (1805-1868), a Cuban-born officer with a reputation for brutality. The residents of Matamoros had asked for a replacement and General Mariano Arista (1802-1855) had been sent to take over command from Ampudia, who now became second-in-command. Tension between the two men was to seriously undermine the Mexicans' war effort. On May 8 and 9, troops under these two officers fought the U.S. Army in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. The men whose unit would soon be christened the San Patricio Battalion were probably present at both these battles, which turned out disastrously for the Mexicans. Outgunned by the U.S. troops, the Mexicans retreated.
Arista took most of the blame for these defeats, and as a result, Ampudia was again put in charge of the army. He halted his army of about nine thousand at the city of Monterrey. In September, the dynamic Mexican general and leader Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876; see biographical entry) tricked the United States into allowing him to return to Mexico from Cuba, where he had been exiled. Santa Anna now became Mexico's president and also took over control of its army, which would eventually number twenty thousand. Before this army was ready, however, Ampudia's smaller force met Taylor's army in a bloody battle at Monterrey.
The San Patricios help to defend Monterrey
The battle began on September 20, and lasted for three days, ending in brutal hand-to-hand fighting through the city streets. The San Patricio Battalion played a major role in the clash, proving their artillery (large guns such as cannons) skills as they mowed down many U.S. soldiers. After a high number of casualties on both sides (but more for the Mexicans, including many civilians), Ampudia surrendered. A ceasefire agreement that some, including Polk, felt was too generous allowed the Mexicans to walk out of Monterrey, with officers carrying their personal weapons. Among those who marched away were the San Patricios, their green flag held high.
Because of the high number of civilian casualties in the Battle of Monterrey, and the fact that U.S. soldiers had fired on people taking refuge in Catholic churches, led to even more desertions from the U.S. Army. Santa Anna decided to take advantage of this opportunity. He sent out notices that encouraged U.S. Catholic soldiers to turn their backs on an army and a nation that had no respect for their religion. According to Michael Hogan's book The Irish Soldiers of Mexico, Santa Anna told the soldiers: "Come over to us; you will be received under the laws of that truly Christian hospitality and good faith which Irish guests are entitled to expect from a Catholic nation."
An impressive performance
At the same time that Santa Anna was encouraging U.S. soldiers to desert the army, he also had been gathering his own country's soldiers. Ampudia joined his troops with Santa Anna's and the huge force headed north on a grueling 150-mile march, during which they lost about five thousand soldiers to death or desertion. The Mexicans met Taylor's army again on February 22 and 23, 1847, at what is called the Battle of Buena Vista in the United States; the Mexicans call it the Battle of Angostura, after the mountain pass near which it took place. Realizing that their artillery was far inferior to that used by the United States, the Mexicans had to plan their strategy carefully. They assigned the well-trained San Patricio Battalion to the three biggest cannons, which were mounted on high ground above the battle field.
Although the United States won the Battle of Buena Vista due to their superior weapons and equipment and to the fact that their troops were in much better physical condition, the San Patricios performed well, even though they lost about a third of their men. Despite several costly attempts, the U.S. troops were unable to capture the San Patricios' cannons. In addition, the San Patricios captured two U.S. cannons. After the battle, they were recognized by the Mexicans for their bravery, and John Riley received a medal and a promotion to the rank of captain. By August 1847, the San Patricios had enough men for two companies, each made up of about one hundred soldiers.
The Mexican army now returned to the nation's capital, Mexico City, where Santa Anna bragged of their great victory at Angostura. In reality, of course, it had been a great loss. Mexican citizens were growing more and more alarmed, especially after troops under General Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry), now in command of the U.S. war effort, invaded the coastal city of Vera Cruz in March 1848. Once again, many civilian lives were lost in the U.S. attack, causing a negative reaction even among the U.S. public. The U.S. Army was now on the march toward Mexico City, the conquest of which, it was believed, was necessary if the United States was to win this war.
Fierce fighting at Churubusco
In April, the two armies met again at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, where the U.S. troops forced the Mexicans to make a hasty retreat. The San Patricios were present, retreating afterwards with Santa Anna and his army to Mexico City. In early August, Scott's army arrived in the Valley of Mexico and began its difficult approach to Mexico City. They clashed with Santa Anna's troops at the village of Contreras on August 19, and at Churubusco the next day. From their position at a Churubusco convent, the San Patricios fought fiercely, and it is for this effort that they are most remembered in Mexico.
Fighting with both heavy artillery and rifles, the San Patricios held on to the convent valiantly, inflicting many casualties on the U.S. soldiers. At one point, the Mexicans ran out of ammunition. They made a plea for more, but received only supplies designed for U.S. guns, which would not work in the Mexicans' older weapons. However, since the San Patricios carried U.S.-made guns, they were able to use this ammunition, and they kept up their defense of the convent even to the point of hand-to-hand fighting. Three times the Mexican soldiers tried to raise a white flag of surrender, but each time the San Patricios tore it down, determined to fight on. Finally, knowing that they were defeated, a officer in the San Patricios put his own white handkerchief on the point of a bayonet and raised it in the air. The battle was over.
Thirty-five San Patricios had been killed in the battle, while about eighty had escaped. The remaining eighty-five members of the battalion were taken prisoner. Seventy-two of them were immediately charged with desertion from the U.S. Army. They were to be tried in two groups, on August 23, in the town of Tacubaya and on August 26, at San Angel. A panel of officers would hear the case, and the sentence would be sent to Scott for approval. Assigned to carry out the terms of the sentences was Colonel William Harney (1800-1889), an officer of Irish Catholic heritage who was known for his cruelty.
Found guilty of desertion
At the trials, the San Patricios were not represented by lawyers, but they were allowed to call witnesses who would testify that they were men of good character. Knowing that conviction meant the death penalty and unable to get formal legal advice, about half the men claimed that drunkenness had led them to desert from the army (this was a very common defense in military trials and sometimes led to lighter sentences). Others claimed that the Mexicans had forced them to join their army. None brought up the issues of religious or racial prejudice.
There was no question that the San Patricios had fought on the Mexican side, many U.S. soldiers and officers had seen them. In addition, they had refused to surrender when they had an opportunity. There was not much chance that many of them would be deemed innocent. Indeed, only two were found to be not guilty, since they had never actually joined the U.S. Army. Two others were found guilty but given the usual punishment for desertion, death by firing squad; one had deserted but had not actually joined the Mexican army, and the other had been forced to fight. Of the remaining San Patricios, fifty received the sentence of death by hanging, a less humane form of execution than death by firing squad. Because the other fifty, including John Riley, had deserted from the U.S. Army before war had been officially declared, they received a lesser sentence that included whipping with fifty lashes and being branded on the cheek with a "D" for deserter.
The punishments are carried out
The first executions took place at San Angel on September 10, where a small crowd of onlookers gathered at 6:00 a.m. The men were brought out and fourteen of them (one of whom was Riley) were whipped and branded. The rest were taken to the gallows on small wagons. Priests read them the last rites of the Catholic faith and nooses were placed around their necks. Then the mules were prodded to pull the wagons forward, so that the men were left hanging until they died. Riley and the others were forced to dig graves for the executed men.
The sentences of the San Patricios who had been tried at Tacubaya were carried out on September 13, the same day that U.S. forces overran Chapultepec Hill, a Mexico City landmark on top of which Mexico's National Military Academy was located. In charge of the punishments, Harney ordered the gallows to be built on high ground, in view of Chapultepec. At dawn the thirty San Patricios were brought out and told that they would have to stand on the wagons, the nooses around their necks, until the U.S. flag was raised over Chapultepec Hill, signaling that the battle was over.
These men stood in the hot sun, awaiting their deaths, until the U.S. flag appeared at 9:30 a.m. Harney signaled for the mules to be driven off, and the men were left hanging. Those who had been sentenced to whipping and branding now received their punishments. It is not known what happened to the bodies of those executed, though some say that they were left swinging from the gallows until, after several days, the townsfolk took them down and buried them.
After the war
In recounting what happened to the San Patricios, some historians have said that although their punishment seems extremely cruel to us, it was not uncommon in the middle of the nineteenth century. Others, however, assert that such practices as whipping and branding were already declining at the time of the Mexican American War, and receiving both punishments was very unusual. These historians suggest that the San Patricios may have been so harshly treated because of their low status as mostly Irish Catholic immigrants.
Soon after the fall of Chapultepec Hill, Scott rode in triumph into Mexico City, and the war was over. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848, signaling its official end, and U.S. troops began withdrawing from Mexico in May. The members of the San Patricio Battalion still in U.S. custody were released in June. A number of them joined with Riley in forming a new battalion, which helped to put down rebellions against the government of Mexico's new president, José Joaquín Herrera (1792-1854). In the fall of 1848, this unit was dissolved.
Riley stayed on to serve in the Mexican army for two more years, but it is not known what happened to him after that. He may have returned to Ireland, or it may be that, like many other former San Patricios, he stayed in Mexico, started a family, and found a way to make a living there. In fact, even now, such Irish names as Murphy, Kelly, and MacDowell may be found in Mexican phone books.
In the United States, the memory of the San Patricio Battalion was a shameful one for many Irish Americans, who were eager to blend in with U.S. society and attain all the benefits and opportunities for which they had fled Ireland. Indeed, over the next century and a half they would largely realize this dream, as the prejudice and discrimination against them became less and less common. In Ireland, however, the San Patricios were remembered more fondly. According to Hogan, "despite their whippings, mutilations, and hangings, or perhaps because of them, [they] became a symbol in Mexico not of disgrace, but of honor in defeat, of glory in death."
In 1957, the residents of the town of San Angel put up a plaque that reads, "In Memory of the Heroic Battalion of Saint Patrick, Martyrs Who Gave Their Lives for the Mexican Cause During the Unjust North American Invasion of 1847." The plaque lists the names of seventy-one soldiers. Every year on March 17, St. Patrick's Day, the members of the San Patricio Battalion are remembered and honored with a special ceremony. Across the sea in Ireland, where many view the role of the San Patricios in helping Mexico as similar to that played by Irish people who resisted British oppression, commemorations have taken place at Riley's birthplace in County Galway.
For More Information
Hogan, Michael. The Irish Soldiers of Mexico. Guadalajara, Mexico: Fondo Editorial Universitario, 1997.
Miller, Robert Ryal. Shamrock and Sword: The St. Patrick's Battalion in the U.S.-Mexican War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Miller, Robert Ryal and William J. Orr. An Immigrant Soldier in the Mexican War. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1995.
Stevens, Peter F. The Rogue's March: John Riley and the St. Patrick's Battalion 1846-1848. Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 2000.
McGinn, Brian. The San Patricios: An Historical Perspective. [Online] Available http://www.connemara.com/history/san-patricios/ (accessed on January 31, 2003).
Nordstram, Pat. "San Patricio Battalion." Handbook of Texas Online. [On-line] Available http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/SS/qis1.html (accessed on January 31, 2003)
"Criminal negligence…": Life in a U.S. Army Camp in Texas, 1846
Many U.S. soldiers who fought in the Mexican American War discovered that their worst enemies were to be found not among the Mexican troops but in their own camps. Ignorance or neglect of proper hygiene, sanitation, and nutrition led to widespread sickness and death. In fact, many more men died due to disease than to battle wounds. Those men who had come to Mexico in search of adventure faced more than they originally anticipated, as is illustrated in the following account by Lieutenant Daniel Harvey Hill of the Fourth Artillery.
It becomes our painful task to allude to the sickness, suffering and death, from criminal negligence. Two-thirds of the tents furnished the army on taking the field were worn out and rotten. Transparent as gauze, they afforded little or no protection against the intense heat of summer, or the drenching rains and severe cold of winter. Even the dews penetrated the thin covering almost without obstruction. Such were the tents, provided for campaigning in a country almost deluged three months in the year, and more variable in its climate than any other region in the world, passing from the extreme of heat to the extreme of cold within a few hours. During the whole of November and December, either the rains were pouring down with violence, or the furious "northers" [winds] were shivering the frail tentpoles, and rending the rotten canvass [sic]. For days and weeks, every article in hundreds of tents was thoroughly soaked. During those terrible months, the sufferings of the sick in the crowded hospital tents were horrible beyond conception. The torrents drenched and the fierce blasts shook the miserable couches of the dying. Their last groans mingled in fearful concert with the howlings of the pitiless storm.
Every day added to the frightfulness of the mortality. The volley [crying] over one grave would scarce have died on the air when the ear would again be pained by the same melancholy sound. One procession would scarcely have been lost to sight when the solemn tread of the dead-march would announce another. At one time, one-sixth of the entire encampment were on the sick report, unfit for duty, and at least one-half were unwell. Dysentery and catarrhal fevers raged like a pestilence. The exposure of the troops in flimsy tents, and their being without fires, aggravated these diseases.
As the winter advanced, the encampment now resembled a marsh, the water at times being three and four feet in the tents of whole wings of regiments. All military exercises were suspended, the black gloomy days were passed in inactivity, disgust, sullenness [sadness] and silence. The troops, after being thoroughly drenched all day, without camp fires to dry by, lay down at night in wet blankets on the well soaked ground. We have seen them bouyed up with the hope of a fray, cheerful and hopeful, when certain death seemed to impend over them. But without occupation, without excitement, without the prospect of meeting the foe; to sit, day after day, and week after week, shivering in wet tents, and listening to the low wail of the muffled drum, as fellow-soldiers, perhaps beloved companions, were carried to their last resting place, was not this enough, more than enough, to try the discipline and fortitude of the best troops in the world?
Sources: Hill, D. H. "The Army in Texas," Southern Quarterly Review, Volume 9, April 1846: 448-50; The Mexican American War (1846-1848). [Online] Available http://www.hillsdale/edu/dept/History/Documents/War/America/Mexican/War/19mex.htm (accessed on January 31, 2003).
Pedro de Ampudia
Many historians claim that Pedro de Ampudia was one of several prominent Mexican military officers whose poor leadership actually weakened the Mexican war effort during the Mexican American War.
Pedro de Ampudia was born in Havana, Cuba, and entered the Spanish colonial army as a teenaged cadet (the lowest rank). He arrived in Mexico in 1821 as a lieutenant, and soon joined the army of Agustín Iturbide, who was leading an armed struggle against Spanish rule. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, Ampudia served in the new Mexican army and quickly rose through the ranks.
During the early 1840s, the Mexican army clashed repeatedly with troops from Texas, which had previously been a part of Mexico. Although Texas had declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, Mexico never officially recognized Texas's action. Ampudia took part in the campaign against Texas. He was in command of Mexican troops at the town of Mier when it was attacked by the Texan army. Ampudia and his troops were able to capture the Texans by pretending to surrender to them. As a result, Ampudia executed a large number of the Texan soldiers on orders from General Antonio Lopéz de Santa Anna.
Ampudia's reputation as an especially cruel officer was reinforced in 1844, when he helped to put down a rebellion in the Mexican state of Yucatán. The rebels surrendered in good faith and expected mercy, but Ampudia had them executed and even displayed several of their severed heads on poles, as a warning to others about the perils of rebellion.
When the Mexican American War began, Ampudia was serving as general-in-chief of the Army of the North, headquartered at Matamoros. He was unpopular with the citizens of Matamoros, however, and they requested a replacement. President Manuel de Paredes y Arillaga thus sent Mariano Arista to replace Ampudia, who became second-in-command. Mutual resentment between the two officers led to quarreling that hindered their effectiveness as leaders.
In the first two battles of the war, which took place at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma (both very close to Matamoros) on May 8 and 9, 1846, the Mexican army was outgunned by the U.S. troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor. Mexico's leaders and citizens reacted to the losses with shock and dismay, but it was Arista who took most of the blame. He was replaced by General Francisco Mejía, who was soon replaced by Ampudia. Once again, Ampudia was in command of the Army of the North.
Following their early victories, Taylor's army headed west toward the city of Monterrey, where Ampudia commanded a defensive force. Santa Anna recommended that Ampudia evacuate the city, but Ampudia believed he should stay and fight the approaching U.S. troops. The battle that followed was bloody, as the U.S. force bombed the city (causing many civilian deaths and injuries) and finally stormed its walls. There was fierce hand-to-hand fighting along the city's streets. Finally Ampudia surrendered.
Even though Ampudia had managed to arrange a generous armistice (halt in fighting) with Taylor—by which the Mexican troops were allowed to leave, officers were allowed to keep their personal weapons, and an eight-week ceasefire was promised—Santa Anna relieved Ampudia of his command. Ampudia did lead troops again at the battles of Buena Vista and Cerro Gordo, but at a lower rank.
After the war, Ampudia served for a time as general-in-chief and governor of the state of Nuevo León. He fought on the side of the ruling liberals in the 1857 conflict known as the War of the Reform, a violent struggle between liberals and conservatives. Ampudia died on August 7, 1868, and is buried in the Pantéon de San Fernando in Mexico City.
Sources: Frazier, Donald. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997. Crawford, Mark. Encyclopedia of the Mexican American War. Santa Barbara, CA: American Bibliographical Center-Clio Press, 1998; DePalo, William A., Jr. The Mexican National Army, 1822-1852. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.
"The San Patricio Battalion." Mexican-American War. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/educational-magazines/san-patricio-battalion
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