Battle of Buena Vista

“From the great gales of Ireland / Are the men that God made mad / For all their wars are merry / And all their songs are sad.” – G.K. Chesterton

For the United States Army they were more hated than the vilest enemy soldier — traitors, deserters, defectors. They are best forgotten.

For Mexicans they were – and are – gratefully remembered as heroes, patriots and martyrs; men who followed their conscience and sacrificed their lives defending Mexican honor and sovereignty. They will never be forgotten. They were members of the San Patricio Battalion, largely Irish, who deserted the US Army to fight for Mexico in its1846-48 war with the United States.

Every year, Mexico twice honors the San Patricio Battalion, once on St. Patrick´s Day and again on September 12, anniversary of the execution deaths of some 50 members of the Battalion, hung by the US Army for their desertion and defection to the enemy. It was the largest execution ever in the history of the US Army.

In the United States, the US-Mexico War is relatively unknown. The US Marine Corp hymn opens with the words “From the halls of Montezuma…”, but few Americans know the words relate to the Mexican conflict that proportionately claimed more American lives than any other war in US history.

South of the Rio Grande, the story reads differently. For more than 150 years Mexicans have been taught this war was the most devastating event in the nation´s history. Mexico, in defeat, lost almost half its national territory to the US – 870,000 square miles. Just as devastating was the searing loss of national pride; Mexico was, at the time of the war a young country, barely 25 years independent of Spain.

Bertolt Brecht wrote that “War is like love; it always finds a way.” In the mid-1840´s, both America and Mexico seemed determined to “find a way” to settle their differences, and the courting wasn´t amorous.

Mexico had just rejected a $15 million cash-for-land deal offered by the US. The area included what now covers the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado and Utah. This territory was Mexican, but only nominally; control over the area was slight, and open to intrusion.

Irritated at the rebuff, the US struck back in 1845 by annexing Texas, a territory long disputed and fought over by both countries. Mexico responded by severing diplomatic relations. US President Polk, a no-nonsense backwoods lawyer from Tennessee, further provoked Mexico by moving troops south to the Rio Grande, a river that historically was considered well within Mexico. US and Mexican troops skirmished across the river, leading Polk to declare to Congress on May 11, 1846, that “…the cup of forebearance (has) been exhausted,” and that “American blood (has) been spilled on American soil.”

The war was on.

The San Patricio (Saint Patrick in Spanish) Battalion had its beginnings just before hostilities broke out. In April, 1846, an Irish-born US soldier named John Riley, stationed on the Rio Grande with the 5th US Infantry, was granted permission to cross the river to attend Catholic mass in Mexican Matamoros. Riley later returned to his unit a changed man; he was convinced that if war came he would be fighting for the wrong side. Riley deserted the US military and, crossing into Mexico, joined the Mexican Army. Soon, 48 other US soldiers followed him. Nearly all were immigrant Irish soldiers, and Catholic.

These men had come to America as part of one of the largest emigrations of the 19th century. In the 1840´s, hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants were reaching American shores, desperate to escape an Ireland stricken by potato-famine. While their cheap labor was useful to an expanding United States, the Irish themselves were unwelcome in America. Anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment was virulent at the time, and new immigrants were soon made to feel it. Hostile cartoons portrayed the Irish with simian features. Their sobriety and intelligence were freely impugned. On the Rio Grande the US Army — then 25% Irish — was no exception. Officers were largely Anglo-Protestant, bigoted and intolerant. Immigrant Irish foot soldiers made soft targets for their prejudice and abuse.

Mexico exploited these social tensions in the US military by insinuating that America was out to destroy not only Mexico, but Catholicism as well. Recruitment propaganda blatantly solicited Irish-American soldiers to desert: “Irishmen! Listen to the words of your brothers – hear the accents of Catholic people….Is religion no longer the strongest of human bonds? Can you fight by the side of those who burned your temples in Boston and Philadelphia? Are Catholic Irishmen to be the destroyers of Catholic temples, of Catholic priests? “(Two Catholic churches had recently been burned in Philadelphia, and a convent in Massachusetts – 20 people had died). “…Come over to us. May Mexicans and Irishmen, united by the sacred tie of religion and benevolence, form only one people.”

“Religion and benevolence” apart, another factor contributed to the desertions: cash. Riley, now a lieutenant in the Mexican army, saw his salary jump from seven to 57 dollars a month. “Money answereth all things” suggests the Book of Ecclesiastes (10.19). Irish and Mexicans co-religionists found the reading held a certain appeal.

“These men…. were mercenaries” wrote author William Jay in “Causes and Consequences of the Mexican War,” published in 1849. “They fought …. for money. They (the Irish) knew and cared nothing for “our much injured citizens”, (Americans in disputed Texas) nor did they trouble themselves about “our western boundary” (the drive to extend America to the Pacific, the so-called policy of Manifest Destiny.)

However, Jay allows, “On reaching Mexico they discovered that they had been hired by heretics to slaughter brethren of their own church,” and “it is reasonable to suppose that they were influenced by religious and pecuniary motives.”

By July, 1847, Mexican General Santa Anna (of Alamo fame) had the foreigners organized into two companies of about 100 men each. Germans were strongly represented in the San Patricio Battalion, and there were Canadians and even some Americans. But more than half the unit was Irish-born.

At San Luis Potosí, convent nuns presented the battalion with a hand-stitched green silk banner. It featured a shamrock and “a harp, surmounted by the Mexican coat of arms, with a scroll on which is painted “Libertad para la Republica Mexicana”.” reported a New Orleans war correspondent. Under the harp was the motto “Erin go Bragh.” (Ireland Forever)

The San Patricio Battalion fought in five major battles during the course of the war, including the critical Battle of Buena Vista, fought on Feb. 22, 1847. US Army General Zachary Taylor, deep in Mexico with less than 10,000 men, was surprised by Santa Anna and forced to retire quickly, burning much of his stores in the process. He set up a defensive position at a hacienda called Buena Vista and waited. The Mexicans came on, 30,000-strong and with bugles blaring. They were massacred by the modernized and ably-handled American artillery, which, using canister and grape shot against the massed Mexican infantry, outmatched the Mexican guns firing only round shot. American troops, significantly outnumbered in every land battle during the war, never lost a fight. Better troop organization and esprit de corp counted for part of that success, but the artillery made the greatest difference.

Six months after the Mexican retreat at Buena Vista, American troops were at the gates of Mexico City, defended on its southern flank by the San Patricio Battalion. Few soldiers of that unit could have been unaware of their predicament as deserters– if they were captured they would face the death penalty. Clemency could not be expected; the next battle would be “must-win.”

But luck wasn´t riding with the Irish on Aug. 20, 1847. At the Battle of Churubusco, fought that day, American forces scattered 8000 Mexican troops defending three strongpoints, including a convent held by the San Patricio Battalion. About 85 San Patricios were taken prisoner. A few escaped.

Courts martial quickly convened by order of US General Winfield Scott sentenced 72 San Patricios to death by hanging. Others, including the original deserter and unit commander John Riley, escaped the death penalty. Technically, Riley had deserted before war was declared. But those spared death were lashed, branded and imprisoned.

The Archbishop of Mexico, the British minister and even some US citizens resident in Mexico protested the severity of the sentences. Many of the condemned claimed they had deserted while drunk, and for no other reason. Scott reviewed the sentences, but there were few reprieves; much fighting still lay ahead, and men would be asked to give their lives. An example was to be set.

Sixteen San Patricios were hung Sept.12 at San Angel and the next day another 30 died the same way, in an execution described by a foreign correspondent as “a refinement of cruelty and a fiendish prolongation at once of the ecstasies of revenge and the agonies of despair.” The condemned were made to stand in mule carts with the noose around their necks within sight of Chapultepec Castle, where the final battle of the campaign raged. The order was given that once the Stars and Stripes appeared victorious over the ramparts of the Castle, the mules should be whipped, leaving the victims to swing. The flag went up at 9.30 am, and the remaining San Patricios met their fate, “rough men in a rough age.”

Author John S.D. Eisenhower, in his book “So Far From God,” writes that “Scott would have preferred to show mercy. Had the war been over, (he said privately that) he would have granted mercy to all of them.”

Scott knew there had been death enough in the war. Of the 104,556 American servicemen who fought in Mexico 13,768 died here – at 13% the highest mortality rate ever suffered in an American military campaign, Eisenhower claims.

In 1997 Hollywood produced a film about the San Patricios. It was called “One Man´s Hero” and starred Tom Berenger in the lead role as John Riley. The film was 20 years in the planning; Berenger himself “kicked butt for five years” to get the movie made, he later said. In the end, distribution of the movie was poorly-supported and box-office response unenthusiastic – America wasn´t interested in the San Patricio Battalion.

The same year, in Mexico City, President Ernesto Zedillo praised the men of the San Patrico Battalion for performing “an act of conscience” in resisting an “aggression that lacked any justification.” He laid a wreath before a plaque in San Jacinto Square commemorating the deaths of 71 members of the unit. And in Dublin, Irish President Mary Robinson attended a function which for the first time Ireland officially honored the San Patricios. Both Ireland and Mexico issued 1997 stamps commemorating the 150th anniversary of the executions.

So who were the men of the San Patricio Battalion – heroes or traitors? Because nations and cultures read into history what they first want to take out of it, Mexicans and Americans will never agree on the answer “The past is a foreign country,” said one wit, “They do things differently there.”

-Originally published ADIP March 2002