In the US and Canada, Saint Patrick’s Day is a celebration of all things “Irish” – Guinness! Corned beef & cabbage! Questionable drinking habits! But in Mexico, St Patrick’s day also celebrates a different side of the Irish story. A story of immigrants, and mercenaries without a country. Men branded as traitors, and hailed as heroes.
Flashpoint: Texas, 1846
The Mexican-American war officially began with America’s annexation of Texas. To understand the complicated history leading up this war is to understand the origins of Texas itself. I tried to type it all up, but I think I’ll just defer to one of the men who fought it:
For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territories.Lt. Ulysses S. Grant
He seems like a wise, reasonable sort of a man. Perhaps he’ll go on to do great things some day.
Lt. Grant was one of nearly 100,000 American soldiers committed to the war. America’s relatively small army had been tripled in size with new volunteers. Roughly 40% of those volunteers were immigrants. The two largest contingents came from Germany and Ireland. Germany had been a long-time source of immigrants, but the Irish were new. The Great Famine in Ireland would reach its peak in 1847, and already “coffin ships” were arriving daily in the harbors of New York and Philadelphia.
The immigrants arrived with nothing. Their naked backs were clad in army blues, their empty hands given an army rifle, and their hungry bellies filled with army rations. They were paid 7 American dollars a month (~$265 today), and sent to fight in Mexico.
There are many explanations given for what happened next. Some sources attribute it to nascent Catholic sympathies among the Irish. Others say that it was because of Irish sympathies for the Mexicans living in occupied Texas. But it’s a British private serving in the American army, who I think provides the best explanation:
For some time before we left Jalapa the emissaries of the Mexican Government had been busy tampering with the soldiers of our army, holding out large promises of preferment and distinction to any of our men who would join their army, and giving them money and liquor as earnest of a future higher reward. Unfortunately for their dupes, they were only too successful, and a great many of our men stayed behind. This result was also partly occasioned by the foolish and tyrannical conduct of a number of the young officers of the American service, who abused their authority greatly, and who were not sufficiently checked by the senior officers of the service. Out of the company to which I belonged ten deserted, more than an eighth of our entire company, which was not eighty strong at the time. I cannot say for its correctness, but it was currently rumoured, and I think it highly probable, that there were between two and three hundred desertions from our army while we lay at Jalapa.Pvt. George Ballentine, ‘The Mexican War, by An English Soldier in the United States Army
Ballentine also wrote of “revolting and disgusting” Army punishments doled out for even the most trivial offenses.
Add to this the harsh anti-Irish sentiment among Nativists, and anti-Catholic sentiment in the army at large. The film ‘Gangs of New York’ does a fairly good job at explaining both Nativism, and the extreme cruelty which it was capable of. In many instances, Catholic troops were not only barred from participating in Catholic Mass, but were forced to attend Protestant services.
So, enticed with promise of 320 acres of land, better treatment, and better pay, a steady stream of deserters was funneled away from the Americans and into Mexican service. When the Mexicans saw these sunburnt, freckled soldiers with their red and blonde hair, they called them ‘Colorados’ – the red ones.
The Guns of Monterrey
The Catholic deserters to Mexico were put under the command of Lieutenant John Riley. Riley was an immigrant himself, leaving from Ireland first to Canada, then to the United States. He is alleged to have had some amount of experience in the British Army prior to joining the American one. He served for less than a year however, and deserted just prior to the outbreak of war. He headed for Mexico, and was granted an officer’s commission. He was a teetotaler his whole life, stood at 6’5, had bright red hair, and was a brave and charismatic leader of men.
The first appearance of the San Patricios as an official unit, was as an artillery battery at the battle of Monterrey. Many of the first deserters had come from the American artillery units, and their skills were much-needed by the Mexicans.
The Irishmen stuck to their guns all day, turning back several attempted assaults into the city. As usual for battles of the Mexican-American war, future Civil War generals appear as mere company commanders; in this case, one of the assaulting companies was led by Braxton Bragg.
That Damned Battery
The San Patricios would meet the Americans again at the Battle of Buena Vista, this time, entrusted with the heaviest guns in the Mexican army and numbering perhaps 700 men. The Patricios muscled their artillery onto the slopes of a rugged hill overlooking the battlefield, and pounded the American line to screen the Mexican advance. With the armies now tangled on the plains below, the San Patricios turned their guns against the 4th Artillery Battery.
When they had smashed apart the American battery, Riley detached a section of his men to go across and capture the guns. The San Patricios routed the remaining crews with a bayonet charge and took possession of a pair of 6lb cannon, which they hauled back across the battlefield.
Seeing this, American General Taylor ordered his cavalry to “take that damned battery.” This attack was shattered and driven back. Having failed to carry the guns, Taylor directed the fire of several American batteries at the San Patricios. The men weathered this hail of shot long enough to screen the routed Spanish infantry, and then limber their guns and retreat in good order. They had lost a third of their men killed and wounded.
Erin go Bragh
You must not fight against a religious people, nor should you be seen in the ranks of those who proclaim slavery of mankind as a constitutive principle … liberty is not on the part of those who desire to be lords of the world, robbing properties and territories which do not belong to them and shedding so much blood in order to accomplish their views, views in open war to the principles of our holy religion‘Desertion Handbill’ delivered to American forces, imploring Catholics to defect
The company was reformed, and enlarged once again – now to the size of a small brigade. It included not only the original artillery battery, but also an infantry battalion and cavalry unit. Overall command was given to Col. Francisco R. Moreno. The 1st Company was commanded by Riley, the second by Santiago O’Leary.
The war had been going poorly for Mexico, and Santa Anna’s army was in full retreat. The San Patricios were ordered to hold a river crossing just 5 miles from Mexico City. Santa Anna gave the order to “preserve the [crossing] point at all costs.” Attached to the San Patricios were two battalions of Mexican militia; Los Bravos Batallón and Los Independencia Batallón, the former being entirely untested, and the latter having been mauled at the battle of Padierna the day before. They also had the artillery battery of heavy guns, which had been the heart of the formation. Their cavalry were kept with the retreating army.
The San Patricios took up positions in the town and raised their flag over the walled convent of Churubusco. A green silk banner, emblazoned with the golden harp, and the Irish motto Erin go Bragh – Ireland Forever.
The men stood to face down an approaching American force which outnumbered them 2-to-1.
The defenders held their ground, and waves of assaults were turned back all across the line. The artillery battery of the San Patricios drove back an American battery, and the Mexican guns kept firing until 2 had melted, and another had shaken itself loose from its carriage. Musket barrels were said to be glowing “as brightly as the fires they emitted.”
After 3 hours, ammunition ran out. Cartridges brought up from the rear were only suitable for the Brown Bess, which made up a small proportion of the defender’s arms. Worse, Cpt. O’Leary was gravely wounded when one of these cases of ammunition caught fire and exploded near him.
On their left, Los Bravos gave way first and retreated back toward the convent. Los Independencia held for longer, one company mounting a desperate bayonet charge to repulse a final attack, in order for the rest of of the battalion to retreat in good order.
The San Patricios fell back within the monastery, and defended it for another 2 or 3 hours. Pvt. Ballentine wrote of what happened next.
These deserters were considered a principal cause of the obstinate resistance which our troops met at Churubusco, two or three attempts of the Mexicans to hoist a white’ flag having been frustrated by some of them, who killed the Mexicans attempting to display it. The large number of officers killed in the affair was also ascribed to them, as for the gratification of their revenge they aimed at no other objects during the engagement.Pvt. George Ballentine, ‘The Mexican War, by An English Soldier in the United States Army’
Brutal close quarters fighting broke out in the halls of the Monastery. Mexican General Anaya (also wounded in the ammunition explosion) ordered that the defenders should make their final stand with bare hands, if necessary.
Their Voices Still Free
Their deportment deserves the greatest eulogies, since all the time the attack lasted they sustained the fire with extraordinary courage. A great number of them fell in the action ; while those who survived, more unfortunate than their companions, suffered soon after a cruel death or horrible torments, improper in a civilized age, and from a people who aspire to the title of illustrious and humane.Alcaraz, Ramón – ‘The Other Side: or, notes for the history of the war between Mexico and the United States’
In the end, 72 San Patricios were captured. They were charged with desertion, and court martialed. There were no lawyers appointed to represent the men, and no transcripts were made of the proceedings.
The fates doled out were particularly cruel. Twenty-two men were found to have deserted prior to hostilities, and were spared death sentences. Instead, these men were to receive 50 lashes each, to be branded on the cheek with the letter ‘D’, and to perform hard labor for the remainder of the war. By the Articles of War in effect at the time, they should have only been sentenced to one of those punishments; to be branded, or flogged, or to serve hard labor. They were delivered all 3.
The remaining 50 men were sentenced to death. Two of the men who were found to have never formally joined the Mexican army, were executed by firing squad. The remaining 48 were sentenced to be hanged, in 3 separate batches. This is the largest execution by hanging in American history (the hanging death of 38 Sioux in 1862 was the largest at a single event). Again, this was in disregard to the Articles of War, which reserved hanging deaths only for spies, and those who committed atrocities against civilians – neither of which the San Patricios had been charged with.
The last 30 San Patricios to be hanged were led to a gallows on a hill overlooking the battle of Chapultepec. Gen. Winfield Scott ordered that the soldiers be forced to watch until the moment American flag was hoisted over the Mexican citadel, and then be hanged. This was carried out by Col. William Selby Harney; a man renowned for his ruthlessness. Harney ordered a wounded Patricio be hanged despite the man having had both his legs amputated the day before.
At 9:30am on the 13th of September, 1847, the stars and stripes were raised over Chapultepec. Harney ordered the carts on which the prisoners were standing be pulled away. He left the bodies to sway in the wind, saying
“I was ordered to have them hanged, and have no orders to unhang them.”
In a last act of defiance, the 30 San Patricios gave a final cheer for the Mexican flag before the drop. One onlooker commented,
“Hands tied, feet tied, their voices still free”
As he had deserted prior to the war, John Riley was among those branded. After the war, he rejoined the Mexican army and was promoted to Major. He retired at the age of 33 after a bout of Yellow Fever. He was awarded medals for heroism, his several uniforms, a well equipped horse, and $800 (around $20k today). Where he went after that, nobody really knows.
The San Patricios in Blood & Steel
The San Patricios appear as one of the Mexican “hero units” in Firelock’s ‘Blood & Steel’. Thanks to the ¡Viva Mexico! special rule, you are able to include multiple units of the San Patricios in your force. This means that you could easily recreate a legal list for their last stand at Churubusco, by fielding Mexican Militia as your Core choices, and multiple units of San Patricios, plus a unit of Artileria in Support.
The street fighting through the fortified village at Churubusco would also make a great scenario for a skirmish game like B&S. The Mexican-American War is one of those under-gamed moments in wargaming, despite being the battles were many of the famous generals of the American Civil War would appear in command of actual units on the table.