In Mexico, they are famed in story and remembered and revered on St Patrick’s Day as a battalion of Irish soldiers who fought for faith and freedom.
The plaque to their memory in the plaza of San Angel, in Mexico City, reads, “In Memory of the Heroic Battalion of St. Patrick – Martyrs Who Gave Their Lives in the Mexican Cause during the Unjust North American Invasion of 1847.”
Known as the San Patricios, the battalion was made up mostly of Irishmen led by John Reilly, who left the Union Army of the United States during that country’s invasion of Mexico because, he said, he was appalled at the terrible discrimination suffered by Irish Catholics in the U.S. Army, and the anti-Catholicism expressed during the actions of their campaign.
Back then, America was pursuing an aggressive expansion driven by the idea of Manifest Destiny, a belief that the U.S. should occupy all lands stretching west. This culminated in a war of aggression against Mexico as President James Polk approved the annexation of disputed territory between Texas and Mexico.
It was believed by many to be an unjust conflict. Then a young soldier, later President, Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his memoirs, “I do not think there ever was a more wicked war than that waged by the United States in Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign.”
To enable the expansion and the war, the U.S. Army had recruited from the wave of new immigrants coming from Europe, including those driven from Ireland by poverty, dispossession and famine. Capt. John Patrick Riley was born in Galway, and after emigrating to Canada then travelled to the U.S where he joined the Army. However, he was shocked and disillusioned at what he saw as vicious bigotry amongst Army officers, primarily from an Anglo Protestant nativist culture which could be especially to Catholics.
Deserters said that Irish and other Catholic soldiers were flogged over minor infractions and the Army sometimes reneged on military payments. The Ancient Order of Hibernians write that Irish recruits were shocked to see that “churches were desecrated, religious processions disrupted and drunken soldiers, who raped, pillaged and burned Mexican villages and churches, were only sent home.”
Riley and others shared religion with the Mexicans and felt sympathy for the Mexican cause based on similarities between the situations in Mexico and Ireland. He deserted to the Mexicans and began to build a battalion mostly composed of Irishmen. By the summer of 1846, there were approximately 200 soldiers in the battalion, organised into two companies. Riley chose a flag of green silk, with an image of St Patrick embroidered in silver on one side, and a harp and shamrock on the other.
Under Riley’s command, the San Patricios became a respected artillery unit. They fought bravely at the Battle of Buena Vista – but it was at the Battle of Churubusco, on August 20th 1847, that the battalion acquired its legendary status in Mexico. Ordered to protect the retreating Mexican army, the San Patricios, holed up in a convent by the River Churubusco, bravely attempted to defend the road to Mexico City.
It was for naught however. In September, the US army took the Mexican capital, bringing the war to an end. The San Patricios who had not died at Churubusco were court-martialled as deserters. Two days after the execution at San Ángel, Colonel William Harney oversaw the hanging of another thirty San Patricios at El Castillo de Chapultepec.
Riley was spared because he had deserted before the war was declared, so as punishment he was tied to a post and flogged until he passed out. He was also branded with “D” for deserter on his cheeks. He returned to Mexico to serve out time in the Army.
The men have continued to be honored and revered as heroes in Mexico. The Batallón de San Patricio is memorialised on two separate days; 12 September, around the anniversary of the executions, and on 17th March, St Patrick’s Day.
Numerous schools, churches and other landmarks in Mexico take their name from the battalion, and they are remembered on the Wall of Honor in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies.
Historian Tim Fanning says that The spiritual meaning behind this act of solidarity is perhaps best encapsulated by the artwork on the cover of San Patricio, the album released in 2010 by The Chieftains and Ry Cooder, in collaboration with various Mexican musicians, in honour of the Irish battalion. Framed within the borders of a cross, it is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the potent symbol of Mexican Catholicism, cradling the Christ-like body of a red-haired soldier.