Saint Patrick's Battalion

Saint Patrick's Battalion
Erin Go Bragh Banner.svg
Reconstruction of the battalion's flag as described by John Riley.
Allegiance Mexico
Branch Mexican Army
Sizeest. 200+ maximum strength
Nickname(s)Los San Patricios, Los Colorados Valientes
PatronSaint Patrick
Motto(s)Erin go bragh (An anglicisation of the Irish for "Ireland forever")
Colors     Turkish Blue
     Sky Blue
EngagementsMexican–American War
Colonel of
the Regiment
Francisco R. Moreno
Brevet Major John Riley[b]
Captain Santiago O'Leary
Sergeant Prisciliano Almitrano

The Saint Patrick's Battalion (Spanish: Batallón de San Patricio), formed and led by John Riley, was a unit of 175 to several hundred immigrants (accounts vary) and expatriates of European descent who fought as part of the Mexican Army against the United States in the Mexican–American War of 1846–48. Most of the battalion's members had deserted or defected from the United States Army. The Battalion served as an artillery unit for much of the war. Despite later being formally designated as two infantry companies, it still retained artillery pieces throughout the conflict. In many ways, the battalion acted as the sole Mexican counterbalance to the recent U.S. innovation of horse artillery. The "San Patricios" were responsible for the toughest battles encountered by the United States in its invasion of Mexico, with Ulysses S. Grant remarking that "Churubusco proved to be about the severest battle fought in the valley of Mexico".[1]

Composed primarily of Catholic Irish immigrants, the battalion also included Germans, Canadians, English, French, Italians, Poles, Scots, Spaniards, Swiss, and Mexicans, many of whom were members of the Catholic Church.[2] Disenfranchised Americans were in the ranks, including escaped slaves from the Southern United States.[3] Only a few members of the Saint Patrick's Battalion were actual U.S. citizens. The Mexican government printed propaganda in different languages to entice immigrants in the U.S. Army to switch sides and offered incentives to foreigners who would enlist in its army including granting them citizenship, paying higher wages than the U.S. Army, and generous land grants.

The San Patricios are revered and honoured in Mexico and Ireland. Members of the Battalion are known to have deserted from U.S. Army regiments including; the 1st Artillery, the 2nd Artillery, the 3rd Artillery, the 4th Artillery, the 2nd Dragoons, the 2nd Infantry, the 3rd Infantry, the 4th Infantry, the 5th Infantry, the 6th Infantry, the 7th Infantry and the 8th Infantry.[4]

Historical perspective

Commemorative plaque placed at the San Jacinto Plaza in the district of San Ángel, Mexico City in 1959: "In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic St. Patrick's Battalion, martyrs who gave their lives to the Mexican cause in the United States' unjust invasion of 1847"

For Mexicans of the generation that fought the Mexican–American War, and generations to come, the San Patricios were heroes who came to their aid in an hour of need. For Americans of that generation, the San Patricios were considered traitors.[5] Successive Mexican presidents have praised the San Patricios; Vicente Fox Quesada stated that "The affinities between Ireland and Mexico go back to the first years of our nation, when our country fought to preserve its national sovereignty ... Then, a brave group of Irish soldiers ... in a heroic gesture, decided to fight against the foreign ground invasion",[6] and Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo stated "Members of the St. Patrick's Battalion were executed for following their consciences. They were martyred for adhering to the highest ideals ... we honor their memory. In the name of the people of Mexico, I salute today the people of Ireland and express my eternal gratitude".[7]

The great majority of these men were recent immigrants who had arrived at northeastern U.S. ports, part of the Irish diaspora then escaping the Great Irish Famine and extremely poor economic conditions in Ireland, part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at the time. The U.S. Army often recruited Irishmen and other immigrants into military service shortly or sometimes immediately after arrival in America in coffin ships, with promises of salaries and land after the war.

Numerous theories have been proposed as to their motives for desertion, including cultural alienation,[8][9] mistreatment of immigrant soldiers by nativist soldiers and senior officers,[10][9] brutal military discipline and dislike of service in the U.S. military,[9] being forced to attend Protestant church services and being unable to practice their Catholic religion freely[11] as well as religious ideological convictions,[9] the incentive of higher wages and land grants starting at 320 acres (1.3 km2) offered by Mexico,[12][9] and viewing the U.S. invasion of Mexico as unjust.[11][13]

It is believed primary motivations were shared religion with the Mexicans and sympathy for the Mexican cause based on similarities between the situations in Mexico and Ireland. This hypothesis is based on evidence of the number of Irish Catholics in the Battalion, the letters of John Riley, and the field entries of senior officers.[14][15] Another hypothesis is that the members of the Saint Patrick's Battalion had been unhappy with their treatment in the U.S. Army; this was the conviction of George Ballentine, an Englishman who served in the American army. Ballentine stated that while "there was a portion of truth" in the view—commonly assigned by officers—that the deserters joined the Mexican army due to their Catholicism, "I have good reason to believe, in fact in some cases I know, that harsh and unjust treatment by their officers operated far more strongly than any other consideration to produce the deplorable result [desertion]," describing how he found the punishments used for "trivial offensives" to be "revolting and disgusting".[16] Another theory some historians hold is that the soldiers were attracted by the incentives offered by the Mexican government: safe passage throughout Mexico for deserters, generous land grants, and the offer of potential military commissions.[17] For poor people coming from famine conditions, economics was often an important incentive.[18]

Mexican author José Raúl Conseco noted that many Irish lived in northern Texas, and were forced to move south due to regional insecurity. Mainly Irish settlers from San Patricio, Texas had previously sided with Mexican forces against Texan rebels at the Battle of Lipantitlán in the Texan Revolution.[19]

Irish expatriates had a long tradition of serving in military forces of Catholic countries, for instance, serving with Spain and later France in groups of young men who had left Ireland during what would become known as the Flight of the Wild Geese in the 17th century. In addition, many Irish fought as soldiers in South American wars of independence.[c]