Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

by C. Austin
John Riley and Irish Catholics fought for Mexico


Mexico's Fighting Irish

By the 1840s a significant proportion of the enlisted men in the 
United States Army were Catholic immigrants from Ireland and 
Germany.  The Mexican government,  aware of prejudice against 
immigrants to the United States, started a campaign after the 
Mexican War broke out to win the foreigners and Catholics to 
its cause.  The Mexicans urged English and Irish alike to throw 
off the burden of fighting for the "Protestant tyrants" and join 
the Mexicans in driving the Yankees out of Mexico.  Mexican 
propaganda insinuated that the United States intended to 
destroy Catholicism in Mexico, and if Catholic soldiers fought 
on the side of the Americans, they would be warring against 
their own religion.  Using this approach, the Mexicans hoped 
to gain 3,000 soldiers from the United States Army.  In 
November 1846  Gen.  Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna organized 
American deserters with other foreigners in Mexico to form the 
San Patricio Battalion, or St. Patrick's Company, a name it 
probably received from its Irish-­American leader, John Riley, 
formerly a member of Company K of the Fifth United States 
Infantry.   The company saw action at Monterrey, again near 
Saltillo, and at Buena Vista, each time receiving praise for its 
thorough job. The most important conflict came at the battle 
of Churubusco in August 1847.

By July 1, 1847, Santa Anna gathered enough deserters and 
foreigners to organize two San Patricio battalions of 100 men 
each.  As American forces rapidly approached Mexico City,.  
Santa Anna divided his forces into three armies to guard 
several entrances to the city.  One of these, commanded by 
Gen.  Gabriel Valencia, was surprised by the Americans at 
Contreras and defeated.  Santa Anna then decided to 
concentrate his forces at Churubusco, where there was a 
forfified bridgehead and a Franciscan convent.  He stationed 
the San Patricio companies with a battery of five cannons on 
the bridge.  The American forces advanced from the south and 
the west covering one side of the fort.  Although they suffered 
heavy casualties, the American continued to advance.  
Suddenly they noticed a drop in gun fire as they made their 
cautious approach.  With his supplies running low, Santa Anna 
now ordered one company of  San Patricios into the fort along 
with another infantry company and a wagon of ammunition.  
The cartridges in the wagon, however, were the wrong caliber 
for all the weapons except those used by the San Patricios.  
From inside the fort the San Patricios manned three of the 
seven cannons. (Later some said that their gunfire was aimed 
at former officers.) The Americans continued to press on, 
forcing the second company of San Patriclos and other 
Mexican soldiers into the convent.  Reportedly, Mexican 
soldiers inside the convent tried three times to raise the white 
flag, but the San Patricios, desperate because of their fate if 
captured, tore it down.  At last Capt.  James M. Smith of the 
Third Infantry entered and put his own handkerchief on the 
pole.  Once back with the United States Army, the San Patricio 
company did not fare well.  Gen.  W'mfield Scott issued General 
Orders 259 and 263 establishing two courts martial for 
seventy-two deserters.  Col.  John Garland convened the first 
court martial on August 23, 1847, in Tacubaya.  Col.  Bennet 
Riley, an Irish Catholic officer, convened the second court 
martial at San Angel on August 26.  Only two defendants did 
not receive the death sentence, one excused because of 
improper enlistment in the United States Army, the other 
because he was deemed insane.

When General Scott received the verdicts for approval, the 
Mexican people faced him with  cries of outrage at the 
treatment of their soldiers.  After considering appeals from the 
archbishop of Mexico, the British minister to Mexico, and a 
number of foreign citizens resident in Mexico City (including 
United States citizens), Scott reevaluated the courts martial 
giving close attention to the Articles of War.  Scott issued 
General Order 281 on September 8, 1847, and out of the 
twenty-nine men tried at San Angel, twenty received the death
sentence.   John Riley, the leader, technically deserted before 
the war between Mexico and the United States was declared, 
so he could not be hanged.  He received fifty lashes and the 
letter "D" branded on his cheek.  Scott issued General Order 
283 several days later concerning the trials at Tacubaya, 
confirming the death sentence for thirty San Patiicios, and 
allowing the same considerations he had with the group before.

Several of the men received pardon due to their relatively young 
age; and one man was pardoned because he was not a willing 
deserter, but had been kidnapped by the Mexicans while he was 
drunk.  Sentences for the men tried at San Angel were carried 
out in that village on September 10; sentences from Tacubaya 
were executed in the village of Mixcoac on September 13.  The 
latter sentences were carried out under the command of Col.  
William S. Harney, who had the condemned men fitted with 
nooses at daybreak and then left them standing on the gallows 
while the battle for Chapultepec Castle raged nearby.  The men 
were to be hanged when the United States flag was raised over 
the castle; United States troops took Chapultepec several hours 
later, at 9:30 a.m. The sentences imposed on the San Patricios 
outraged the Mexican public.  In Toluca Mexican authorities 
prevented rioters from trying to retaliate against American 
prisoners of war.

This did not end the story of the San Patricios.  Mexico 
continued its dubious recruitment of deserters and by March 
of 1848 had found enough original San Patricios and new 
deserters to form two more companies.  Mexico did not forget 
its San Patricios still held by American authorities and 
continued bargaining for their release.  However, it wasn't until 
the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, and the war 
ended, that the fourteen remaining prisoners were released.  
The San Patricios continued as a group, providing support by 
patrolling areas of Mexico to protect the people from bandits 
and Indians.  They later became involved in revolts within 
Mexico until a presidential order of General Herrera stopped 
them.  Under the order,  Riley was arrested for suspicion of a 
plot to kidnap President Jose Joaquin de Herrera, and the San 
Patricios were recalled to Mexico City where the government 
could monitor their actions.  Herrera, in order to end the 
problems with the San Patricios and dispel any further crises 
as well as to cut the postwar budget, dissolved the company 
in 1848, a -short time after it received its last 	military 
expenditure in August.  While some members of the San 
Patricio company petitioned the government	of Mexico for help 
in retrning to their European homelands, most remained in 
Mexico as they could not return to the United States.

 B. Kimball Baker, "The St. Patiricks Fought for Their Skins, and 
Mexico "
Smithsonian 8 (March 1978).  
G. T. Hopkins, "The San Patricio Battalion in the Mexican War," 
US. Cavalry Journal 24 (September 1913).	
Richard	Blame McComack,  "The	San Patricio Deserters 'in 
the Mexican War," 
The Americas 8 (October 1951).  
Sister Blanche Marie McEniry, American Catholics
in the War with Mexico (Washington, 937).  
Edward S. Wallace, I "Deserters 'in the Mexican War," Hispanic
American Hisiorical Review 15 (August 1935).  
Dennis J. Wynn The San Patricio Soldiers: Mexico's Foreign
Legion (Southwestern Studies- Monograph 74, El Paso.  Texas
Western Press, 1984).

I hope y'all enjoyed the above.  I thought it would be good 
reading for those who could not attend Michael Hogan's 
presentation at our last meeting; and a refresher for those 
that did.  Slatts