The Irish Soldiers of Mexico
© 1997 Michael Hogan
And it was there in the pueblos and the hillsides
That I saw the mistake I had made
Part of a conquering army, with the morals of a bayonet brigade
And amidst all these poor dying Catholics —
Screaming children, the burning stench of it all —
Myself and two hundred Irishmen decided to rise to the call
From Dublin City to San Diego, we witnessed freedom denied
So we formed the St. Patrick Battalion and we fought on the Mexican side.
(“The St. Patrick’s Battalion“, David Rovics)
One discovers the oddest stories through music. Take this, for instance — the story of a few hundred Irish immigrants to the United States, who shortly after participating in the invasion of Mexico, decided to defend it instead. They fought valiantly in five battles, flying the green flag of St. Patrick, and their survivors continued to serve Mexico even after the war as a check against brigandry. To the United States, they are an embarrassment best forgotten, a blotch on the United States’ first military adventure outside of strict self-defense. To Mexico, they are red-headed heroes: they are the San Patricos. The Irish Soldiers of Mexico makes the best of scarce resources and supplies generous background information to give the fighting Irish their deserved laurels.
Hogan grounds the decision of the Irish to bolt in both race and religion. Prior to the waves of European immigration in the late 19th century, the early Republic shared England’s pride in its Anglo-Saxon heritage, complete with varying degrees of disdain or contempt for non-Saxons. Prejudice against the Irish was as pronounced as it might be against blacks or Native Americans, at least until so many Irish came over that they begin blending in. The early Republic was also expressedly Protestant in its religion, viewing the Catholic church as Old World and un-American as it was possible to be. Even Maryland, established as a Catholic sanctuary and home to the largest landowner of the founders, Charles Carroll, was quickly taken over by Protestantism. The abuse incurred by the Irish for both their Celtic blood and their Catholic region kept a barrier up between them and the affection they might have had for their adopted country, and made them sympathetic to the plight of Mexico — what was Ireland, but a poor nation of Catholics, dominated by Anglo-Saxon Protestants who regarded its inhabitants as fit only for serfs? The abhorrent behavior exhibited by the invading US Army — the same abhorrent behavior exhibited by virtually every invading army anywhere, in which men are replaced by uniformed chimpanzees bent on looting, raping, and burning — coupled with the seemingly deliberate attack on Mexican churches forced the Irish to make a decision. Who would they keep faith with? Their paymasters, or the people of Mexico, whose plight was so much like the Irish?
Although this book concerns a military battalion, it is not principally military history; what we know based on terse US records and Mexican records (reduced by fire, unfortunately) is that the San Patricios were particularly noted for their work on the cannons. In one battle, after Mexican troops had exhausted their ammunition, the Irish fought to the last, recovering their compadres’ retreat. Those San Patricios who were captured were put to death in a gruesome manner — not shot as soldiers, but incompetently hung after standing at attention for four hours, or beaten with the lash in excess of the Articles of War. Half the book’s volume is given over to notes, and much of its content proper explores the racial and religion aspects of the Irish stand. While this information is slight, this is an often-overlooked chapter in the Mexican war, one that Irish Americans in particular should note with interest.
Green, Blue, and Grey: The Irish in the American Civil War, Cal McCarthy