The Mexican-American War is commonly remembered, outside of Mexico anyway, largely in relation to the American Civil War which followed, like the Spanish Civil War is often only seen in relation World War II. Many of the famous commanders of 1861-65 saw their battlefield careers begin in Mexico, and so did many future Presidents. Outside of that, the conflict is largely remembered as an outcome of early American imperialism, an unjust war propagated by an administration desperately trying to keep an increasingly fractured country together, averting the inevitable split between abolitionist and anti-abolitionist.
In the middle of this conflict was a group of Irish soldiers, part of a unit taking the name of their homeland’s patron saint, whose actions would straddle the line between heroism and treason.
As we know, immigration from Ireland to the United States had skyrocketed in the mid-1800’s, increased by the effects of the Famine and political repression among a certain class. The families arriving in the north-eastern port cities of the USA typically brought precious little with them other than the clothes on their backs, and were often dependent on the support of family that had arrived before them: the US Army found a potent recruiting pool among Irish men arriving on ships, as they offered immediate employment, adventure and everything else that is used to lure men to sign up for the military, then and now.
Young Irishmen, in a new country and culture, were often disappointed by the reality of US army life once they had signed up, the American military an institution with a largely Protestant leadership and marked by brutal disciplinary measures. When the war with Mexico came, many Irish soldiers has severe misgivings about what seemed to be an aggressive struggle against a fellow Catholic people.
John Riley, a Clifden native born around 1817, had immigrated to Canada after service with the British Army, fleeing the horrors of the Famine. At some point he moved to the States and signed up for the US Army, serving in Michigan briefly before being moved south with the 5th US Infantry Regiment. Riley rapidly became dissatisfied with US military life, where Catholics were frequently forced to attend Protestant services, were denied the right to practise their own religion and could see minor infractions punished with lashings. With tensions between the US and Mexico rising, Riley decided to desert, crossing the border and joining the Mexican Army, immediately becoming a Lieutenant. He was far from the only one, with plenty of Irish and other nationalities also choosing to abandon their American service and take up the Mexican cause.
The war itself broke out in April of 1846. In the early stages of the fighting, the Mexican Army had the “Legion de Extranjeros” – the Legion of Foreigners – comprising their non-Mexican soldiers, and they served in early clashes at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, battles where the United States forced their enemy out of the Texas territory. At the same time, John Riley had been placed in command of a company of Irish fighters, who manned artillery batteries at the six day Siege of Fort Texas, an unsuccessful attempt by Mexican forces to maintain a foothold north of the new border. All the while, deserters continued to abandon the US and take commissions in the Mexican Army, and the distinction between those who had left before and after the declaration of hostilities would be vital.
The pattern of the fighting was largely set in these early battles, as the vastly superior American military continually succeeded, despite the occasional heroism of some Mexican troops. The majority of the Mexican military for the war were largely untrained peasantry, more militia than army, and in battle could not be counted upon to stand when things got tough. That made professional soldiers like those in the Legion all the more important.
By September, Riley’s forces had been officially recognised as “Batallon de San Patricio” – St Patrick’s Battalion – and was largely augmented with other foreign units, eventually reaching somewhere in the region of 700 men, the number including both Irish and German volunteers. The Battalion was officially an infantry unit, but essentially served as some of Mexico’s only horse artillery, rapidly moving and manning cannon throughout battlefields.
Popularly dubbed “Los Colorados” due to their common red hair and sunburned skin, the St Patrick’s Battalion next saw serious service at the Battle of Monterrey, as the American Army of Occupation, under General Zachary Taylor, attempted to take a vital northern city. Manning guns in Monterrey’s citadel, Riley and his men managed to blunt and turn back a few American infantry attacks on their own merit, but the larger situation was beyond the Mexicans, who retreated after several days fighting, having inflicted greater casualties than they took. Their service recognised, it was after Monterrey that the Battalion was given their own flag, commonly described as a golden harp on a green background, above the words “Erin Go Bragh”, or “Ireland Forever”.
Soon, Riley and his men had become part of the northern Mexican Army under the famed Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, tasked with turning back the American invasion. The next engagement was the Battle of Buena Vista in February, 1847. Placed on high ground, the Battalion’s artillery supported a Mexican infantry advance and then annihilated an opposing battery, capturing some of its guns. Taylor’s efforts to eliminate the St Patrick’s position came to nothing, as the Battalion drove off opposing attacks. However, Riley and the others could do nothing about the larger strategic situation, which saw Santa Anna defeated and the Mexicans set to flight, though they did their part in warding off what would have been a bloody American pursuit by helping in a successful rearguard action. A third of the battalion probably died that day, with many of the remainder awarded for bravery and given field promotions.
The disintegrating situation for Mexico was becoming more and more apparent, and Santa Anna’s efforts to reorganise his army led to the St Patrick’s being merged with other units to form the “Foreign Legion of Patricios”, with a Mexican Colonel in overall command, Riley given one of two companies for his own. The fighting became increasingly desperate as the Americans relentlessly pressed on, and the Irish in Mexican uniform fought back as hard they could, mindful that they would not be subject to the same protections as their Mexican allies in the event of capture. At the Battle of Cerro Gordo, they allegedly threatened to shoot at wavering Mexican units as an American victory became inevitable: distracted by the advancing enemy later, they were unable to make good on their threat.
In August of 1847, a new army under the more gung-ho Winfield Scott was in the middle of a serious advance on Mexico City, hopeful that its capture would end the fighting for good. Included in his army were junior officers like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Standing in their way despite numerous defeats, was Santa Anna’s army, which engaged Scott at Churubusco, only five miles from the city.
Riley and the St Patricks, despite significant reduction in their numbers, were the tip of the Mexican spear, meeting the initial American advance on a fortified convent, and using what was left of their artillery to blunt an attack made by a Colonel William Hoffman, inflicting severe casualties. But the tide couldn’t be turned back, and ammunition shortages obliged the St Patricks to retreat back behind nearby walls. The American’s pressed the attack, and some brutal fighting took place as the walls were taken and the interior cleared out. Allegedly, the Irish shot at Mexicans officers attempting to raise a white flag, while it is also claimed that American troops mistook the Battalion for allies, and allowed themselves to be raked by enemy fire as a result.
Overcome, those of the Battalion not dead or able to effect an escape were captured, including Riley. Theirs was to be a grim fate, subject to a court-martial for desertion and sentenced to various punishments. The lucky got away with severe lashings, but most were sentenced to death after the bare semblance of a trial, some by the more accepted method of firing squad, but most by hanging, considered a far more disturbance way to execute supposed traitors. 50 of the Battalion’s members were hanged in the largest judicial killing ever carried out by American authorities. A large section of the executions crossed into the realm of gross cruelty and political theatre, General Scott ordering a group to be hung within sight of the Battle of Chapultepec, one of the last clashes of the war after Mexico City was taken, just as an American flag was raised on the nearby castle (done after Mexican volunteers dived off its summit with their own flag rather than let it be captured). This act may have damaged Scott’s later run for the Presidency in 1852, used by his opponents to whip up discontent among Irish-American voters.
Riley was not one of those executed, a distinction drawn between those who had deserted before and after the war had started. Instead, he was branded with a “D” on his face and given fifty lashes, but was later among the remaining St Patrick prisoners released back into Mexican custody, as part of the treaty that ended hostilities, with Mexico losing a large chunk of its northern territory as a result of the fighting. The St Patrick’s Battalion stayed in being until 1848, with Riley remaining in command of a company, before their disbandment as the Mexican government attempted to reorganise their military after the war. Riley would remain in Mexican service until 1850, dying in unknown circumstances sometime later. Other veterans would make lives for themselves in Mexico, with a small number returning to Ireland.
The legacy of Los Colorados depends largely on where you look. In Mexico, and for most part in Ireland when they are remembered, they are heroes who came to the defence of Catholic Mexico in its time of need, and are remembered in things as varied as street names or football teams. In the States, their legacy as one of the only enemy units composed almost entirely of deserters, is more mixed, with attempts at the time to dismiss the Battalion’s very existence as some kind of propaganda exercise. The Battalion’s actions, and their reasons for desertion, has been largely dismissed to this day. Even recently, One Man’s Hero, a 1999 movie depicting the Battalion, with Tom Berenger playing Riley, suffered distribution problems after its completion, and is largely forgotten.
Regardless of moral judgements on their existence, the Battalion showcased exemplary military discipline in an army that lacked such a thing in most of its other units, and in comparison to other Irish military adventures in the new world, they proved that Irish fighters could maintain the kind of ferocious reputation they had earned on European battlefields.
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