Streets of Mexico – March 2022

Streets of Mexico

By David Ellison

The Saint Patrick’s Battalion

(Los San Patricios)

los san patricio


Were they turncoats or heroes? As with all martyrs, it depends on whom you ask. 

In the mid 1800s, after the Potato Famine (and British apathy/antipathy) had murdered as many as a million Irish, a million and a half desperate survivors emigrated to the United States. There they faced anti-immigrant, anti-Irish, and anti-Catholic prejudice which doomed them to even further misery. Thousands joined the army hoping to earn respect and citizenship. They were usually disappointed, however, since so many nativist officers treated Irish recruits with harsh disgust, and even forbade them to practice their Catholic faith. 

Then, in 1846, citing its “Manifest Destiny” to extend “from sea to shining sea,” the United States invaded Mexico. Future U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, who’d served as a captain during this, the Mexican-American War, minced few words afterward: “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war . . . I thought so at the time, yet I lacked the moral courage to resign.” 

Many Irish soldiers apparently found that courage. Perhaps they saw too many similarities between a predominantly Protestant United States engaging in a war of conquest against a much weaker Catholic Mexico and what Anglican Britain had inflicted on their Catholic Irish Isle in 1169. Or, maybe they could not bring themselves to abet the expansion of American slavery. (Mexico had outlawed slavery, which at least partially explains why Texan slave owners had recently demanded their independence.) 

Citing “the advice of my conscience,” one Irish soldier named John Riley led approximately 50 of his comrades to desert and to fight for Mexican sovereignty. Eventually, his Saint Patrick’s Battalion (known affectionately in Mexico as “Los Colorados” because of their red hair and ruddy, sunburnt complexions), would swell to several hundred mostly Irish soldiers (but included other Catholic immigrants and even escaped slaves). Specializing in artillery, and fighting beneath a green flag emblazoned with an Irish Harp above the Gailic “Erin Go Bragh” (“Ireland forever”), Riley’s San Patricios became among the most feared vanguards of the Mexican Army. Riley was promoted to captain, and received the prestigious Angostura Cross of Honor. 

But Riley’s and Mexico’s was a lost cause. On August 20th, 1847, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion made its last stand in the Battle of Churubusco, just outside Mexico City. When they ran out of ammunition, Los San Patricios resorted to their bare hands, and three times prevented Mexican officers from raising a white flag to surrender. After the slaughter finally ended, and the Mexican General Pedro María de Anaya was ordered to turn over his remaining ammunition, he famously replied, “If I had any . . . you would not be here.”

The United States Army put the surviving San Patricios on a sham trial for desertion (denying them lawyers and refusing to keep transcripts) and then condemned 50 of them to death by hanging, even though the gallows had been forbidden by the Articles of War. It became the largest mass execution in U.S. Military history. 

In a particularly merciless gesture, the U.S. Army saved 30 of the hangings for the final battle of the war, the fight for Chapultepec Castle, where Los Niños Héroes also made their heroic last stand. The condemned San Patricios were arrayed in nooses on a hill across from the castle and told that, as soon as they saw the Mexican flag finally fall, so too would they—on ropes short enough to prevent their necks from breaking, so they’d have to strangle slowly.

This was the legendary moment when young Mexican cadet Juan Escutia, in order to prevent his flag from falling into the hands of the Americans, wrapped himself in it and plunged off the castle ramparts to his death. Thus, one of Mexico’s greatest acts of nobility occurred simultaneously with one of the United States’ worst acts of ignobility.

John Riley survived. Since he had deserted before the Mexican-American War had been officially declared, he was spared execution, but received 50 lashes, a vicious brand of “D” on both cheeks, and a sentence of hard labor in prison. When released, he returned to Mexico and served again in its army as major until his retirement. He’d long believed, “You will not find in all the world a people more friendly and hospitable than the Mexicans.

The United States military suppressed the story of the Saint Patrick’s Brigade for generations. Many modern folk musical groups, though (such as The Chieftains, The Elders, The Street Dogs and The Fenians), have resurrected their inspiring tale. MGM made the movie One Man’s Hero in 1999 starring Tom Berenger as John Riley; but, fearing a backlash, the studio canceled its distribution in the United States. 

Mexico has no such qualms about honoring Los San Patricios. Every September 12th on the Plaza San Jacinto in Mexico City, dignitaries such as former President Ernesto Zedillo commemorate the Patricios’ service and sacrifice: “Members of the Saint 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.” Indeed, Mexico sent to the Irish city of Clifden, Riley’s birthplace, a statue of John Riley. And every September 12th, Clifden reciprocates by flying the Mexican flag.

Turncoats or heroes? That’s debated only in the United States. 

Many thanks to Dr. Michael Hogan who insisted I include this captivating story in my forthcoming book, Niños Héroes: The Fascinating Stories Behind Mexican Street Names.


March 2022 Issue

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