Monday, March 15, 2010

San Patricio Battalion: A Mexican St. Patrick's Day

Few history books will tell the incredible story of The San Patricio Batallion, one that seems appropriate to recall during this season of St. Patrick's Day in the U.S. As a kid, the only thing I knew about the day was that if I didn't wear something green to school I would get pinched!

Before 1835, a big chunk of Southwestern U.S. was Mexican Territory, including California and Texas. As the U.S. began its westward expansion, Texas became prime realty for the Americanos who at first sought to live in peace with the Mexicans (Catholics) there. But when American ambition grew, a war broke out between Mexico and the U.S., the so-called Mexican War, or Mexican-American War. President James Polk declared war against Mexico in 1846.

To fill its ranks, the U.S. solicited enlistees from the mass of new immigrants, many of them Irish, seeking to escape The Great Hunger of 1845. These were promised land and wages for fighting on the American side, but the strong anti-Catholic sentiments of their new found country became quickly evident. The "Potato Heads", were a prime target for this discrimination.

The war was not a popular one in the U.S. The Mexican army was no match against one better trained with superior weapons. Moreover, the greed behind Manifest Destiny and westward expansion prompted many soldiers to defect and dessertion rates were high. The Irish soldiers embraced the notion that this was a war attacking ordinary farmers for their land.

But when these soldiers witnessed atrocities, rape, plunder and desecration of Catholic churches in Texas, some (including German Catholics) deserted, joining the Mexican forces to fight against their own country. Mexico, of course, took advantage of the situation encouraging the would-be defectors not to fight against their own religion and stop the U.S. from destroying Catholicism. For foreigners to fight in Mexican Wars was not uncommon and dated back to Mexico's War of Independence in 1810.

Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana decreed that two infantry companies of about 100 men each, be formed, calling them "El Batallon de San Patricio (St. Patrick's Batallion)", each with its own captains, leiutenants, and sergeants. They were even permitted to fly their own banner, depicting St. Patrick, a Mexican coat of arms, reading "Libertad Por La Republica" on one side, and the Irish motto "Erin go Braugh" on the other.

The San Patricios fought and distinguished themselves in two important battles, the Battle of Buena Vista (near Saltillo) on February 23-24 of 1847, and in the final battles against the U.S. Marines at the convent of Churubusco on the outskirts of Mexico City on August 19-20, that same year.

Following Mexico's devastating defeat at Churubusco, the U.S. captured and tried some of the remaining San Patricios, found them guilty of desertion, and hung more than 50 soldiers. A few were pardoned, while others were flogged, beaten and branded with the letter "D" (deserter). After the final battle at Chapultepec Castle, the condemned soldiers were hung facing an American flag, raised in triumph over the castle.

The Mexican population rioted in protest over the inhumane treatment of the San Patricio's, threatening 
 to kill American prisoners in retalliation.

When the war ended, the U.S. sought to extradite the remaining San Patricios to the U.S. but Mexico prevailed, spelling out in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which formally ended the conflict, that they would remain in Mexico. Incidentally, Mexico lost about 40% of its territory as a result of the war.

Mexicans showed their gratitude to the San Patricios by erecting a monument in Mexico City honoring the "Martires Irlandeses" (Irish Martyrs), and by establishing September 12, the day of their executions, as a national day of remembrance with a plaque at Churubusco. The street in front of the convent is also called Martires Irlandeses.

They are also remembered on St. Patrick's Day, March 17 each year. Maybe the color green on Mexico's flag is not incidental?

Needless to say, the story was not a popular one in the U.S. media or history books and not until 1915, did the U.S. War Department even acknowledge existence of the San Patricio Batallion and the U.S.' treatment of them, after that devastating war.

Surviving members continued to function as a military unit in Mexico after the war, and some later returned to Ireland.

Lest we forget: Que Vivan Los San Patricio's!!


#167 Dad said...

Great stuff, Rick. My niece made a student film about the San Patricios. I think it's available on line. I'll send you the address.
Also, there was a movie made a few years back about the San Patricios. It starred Tom Berringer. Did you see it?

mossy said...

Excellent article. These men have been forgotten for too long. This was America's 1916.
Can I ask what was the name of the Tom Berringer film?
I would also like to add a link to this site from mine
Happy St. Patricks Day to everyone.
Mossy Dinsmore.

mossy said...

I'm not sure if I left my email address... its

Rick Rivers said...

Thanks, Dad. Yes, I saw the Berringer film by chance flipping channels one day. Please send address.

Thanks for responding Mossy! Will check out your site soon.

frank said...

Great new album by the chieftians and ry cooder "San Patricio" available on features a great selection of irish, us and mexican artists. sounds great!
Frank Neas

mossy said...

The name of the Tom Berrenger film is "One Mans Hero" 1999. It is available on DVD at