Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Irishmen who died for Mexico

Thursday is the special day of Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland.  Thanks to a heroic band of Irishmen during the “Mexican-American War,” St. Patrick’s Day is deeply honored in Mexico.

The devastating Irish potato famine began in 1845.  By the tens of thousands, whole families boarded ships and sailed to the United States where they faced further mistreatment and discrimination.  Signs reading "Irish need not apply" were the courteous ones. There was a pressing need for young Irish immigrants to put bread on the table and then, as now, when jobs are hard to come by, an easy place for young able-bodied men to find a job is in the army.  Most of them Catholic, not yet citizens, they soon found themselves in the U.S. Army where discrimination against the Irish, and Catholics in general, was rampant.

Those of us who studied US history in elementary and high school should remember the details of the Mexican-American War (1846-48) but strangely this war with its closest neighbor is glossed over in U.S. history books.  Mexican school children asked what they think about the Mexican-American War may respond with a blank stare.  It's not that they haven't heard about it; it's that they know it as the North American Invasion. As recently as 1940 text books used in Mexican elementary schools showed the southwestern part of the USA as a shaded area, labeled "occupied territory".  Grandparents of today's school children may remember those books.  The maps were only changed when Mexico became an ally of the United States in World War II.

In the 1840’s Manifest Destiny became a somewhat vague, but self-proclaimed, United States right to claim all territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Much of that land was under Mexican rule.  When the U.S. annexed Texas, Mexico broke relations and war ensued.   It was a highly controversial U.S. war of aggression and hotly objected to as a southern tactic to bring in more slave-holding territory.  

A number of generals who later made names for themselves in the U.S. Civil War had early military experience in Mexico -- not as generals or presidents, but as young captains and majors -- Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee among them.  In his memoirs, President Grant wrote of the war as a massive land grab.  “Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

At the war’s inception Irish Army conscripts arrived in Mexico and encountered an enemy of fellow Catholics carrying banners of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  Having no particular allegiance to the United States many deserted for the Mexican Army.  In return, Mexico promised them citizenship, land, and freedom to practice Catholicism.  

John Riley, a private in the U.S. Army, deserted to Mexico prior to the U.S. declaration of war and began to form what would become the San Patricio Battalion.  Ultimately the 175-200 members of the Battalion would be primarily Catholic but with members of many European countries as well as some escaped slaves.  Most of them knew there were only two possible outcomes, the death penalty for treason or Mexican victory.  In battle after battle they fought heroically, most famously at the Battle of Churusbusco (August 20, 1847). 

For Americans of the generation who fought the Mexican-American War, the San Patricios were considered traitors. For Mexicans of that generation, and generations to come, the San Patricios are heroes who came to the aid of fellow Catholics in need.

U.S. policy at the time was firing squad for treason or desertion during wartime. Hanging was reserved for spies and those who committed atrocities against civilians. Although 9000 soldiers deserted the Army during the Mexican-American War, in violation of the U.S. Articles of War, only the San Patricios were hung. At their mass hanging at Chapultepec Castle, the bound prisoners, awaiting the noose and in a last act of defiance, cheered the Mexican flag. 

Capt. John Riley, who had deserted before the Declaration of War, was spared a death sentence.  He and others received 50 lashes, were branded with a large D on their cheeks, and wore neck irons throughout the duration of the war. The Mexican government described the hangings and brandings as “cruel deaths and horrible torments, improper in a civilized age, ironic for a people who aspire to the title of illustrious and humane.”

Last year Ireland’s famous band The Chieftains released “San Patricio,” a CD dedicated to the San Patricio Battalion with a number of ballads (in Spanish and in English) commemorating their heroics.  It is available on iTunes.  

Names of members of the Battalion are posted on a plaque on the west side of San Jacinto Park in San Angel.  As there is every year, this Thursday there will be a commemorative event near the plaque in San Jacinto Park, across the street from the Saturday Bazaar (Bazar Sabado) building.

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