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13 September 1847

13 September 2009

13 September 1847 saw not just the fall of Mexico City to the U.S. invasion, but also the execution of 30 San Patricio’s, at Mixcoac and in San Angel (Plaza San Jacinto, where a plaque marks the spot today).  The executions in San Angel took place as the United States flag was raised over Chapultepec Castle.

Considered traitors and deserters by the United States (which they were), the San Patricios’ included not only Irish immigrants, but Germans, Hungarians, native-born whites and self-liberated slaves who had been with the U.S. invasion forces.  The Irish, of course, were mostly recent immigrants to the United States, fleeing land grabbing English-speaking Protestants, only to find themselves fighting on behalf of the same kinds of people.  Rampant anti-Catholicism in the Army (and in the United States generally) also played a role.  There were only two Roman Catholic chaplains with the occupation (and one died before reaching Mexico), both volunteers whose expenses were not paid by Congress or the War Department, but under the table by President Polk (who hid the transaction in the White House entertainment budget).

This is sort of the forgotten war of the United States — go into any U.S. bookstore and the war section skips from the War of 1812 to the Civil War — and, if thought of at all, is thought of in terms of being a prelude to the devastating Civil War. As Ulysses S. Grant would write:

The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.

Anti-immigrant sentiment, religious bigotry, a war policy based on financial calculations… it’s not a new thing.  That these soldiers had to take such a huge risk (and paid such a horrible price) to preserve their own integrity makes them — in Mexico and in Ireland — heroes today.

In the notes to the video, singer David Rovics writes:

Dubious about why they were fighting a Catholic country and fed up with mistreatment by their Anglo-Protestant officers, hundreds of Irish, German and other immigrants deserted Taylor’s army and joined forces with Mexico.

Led by Capt. John Riley of Co. Galway, they called themselves the St. Patrick’s Battalion (in Spanish, the San Patricios) and fought against their former comrades in all the major campaigns of the war.

The history of the San Patricios is a woeful tale of angry, bewildered, naive, or calculating young men, from varied backgrounds, who deserted for a myriad of reasons and paid a fearful price.

The San Patricios, in the words of one Mexican general, “deserved the highest praise, because they fought with daring bravery.” But eventually, Mexico surrendered, ceding almost half its territory to the United States.

Each San Patricio who deserted from the US side was interned after the war in Mexico and subsequently given an individual court-martial trial. Many of the Irish were set free, but some paid the ultimate price. Roughly half of the San Patricio defectors who were executed by the US for desertion were Irish.

A grande sweep of the sombrero to Mary O’Grady (now there’s a good Mexican name!) for passing this along:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Herzer permalink
    14 September 2009 3:20 pm

    Thanks for the link! I first became acquianted with the San Patricios while a high school student at a Catholic HS near Chicago. Many of us were anti-war vis a vis the Vietnam conflict and many of the priests referred us to Aquinas and Augustine on the subject of war and ethics. Father O’Reilly, a scholar on Irish immigration to the US, referred us to the San Patricios. So many parallels between the treatment of Irish immigrants and the present day treatment of Mexican immigrants. But, as you pointed out, much of history is ignored and I seem to recall something about ignorance of history resulting in the same mistakes being made again.
    P.S. Who was the first POTUS of Irish heritage? HINT: It was not JFK.

    • Mark Richards permalink
      2 February 2010 6:19 pm

      I’d say the Irish got what they deserved in this case: traitors deserved to be hanged. Unfortunately we don’t do the same today to a fair number of “open borders” traitors in the U.S.

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