St Patricks Batallion

Martin Zehr m_zehr at
Sat Apr 7 19:41:20 MDT 2001

Deserters or unsung heroes: St. Patrick's Battalion

                         The St. Patrick Battalion ( El Batallón de San 
Patricio) was a unique unit of the Mexican Army during the
                 Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.  Some say they were 
heroic men, some say they were just deserters.

                 What made this outfit exceptional was that it was composed 
almost entirely of deserters from the United States Army who, after
                 defecting, fought on the Mexican side in five major 

                 In Occupied America, Rodolfo Acuña states that "there is 
ample evidence that the United States provoked the war...Zachary Taylor's
                 (General of the US Army of Occupation) artillery leveled 
the Mexican city of Matamoros, killing hundreds of innocent civilians with 
                 bomba (the bomb)...The occupation that followed was even 
more terrorizing.  Taylor's regular army was allegedly kept in control, but
                 the volunteers (about 2,000 in Matamoros) presented another 

                 Taylor knew about the atrocities, but...little was done to 
restrain the men, of which Taylor himself admitted 'there is scarcely a form 
                 crime that has not been reported to me as committed by 

                 "An interesting sidelight is that many Irish immigrants, as 
well as some other Anglos, deserted to the Mexican side, forming the San
                 Patricio Corps (El Batallón de San Patricio)...due 'to the 
inborn distaste of the masses of war, to bad treatment, and to poor
                 subsistence.'  Many of the Irish were also Catholic, and 
they resented the treatment of Catholic priests and nuns by the invading

                 According to Miller's book, Shamrock and Sword, renegades 
who crossed the Rio Grande formed the nucleus of the unique San
                 Patricio unit of the Mexican Army.  The Irish-born 
deserter, John Riley, later claimed credit for organizing the outfit.  In a 
letter to the
                 Mexican president he stated: 'Since April 1846 when I 
separated from the North American forces...I have served constantly under 
                 Mexican flag.  In Matamoros I formed a company of 48 
Irishmen...'  By July of 1847, the number of San Patricios had increased to
                 more than 200.

                 During the two years of war, Mexicans called this unique 
outfit by various names; some designations were official, others coined by 
                 people.  Unofficially, the group was called the Irish 
Volunteers, or the Colorados - or Red Guards - so named because of the many
                 redheaded and ruddy-complexioned men in it, or the San 
Patricio Guards.  Officially, the unit began as the San Patricio Company, an
                 artillery outfit that later expanded to two companies.  In 
mid-1847, the Mexican war department reassigned the men as infantrymen and
                 merged the San Patricio companies into the newly-created 
Foreign Legion (Legión Extranjera), which some Britons and Americans
                 called the Legion of Strangers.  In 1848, the Mexican 
president expanded the companies and formed the Saint Patrick's Battalion.

                 The San Patricios served under a distinctive military 
banner.  John Riley said the emerald green ensign had an image of Saint 
                 emblazoned on one side, with a shamrock and the harp Erin 
outlined on the other.  A Yankee soldier commented of the San Patricio's
                 standard: "A beautiful green silk banner waved over their 
heads; on it glittered a silver cross and a golden harp, embroidered by the
                 hands of the fair nuns of San Luis Potosí."

                 A wartime newspaper correspondent from New Orleans 
described the San Patricio flag captured at the battle of Churubusco: The
                 banner is of green silk, and on one side is a harp, 
surmounted by the Mexican coat of arms, with a scroll on which is painted, 
                 para la República Mexicana.'  Underneath the harp is the 
motto 'Erin go Bragh' (Ireland for Ever).  On the other side is 
                 to represent St. Patrick, in his left hand a key and in his 
right a crook or staff resting upon a serpent.  Underneath is painted San

                 The San Patricios fought in five major battles with the 
Mexican Army: On May 3, 1846 in Matamoros; on September 21, 1846 in
                 Monterrey; on February 22, 1847 at the Battle of Buena 
Vista (Angostura, for the Mexicans); on April 17, 1847 at Cerro Gordo, and
                 August 20, 1847 at Churubusco.

                 Its name being derived from an Aztec word meaning 'place of 
the war god,' Churubusco became the site of one of the bloodiest battles
                 of the Mexican war, an engagement that also marked the 
military zenith of the San Patricios and their last battle in the war as a 

                 For the Americans, their victory at Churubusco was a 
momentous and dramatic event.  Besides its strategic and psychological
                 importance, the battle yielded 1,259 prisoners, including 
104 officers...Of special importance were the captured San Patricios, among
                 them Brevet Major John Riley.

                 Although the San Patricios were defeated at Churubusco, 
their proficiency and bravery elicited praise from various Mexicans: Santa
                 Anna said that if he had commanded a few hundred more men 
like them, he would have won the battle.

                 San Patricio casualties at Churubusco were devastating: 
when the battle began, the two companies were apparently at full strength of
                 102 men each.  Three hours later 60 percent of the men were 
either dead or had been captured by the enemy; 85 were taken prisoner,
                 72 of whom were accused of deserting the US Army and the 
remaining up to 90 men had escaped.

                 In Occupied America, Acuña states that it is estimated that 
as many as 260 Anglo-Americans fought with the Mexicans at Churubusco
                 in 1847.  Some 80 appear to have been captured...A number 
were found not guilty of deserting and were released.  About 15, who had
                 deserted before the declaration of war, were merely branded 
with a "D," and 50 of those taken at Churubusco were executed.'  Others
                 received 200 lashes and were forced to dig graves for their 
executed comrades.

                 With the exception of two prisoners, Ellis and Pieper, the 
military courts at Tacubaya and San Angel found all (the San Patricios) 
                 of desertion and they sentenced 68 men "to be hanged by the 
neck until dead."

                 While these sentences were being reviewed by the 
commander-in-chief, dozens of individuals begged American authorities to 
spare the
                 lives of the San Patricios.  In his General Orders 281 and 
283, issued the second week of September of 1847, General Scott confirmed
                 the capital punishment verdict for 50 San Patricios, but he 
pardoned five men and reduced the sentences of 15 others.

                 Instead of being hanged, John Riley and 14 others reprieved 
San Patricios were to be given 50 lashes, "well laid on their bare back," 
                 to be hot-iron branded with a two-inch letter "D" for 
deserter; 12 were branded on the right cheek, the others of the right hip.

                 Still dressed in their Mexican uniforms, the Americans 
hanged 16 other San Patricio traitors, who had white caps drawn over their
                 heads.  Their bodies were buried nearby; ordered to do it, 
John Riley and the other branded prisoners dug graves directly under the
                 gallows for nine of their companions.  The other seven were 
interred by priests in the nearby cemetery of Tlaquepaque (Tlacopac).

                 The 16 San Patricios who were hanged in San Angel dangled 
from a wooden gallows erected for that purpose, but two American
                 writers claimed that the culprits were hanged "from limbs 
of a large tree."

                 Two days after the San Angel hangings, Colonel William 
Selby Harney executed with unwarranted cruelty the remaining 30 convicted
                 San Patricios.

                 With medals, memorial plaques, annual ceremonies and public 
schools honoring them, clearly the San Patricios are treated as heroes in

                 North of the Rio Grande, by contrast, the story of the 
Saint Patrick's Battalion is hardly known.  Occasionally, there is a passing
                 reference, often erroneous, in United States history books. 
  As for the individual San Patricios- at least those who deserted from the
                 United States Army- they have always been regarded by North 
Americans as traitors.  Yankee writers invariably have maintained that
                 those defectors who were caught deserved their fate.

                 For most, the story of the San Patricios is a tragedy, as 
all war stories are.

                 from Shamrock and Sword, Robert Miller and Occupied 
America, Rodolfo Acuña .  Special thanks to Prof. Roberto Treviño, UC-CS.

>From: "Macdonald Stainsby" <mstainsby at>
>Reply-To: marxism at
>To: "Leninist International" <leninist-international at>,  
>       <marxism at>
>Subject: St Patricks Batallion
>Date: Fri, 6 Apr 2001 18:51:47 -0700
>"from Dublin City to San Diego
>We witnessed freedom denied
>so we formed the St Patrick Batallion
>and fought on the Mexican side"
>-lyrical clip to a song performed by David Rovics
>I have absolutely no idea what this event refers to, aside from Irish 
>siding with Mexicans during the conquest, but that's just from the song. 
>Any help
>here? It seems to have stumped local friends as well.
>Macdonald Stainsby
>Rad-Green List: Radical anti-capitalist environmental discussion.
>Leninist-International: Building bridges in the tradition of V.I. Lenin.
>In the contradiction lies the hope.
>                                      --Bertholt Brecht

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