Mexico Honors Irish Immigrants on St. Patrick’s Day: The Story of the “San Patricios”

By: Patricia Ann Talley, MBA.

History, like beauty, is in the “eye of the beholder.” History is always told from the cultural perspective of the history writer. That is why countries that are on different sides of a conflict usually have very different historical accounts of that same conflict.

Such is the case in the story of “San Patricios” (St. Patrick’s) Battalion, a United States military group comprised of Irish immigrants, who along with some African-Americans, switched sides to fight for Mexico during the conflict between the countries in the 1840’s. In the USA, the “San Patricios” were considered traitors; they were captured, brutally tortured, branded and hung. In Mexico, they are honored as martyrs of liberty and freedom. Mexico pays tribute to the “San Patricios” on St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th and again on September 13th, the anniversary date that the United States captured Mexico City in 1847.   Irish Soldiers of Mexico - thumbnail

Irish Immigrants in the United States During the 1840’s : The story begins with the Great Famine of the 1840’s, when thousands of people from Ireland came to the Americas to escape hunger and poverty. The Irish immigrant experience in the United States was not easy. The majority of people in the USA were Protestant and they were distrustful of Catholics. Some believed that the Irish were a servant race; they were ostracized from American society.

During this time, many Irish men enlisted in the United States Army as a means to earn money. By the 1840’s, a significant proportion of the enlisted men in the US Army were Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany.

Conflicts Over Slavery Lead to the US Military Invasion of Mexico, 1846 – 1848: Both the English and Spanish “conquistadores” (or “colonists,” depending on your perspective) brought human slaves to North America to serve as a labor force. Human slavery was first abolished in Mexico in 1829. Canada abolished slavery in 1833. But, human slavery continued in the United States until 1865, following its Civil War. Thus, for over 30 years, there was a conflict and difference in human philosophy between the “free” nation of Mexico and the “slave” nation of the United States.

Starting in 1822, Anglos from the United States, led by Stephen F. Austin, began settling in the Mexican state of “Coahuila y Tejas” (later known as Texas). Most of these immigrants came from the American south and they brought their slaves with them. When Mexico forbade the institution of slavery in its territory, the U.S. slave-owners continuously sought ways to circumvent the Mexican law.

Tensions grew between the Mexican government and slave-holding immigrants from the United States and came to a head in the Anahuac Disturbances in 1832 and 1835 that helped to precipitate the Texas Revolution in 1836, when American immigrants in Texas declared its independence from Mexico. The Texas Revolution eventually led to the United States military invasion of Mexico from 1846 -1847. The US military, comprised of a significant portion of Irish and German immigrants, was sent to fight the battle.

The “San Patricio Battalion” Switches Sides to Fight for Mexico: The Mexican government, aware of prejudice against Irish immigrants in the United States, started a campaign after the Mexican War broke out, to win the foreigners and Catholics to its cause. The Mexicans urged English and Irish alike to stop fighting on the side of the “Protestant tyrants” and join the Mexicans in driving them out of Mexico.

It is in this historical setting, faced with discrimination and bigotry in the United States, and with the United States in conflict with Mexico over human slavery that some Irish soldiers from the USA decided to switch to the Mexican side. In November 1846, Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna organized the “San Patricio Battalion,” or St. Patrick’s Company, a name it probably received from its Irish-American leader, John Riley, formerly a member of Company K of the Fifth United States Infantry.

The “Batallón de San Patricio” was made up of mostly Irish and German immigrants, although it included Catholics from many other countries as well, plus some African Americans who escaped from slavery in the American South. They fought at several battles and finally at the Battle of Churubusco, on the outskirts of Mexico City, where more than 70 were captured by US forces and the rest disbanded. Units of the disbanded battalion went on to fight at the Battle for Mexico City.

On September 13, 1847, the US military captured Mexico City at the battle at Chapultepec Castle. Under the command of Col. William S. Harney of the US Army, the condemned men of the “San Patricios” were whipped and fitted with nooses at daybreak, and then left standing on the gallows while the battle raged nearby. They were hung at the moment that the United States flag was raised over the over the castle and the United States Army took control of the city. John Riley, the leader of the battalion, technically deserted before the war between Mexico and the United States was declared, so he could not be hanged. He received fifty lashes and the letter “D” branded on his cheek.

This video from YouTube tells the story of the San Patricios from their perspective. It has received over 140,000 views.

On September 12, 1997, the Mexican government paid special tribute to the soldiers of the San Patricio Battalion who were tortured and hanged in 1847. Mexico’s president at that time was Ernest Zedillo who said,” . . . members of the St. Patrick’s Battalion were executed for following their consciences. We honor the memory of the Irish who gave their lives for Mexico and for human dignity. We also honor our own commitment to cherish their ideals, and to always defend the values for which they occupy a place of honor in our history.”

References and Related Articles:

Irish in America: 1840’s – 1930’s, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug03/omara-alwala/irishkennedys.html

SAN PATRICIO BATTALION | The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA)

The Irish in Michigan « Seeking Michigan: http://seekingmichigan.org/look/2012/03/13/the-irish-in-michigan

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