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Saint Patrick's brigade : traitors or heroes?

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Title:
Saint Patrick's brigade : traitors or heroes?
Series Title:
This week in history
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Castro, Richard T.
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Denver, CO
Publisher:
Richard T. Castron
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English

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Auraria Library
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Auraria Library
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Copyright [name of copyright holder or Creator or Publisher as appropriate]. Permission granted to University of Colorado Denver to digitize and display this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.

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Full Text
Saint Patricks Brigade: Traitors or Heroes?
by
Richard "McGrath" Castro
As we celebrate Saint Patricks Day, I am reminded each year, of a little known story that ties the Mexican and Irish Communities together. The story revolves around the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848. This two year war changed the Southwest from Mexican control to United States control and created the 2,000 mile border that today separates these two countries.
The story concerns a military unit called the San Patricio Battalion made up primarily of Irish Catholic "deserters" who fought on the side of Mexico during this controversial war.
As U.S. troops charged the castle of Chapultepec, just outside of Mexico City, on September 13, 1847, (30) of their former comrades stood on mule carts beneath a scaffold on a nearby hill, watched the action with nooses around their necks, their eyes locked on a flagpole on top of the castle turret. The raising of the Stars and Stripes in place of the Mexican tricolor would be the signal for the executioner to motion the cart drivers forward and leave the prisoners dangling.
The condemned men were captured American "deserters" who, in an action unparelled in the nations history, had formed the backbone of a unit in the Mexican army and fought against the United States.
Why did these Irish and other immigrants turn against the United States? What factors motivated the U.S. to declare War on Mexico and what lessons can be learned from this experience?


2
To answer these questions, we need to assess the years before 1846 and the start of the conflict. In 1840, Ireland experienced the Potatoe Famine which resulted in several hundred thousand Irish migrating to the United States. Just like Hispanic immigrants of today, these Irish people were subjected to racial prejudice, scapegoating and criticism from earlier immigrants who questioned their culture and racial stock. Many of the Irish got into civil service and politics to resolve the problems that faced them. Today Hispanics, with over 3,000 elected officials in this country are utilizing the same strategy.
Some of these Irish immigrants also utilized the military as a means of getting out of poverty. Even though the Mexican war was an unpopluar one with the American citizenry and was the subject of large demonstrations and riots in New York and eastern seaboard states, these Irish immigrants joined the ranks of the military. Many were not even citizens. U.S. Hispanics shared the same parallel situation in Vietnam. Of the 58,000 soldiers killed in Vietnam, 8,000 were Hispanic. It has been said no matter how much things change, the more they remain the same. It is the poor and disproportinate numbers of ethnic groups who tend to provide the cannon fodder for wars.
The Mexican War was started by the United States by precipitating a conflict with Mexico at the border, and escalating the conflict into a full fledged war by executive actions taken by President James Polk. A review of the gulf of Tonkin Resolution by President Johnson or the attempts by President Reagan to illegally overthrow the Nicaraguan government by supporting the contras based in Honduras, bear


3
strikingly similarities.
Polk wanted to create additional slave states out of Texas and regions that comprise parts of the southwest which today make up California, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona, as well as sections of Northern Mexico. Polk and his cohorts used the concept of Manifest Destiny to impose their way of governing on this continent. In fact, by the slim margin of 85 to 81, the Congress narrowly defeated a move to take all of Mexico at the close of the war. If they had not successfully defeated this move our Southern border would be Guatamala or perhaps Panama. We wouldn't have needed to have a Simpson-Rodino Immigration Bill. Mexico would have been incorporated into the United States.
The war motivated such great writers as the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to speak out on this unjust expansionist endeavor. Thoreau viewed the Mexican War as a conflict to extend slavery, and he concentrated instead on a more fundamental issue: the duty of each honest citizen to resist his government when it condoned or perpetrated an evil such as slavery or a war to extend slavery.
Thoreau wrote "When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, it is not too soon for honest men to rebel."
It was some of Thoreau's writings that influenced my decision to oppose the Vietnam conflict. For the same reason, I don't want


4
to see my 15 year old son have to make the same tramatic decision with respect to Central America when he turns 18 years of age. I would much rather support the possibilities of peace in the region.
The Mexican War stimulated dissent, rebellion, draft evasion and desertion. Though the story of the San Patricios has been shrouded in legend, it appears to have begun on a Sunday in April of 1846 when Sargent John Riley of Company K, U.S. 5th Infantry, swam the Rio Grande to desert from General Zachery Taylor's army at Matamoros. In the months ahead, hundreds of men followed Riley's example. They were moved by boredom, drink, or by Mexican promises of land and money.
Some were influenced by Mexican propaganda aimed at creating a rift between native and foreign-born American soldiers, and particularly between Irish Catholics and Protestants. The Irish who opposed slavery, shared the same religion with the Mexicans and were looked down upon by their American comrades in arms. Ultimately, they had more in common with the Mexicans.
Many deserters were never heard from again. Those who joined the Mexicans were first encountered as a unit at Buena Vista. Riley, now a first lieutenant, was the ranking American among the deserters. Their distinctive flag, decorated with a shamrock, a figure of St. Patrick and the harp of Erin, reflected Riley's national origin.
The San Patricios were cited for bravery after Buena Vista. Their impact was strongest, however, at Churubusco, the story is told that each time the Mexicans tried to raise the white flag of surrender,


5
the desperate San Patricios, knowing that, for them, capture meant death, pulled it down and continued the losing fight.
At least 65 of the San Patricios were finally taken at Churubusco, tried by court-martial and sentenced to hang. Major General Winfield Scott reviewed the sentences and commuted (11) of them, including Riley's, on grounds that these men had deserted before the war was officially declared. Those who were spared received punishment that was harsh enough; (50) lashes, the letter "D" branded on their cheeks and the grim job of digging graves for those to be hanged. Scott also pardoned four men who persuaded him that Mexicans had captured them and forced them to fight. He confirmed the other's convictions. They were executed in three groups, after occupying ringside seats at the American victory at Chapultepec.
Congressman Abraham Lincoln, who later was to become President, was an outspoken critic of the war and through a series of what came to be called "Spot Resolutions", attempted to prove that Polk instigated the war with Mexico. He believed that the war was waged unconstitutionally.
John Quincy Adams agreed with Lincoln, and with forty of his northern Whig Party members, passed legislation by a vote of 85 to 81 declaring the war unnecessary and unconstitutionally begun. It called for the immediate withdrawal of American forces from Mexico, created a boundry somewhere between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers, and required Mexican payment of just American Claims.


6
The last American troops left Mexico city on June 12, 1848.
By the first week in August, the last troop ship had sailed from Vera Cruz for the United States. The cost of the victory in human terms, rather than in dollars and cents, had been high; for behind them the American Army had left almost 13,000 dead, most of whom died from disease. Four thousand men had suffered wounds, while 9,500 men, mostly volunteers, had previously been discharged for varying kinds of disabilities.
Don Lawson wrote in a book titled, "The United States In The Mexican War" stated that, "It is interesting to note that 50 percent of the men wounded in the Mexican War died, while in the Vietman conflict only 2.5 percent of those wounded died. It is also interesting to note that there were more than 9,000 deserters during the Mexican War, a far greater ratio per total troop strength than in the Vietnam conflict, a war that became notorious for the number of deserters and draft evaders. Again, most of the Mexican War were from the volunteer ranks. Most of these men were recent immigrants to the U.S. and scarcely regarded the nation as their homeland. Thus, it was even more ironic that the San Patricio Battalion captives had cheered the raising of the American flag shortly before they were hanged."
Richard "McGrath" Castro is the Grandson of Trinidad and Lucinda McGrath. He dedicates this article to them.


Full Text

PAGE 1

Saint Patricks Brigade: Traitors or Heroes? by Richard "McGrath" Castro As we celebrate Saint Patricks Day, I am reminded each year, of a little known story that ties the Mexican and Irish Communities together. The story revolves around the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848. This two year war changed the Southwest from Mexican control to United States control and created the 2,000 mile border that today separates these two countries. The story concerns a military unit called the San Patricio Battalion made up primarily of Irish Catholic "deserters" who fought on the side of Mexico during this controversial war. As U.S. troops charged the castle of Chapultepec, just outside of Mexico City, on September 13, 1847, (30) of their former comrades stood on mule carts beneath a scaffold on a nearby hill, watched the action i.th noos-es arounri their necks, eyes locked on a flc>.gpo1e o n top of the castle turret. The raising of the Stars and Stripes in place of the Mexican tricolor would be the signal for the executioner to motion the cart drivers forward and leave the prisoners dangling. The condemned men were captured American "deserters" who, in an action unparelled in the nations history, had formed the backbone of a unit in the Mexican army and fought against the United States. wny did these Irish and other immigrants turn against the United States? What factors motivated the U.S. to declare War on Mexico and what lessons can be learned from this experience?

PAGE 2

-2 -To answer these questions, we need to assess the years before 1846 and the start of the conflict. In 1840, Ireland experienced the Potatoe Famine which resulted in several hundred thousand Irish migrating to the United States. Just like Hispanic immigrants of today, these Irish people were subjected to racial prejudice, scapegoating and criticism from earlier immigrants who questioned their culture and racial stock. Many of the Irish got into civil service and politics to resolve the problems that faced them. Today Hispanics, with over 3,000 elected officials in this country are utilizing the same strategy. Some of these Irish immigrants also utilized the military as a means of getting out of poverty. Even though the Mexican war was an unpopluar one with the American citizenry and was the subject of large demonstrations and riots in New York and eastern seaboard states, thes e Irish immigrants joined the ranks of the military. Many were not even U.S. sh&red th3 same p aralle l i n Vietnam. Of the 58,000 soldiers killed in Vietnam, 8,000 were Hispanic. It has been said no matter how much things change, the more they remain the same. It is the poor and disproportinate numbers of ethnic groups who tend to provide the cannon fodder for wars. The Mexican War was started by the United States by precipitating a conflict with Mexico at the border, and escalating the conflict into a full fledged war by executive actions taken by President James Polk. A review of the gulf of Tonkin Resolution by President Johnson or the attempts by President Reagan to illegally overthrow the Nicaraguan government by supporting the contras based in Honduras, bear

PAGE 3

-3 -strikingly similarities. Polk wanted to create additional slave states out of Texas and regions that comprise parts of the southwest which today make up California, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona, as well as sections of Northern Mexico. Polk and his cohorts used the concept of Manifest Destiny to impose their way of governing on this continent. In fact, by the slim margin of 85 to 81, the Congress narrowly defeated a move to take all of Mexico at the close of the war. If they had not successfully defeated this move our Southern border would be Guatamala or perhaps Panama. We wouldn't have needed to have a Simpson-Rodino Immigration Bill. Mexico would have been incorporated into the United States. The war motivated such great writers as the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to speak out on this-unjust expansionist endeavor: Thoreau viewed the Mexican War as a conflict to extend slavery, and he concentrated instead on a more fundamental issue: the duty of each honest citizen to resist his government when it condoned or perpetrated an evil such as slavery or a war to extend slavery. Thoreau wrote "When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, it is not too soon for honest men to rebel." It was some of Thoreau's writings that influenced my decision to oppose the Vietnam conflict. For the same reason, I don't want

PAGE 4

-4 -to see my 15 year old son have to make the same tr2matic decision with respect to Central America when he turns 18 years of age. I would much rather support the possibilities of peace in the region. The Mexican War stimulated dissent, rebellion, draft evasion and desertion. Though the story of the San Patricios has been shrouded in legend, it appears to have begun on a Sunday in April of 1846 when Sargent John Riley of Company K, U.S. 5th Infantry, swam the Rio Grande to desert from General Zachery Taylor's army at Matamoros. In the months ahead, hundreds of men followed Riley's example. They were moved by boredom, drink, or by Mexican promises of land and money. Some were influenced by Mexican propaganda aimed at creating a rift between native and foreign-born American soldiers, and particularly between Irish Catholics and Protestants. The Irish who opposed slavery, s hared the same religion with the Mexicans and were looked down upon by their American comrades in arms. Ultimately, they had more in common with the Mexicans. Many deserters were never heard from again. Those who joined the Mexicans were first encountered as a unit at Buena Vista. Riley, now a first lieutenant, was the ranking American aiTong the deserters. Their distinctive flag, decorated with a shamrock, a figure of St. Patrick and the harp of Erin, reflected Riley's national origin. The San Patricios were cited for bravery after Buen a V ista. Their impact was strongest, however, at Churubusco, the story is told that each time the Mexicans tried to raise the white flag of surrender,

PAGE 5

-5 -the desperate San Patricios, knowing that, for them , capture meant death, pulled it down and continued the losing fight. At least 65 of the San Patricios were finally taken at Churubusco, tried by court-martial and sentenced to hang. Major General Winfield Scott reviewed the sentences and commuted (11) of them, including Riley's, on grounds that these men had deserted before the war was officially declared. Those who were spared received punishment that was harsh enough; (50) lashes, the letter "D" branded on their cheeks and the grim job of digging graves for those to be hanged. Scott also pardoned four men who persuaded him that Mexicans had captured them and forced them to fight. He confirmed the other's convictions. They were executed in three groups, after occupying ringside seats at the American victory at Chapultepec. Congressman Abraham Lincoln, who later was to become President, was an outspoken critic of the war and through a series of what cam e to be called "Spot Resolutions", attempted to prove that Polk instigated the war with Mexico. He believed that the war was waged unconstitutionally. John Quincy Adams agreed with Lincoln, and with forty of his northern Whig Party members, passed legislation by a vote of 85 to 81 declaring the war unnecessary and unconstitutionally begun. It called for the immediate withdrawal of American forces from Mexico, created a boundry somewhere between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers, and required Mexican payment of just American Claims.

PAGE 6

-6 -The last American troops left Mexico city on June 12, 1848. By the first week in August, the last troop ship had sailed from Vera Cruz for the United States. The cost of the victory in human terms, rather than in dollars and cents, had been high; for behind them the American Army had left almost 13,000 dead, most of whom died from disease. Four thousand men had suffered wounds, while 9,500 men, mostly volunteers, had previously been discharged for varying kinds of disabilities. Don Lawson wrote in a book titled, "The United States In The Mexican War" stated that, "It is interesting to note that 50 percent of the men wounded in the Mexican War died, while in the Vietman con-flict only 2.5 percent of those wounded died. It is also interesting to note that there were more than 9,000 deserters during the Mexican War, a far greater ratio per total troop strength than in the Vietnam conflict, a war that became notorious for the number of deserters and draft evaders. Again, most of the Mexican War were from the vol-unteer ranks. Most of these men were recent immigrants to the U.S. and scarcely regarded the nation as their homeland. Thus, it was even more ironic that the San Patricio Battalion captives had cheered the raising of the American flag shortly before they were hanged." Richard "McGrath" Castro is the Grandson of Trinidad and Lucinda McGrath. He dedicates this article to them.