12th September: In homage to the Saint Patrick’s Battalion

We publish an unofficial translation of an article published on Periódico Mural found here.

This 12th of September marks the 176th anniversary of the heroic feat of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion and we would like to use this opportunity to share an overview of these valiant soldiers, the majority of whom fell in combat or were executed by the North-American army.

With this publication we want to highlight this great expression of Proletarian Internationalism, which turned into unity of action of two oppressed peoples in the concrete fight for the national liberation of our country. In this sense it is quite important to remember, that Ireland was and continues to be a country oppressed by British imperialism and that the Irish migrants that formed the lines of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, regarding their class-makeup, belong to the proletariat and the working masses of oppressed Ireland.

The Saint Patrick’s Battalion was a military company, mainly composed of Irish and headed by John Riley1, who decided to desert the united-states-army to fight against the Yankee-intervention in Mexico. Despite the character of annexation of the military intervention against our country, it has been called “Mexican-American war” [So called in the USA, in Mexico: “guerra mexicano-estadounidense”; Translator’s note], but it is not exaggerated to say, that it was an unjust war, of annexation, developed by Gringo imperialism against the people of Mexico, who rose up in arms to defend their dignity and territory.

The war lasted from 1846 to 1848 and resulted for Mexico in the loss of nearly half of its territory (about two million three-hundred thousand square kilometers), making up the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming. The robbing [of land; Translator’s note] went on, in spite of the heroic national resistance, that also did not stop with the signing of the Guadalupe-Hidalgo treaty, but went on for many years more.2

The Saint Patricks [members of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion; Translator’s note] had their basis in the Irish migrants, who came the United States during the first half of the 19th century. They had fled Ireland during the wave of British genocide of 1845-1849, know as the “Great Irish Famine”, even though it was created by the heinous English crown. In that time all of Ireland was directly occupied by the English, like today is the case in the North of the country. Appropriating the land, the British crown imposed an over-dependence on the growing of potatoes. But when a plague began, they used it to augment their genocide, robbing more food for export, prohibiting the Irish from hunting, fishing, collecting firewood and asking for help from other peoples. Due to this, about one million people had to migrate3, mainly to North America.

Arriving in the USA many continued to lack money and food, which drove them to recruitment by the US-army, which at the time already was constructing itself as an imperialist army. Inside the armed forces the oppression against the Irish continued on the basis of their status as migrants and Catholics, using them as cannon fodder under the despotic gringo leadership4. One of these Irish was John Riley, born in Clifden, Ireland, between 1812 and 1817 (the exact date is not known), who migrated to the United States in 1843, where he entered the Yankee army in 1845.

The unit to which he was assigned was mobilized and stationed in Texas in 1846, where they constructed a military fort, used by the United States to generate confrontations with Mexico and to continue to occupy new territories. The declaration of “independence” of Texas in 1836 was not recognized by the Mexican government, who sent the national army to realize tasks of reconnaissance and defense.

Becoming aware of the annexationist plan and the unjust war of the USA, John Riley deserted the Yankee army on April 12th 1846, before the declaration of war, writing later: “In the month of April 1846, listening only to the advice of my conscience for the liberty of a people which had war brought on them by the most unjust aggression, I separated myself from the North American forces.”5 He and others understood that the oppression and the war of aggression against Mexico had the same unjust character as the British occupation against Ireland, displacing and oppressing both peoples. This, in addition to factors like the Catholic identity in both peoples and promises of citizenship and land by the Mexican government, had strong influence in the migrant rows of the gringo army, who furthermore did not have North-American citizenship. Like this, John Riley and 48 Irish more decided to desert and to join the Mexican army before the formal declaration of war6. Some historians analyze, that the rate of desertion was in this time on of the highest in the history of the US-Army, with up to 8.3%, representing some 4 thousand soldiers.

Like this, organized in the Foreign Legion as “Irish Volunteers” under the direction of John Riley, they participated in the battle of “Siege of Fort Texas” on May 3rd, where they had been stationed before. In the following days they participated in the battle of Matamoros. These were the first clashes of the war, which was declared days later on May 13th by the United States and May 23rd by Mexico. After this, the Irish soldiers organized their own battalion, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion in reference to the patron saint of Ireland.

The battle of Monterrey was the first, in which they participated as the Saint Patrick’s Battalion. As the United States were developing a war of aggression against Mexico, the battles mainly consisted of defending various places, establishing a war of positions, which was impossible to sustain confronted with inequality of forces and the lack of ammunition. In this battle, the Saint Patricks proved their heroism and technical capability. One aspect of this was, that they generally already could rely on military experience compared to the majority of the Mexican volunteers. John Riley is an example of this, as before leaving Ireland he gained artillery experience in the British army. Like him, other members of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion also already had prior experience, which showed itself especially in the Mexican artillery. This, as well as the arrival of troops of the national army, allowed for a better defense against three waves of attacks by the Yankees, but in the end the troops had to retreat confronted with the numerical superiority of the enemy.

During this time the forces of the battalion mainly grew from new desertions from the invading army. Besides the Irish they also had members from other countries. The second biggest contingent was Germans with thirteen soldiers, who, together with some Canadians, English, French, Italians, Poles, Swiss, Scots and black slaves, who had escaped the United States, fought with honor together with the valiant Mexican people. With time the Saint Patrick’s Battalion could count with two units, although their number of troops is not precisely known.

According to some reports it was during the battle of La Angostura (also known as “Battle of Buena Vista”) on February 22nd and 23rd 1847, when for the first time the Saint Patricks raised their iconic flag in battle, which is said to have been made by the peasants of the areas of battle and the nuns of San Luis Potosí. The flag carried Irish symbols like the harp of Erin, the shamrock and the slogan “ERIN GO BRAGH” (Ireland forever”), and on the other side Saint Patrick himself. The flag of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion proudly flew next to the Mexican flag in the fights, defying the invader.

The battle of La Angostura was certainly tough, resulting in high costs of lives on both sides. The Saint Patricks lost about a third of their men, but won great successes for the Mexican forces, including the feat of capturing a pair of cannons from the US-Army, the first time in history, that a resistance force expropriated this type of weapons form the invading Yankee army. Still, the North-American advance one more demanded their retreat. In his report the General of the Mexican army, Francisco Mejía, highlights, that the company of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion was “worthy of the most consummate praise because the men fought with daring bravery”. Afterwards the Mexican army ordered to decorate nationals and Irish with the Cross of Honor of La Angostura and raised the ranks of various Saint Patricks. Riley reached the rank of Captain of the Mexican army.

The next major battle was the one of Cerro Gordo, Veracruz, on April 17th and 18th 1847. But the forces of the resistance were quite depleted, by the lack of ammunition, as well as by the lack of reinforcements and food, making it more difficult to maintain the position. The Saint Patricks and the Mexican infantry and cavalry fought with honor, but were forced to retreat to Jalapa, Pueblo and finally to Mexico City.

The final participation of the Saint Patricks was in the Battle of Churubusco (in Mexico City) August 20th 1847. There, together with the Mexican troops, they fought tirelessly until the ammunition ran out completely. The forces of the resistance fought with such valor, that they struggled with fists and bayonets against the invader until it was impossible to hold the position. This is reflected in the words of the heroic General Pedro María Anaya, denouncing the Yankee military command: “if there were ammunition, you wouldn’t be here!”7

The order of the Mexican High Command was to defend the city until the end, and this was what the courageous General Anaya and the Saint Patrick’s Battalion did, who, rejecting surrender and capitulation, tore down white flags and took the lives of deserters in the front lines of battle. The majority of the battalion fell or was captured in this battle. Among the 85 captured was John Riley, wounded in battle. Fifty of them were sentenced to die, others, who, like John Riley had deserted from the US-army before the declaration of war, received 50 lashes and were marked in face with a hot iron with the letter “D” for deserter and finally jailed and sentenced to forced labor8. The prisoners were freed on June 1st 1848 as part of the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty. Some of the survivors returned to their countries of origin or were given land grants by the Mexican government. Others, like John Riley, continued to give their service in the Mexican army and were lost to history.

Because of all of this and with good reason, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion is remembered for their heroism to this day, in various parts of the world and, of course, principally in Mexico and Ireland.

This recognition is reflected in popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean to this day and can be seen in novels (“Saint Patrick’s Battalion” [“Batallón de San Patricio”] by Patricia Cox), movies (“One man’s hero” [“Héroes sin patria”] 1999), songs (“St. Patrick Battalion” by David Rovics) and civil and military acts (“Bagpipe Band of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion” [“Banda de Gaitas del Batallón de San Patricio”] and the “National Museum of Interventions” [“Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones”] in Mexico), among other manifestations. A bust of John Riley and an official plaque with the names of 71 Saint Patricks can be found in the San Jacinto plaza in San Ángel, which says: “In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic Saint Patrick’s Battalion, martyrs who gave their lives for the cause of Mexico during the unjust American invasion of 1847”.

In the fight of national liberation we are developing and in the highest spirit of proletarian internationalism it is important to recognize and to hold up the selflessness and heroism with which the heroic Saint Patrick’s Battalion fought on the side of our people. Those men who, recognizing the error made of being on the side of a genocidal army, decided to rectify themselves and to change sides, putting their experiences, their energy and their life at the service of the Mexican people without consideration for nationality, language or geography. A beautiful display of internationalism, that the Mexican people do not forget, having a great appreciation to the fraternal people of oppressed Ireland.

1John Riley (in Irish: Seán Ó Raghallaigh), also known as John Riely and in Mexican documents as Juan Reyle, Reley, Reely or Reiley.

2An example of this is the heroic resistance of numerous anti-colonial guerrillas, like those headed by Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, which from 1842 until 1846 conducted actions of sabotage and military harassment [hit-and-run attacks; Translator’s note] against the declaration of “independence” of Texas, which in deeds represented the robbing of our territory, forced displacement of our people and its annexation, installing a US-military-base, which would be the unambiguous signal for the beginning of the war. The Mexican guerrillas fought since this period of Yankee military intervention and continued to fight also against the French military intervention, until 1867.

3As there are no official population numbers before this wave of genocide the estimates of the death toll vary widely. According to the most conservative numbers Ireland lost about 1.5 million in population during 1841 to 1851, but other estimations count up to 5 million dead.

4According to reports about national history, the European migrants inside the North-American army were constantly punished by the military leadership, based on their frustration about the first battles against the Mexican army. For instance, on April 25th 1846, the Mexican troops dealt a humiliating defeat to the gringo army in Texas, killing eleven gringo soldiers, injuring six more and capturing a total of 63 elements; with this the US-Congress declared war on May the 13th of the same year. As the Yankees observed the moral and religious sympathies of the Irish towards the Mexican people, they went on to punish the former. This, combined with the Mexican leaflets written in English and handed out clandestinely in the rows of the gringo army encouraged the mass desertion of migrants.

5John Riley to the president of Mexico, British Public Records, Foreign Office. Quoted according to the book “The Rogue’s March: John Riley and the St. Patrick’s Battalion”

6Riley’s troops crossed the Río Bravo [called Rio Grande in the USA; Translator’s note], carrying their weapons and uniform, seeking asylum in the Mexican army. April 11th 1846 Matamoros Gazette [Gaceta de Matamoros] noted that “43 deserters and six black slaves belonging to the US-officials have sought asylum crossing the river”.

7Mexico City was the last great bastion of national resistance and the people rallied around the cause, with volunteers coming from various parts of the country. Also the martial law given out by the Mexican government ordered men in the age of 15 to 60 to enlist for the defense of the homeland, forming guerrilla units, reserves of the national guard and a foreign legion of migrants, based in the capital. Some of the last bastions of national resistance was the Chapultepec Castle, where the cadets of the Military College and the troops of the Mexican army belonging to the Battalion of San Blas found themselves stationed. There, on September 12th and 13th the Boy Heroes and the lieutenant colonel Felipe Santiago Xicoténcatl, who posthumously was raised to the rank of infantry colonel in 1853, fell in battle. It is important to note, that the executions of the captured Saint Patricks sentenced to death were carried out on September 10th and 13th respectively. The latter were planed to be coordinated with the assault of Chapultepec Castle as to set an example by Yankee Imperialism against the Irish, so that they would see the disgusting gringo flag be raised of Chapultepec Castle as a signal of Mexican defeat.

8Because of the special hatred of the Yankee army against the brave Captain John Riley, he was given 59 lashes, because the US-general “lost his count”. Riley was marked with the iron in the face two times, as the first time the letter “D” was “accidentally” applied upside down.

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