In 1845, the Unites States government, under the leadership of President James Polk, fully embraced the concept of Manifest Destiny. The belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was destined to rule the continent led to a prevailing attitude of expansionism by force, if necessary. Thus, according to those who adhered to this philosophy, the time had come to spread the U.S. Empire all the way to the Pacific Coast.
The problem was that there was disputed land in the American west and in northern Mexico. This did not matter to the U.S. government. They were determined to take this land, by hook or by crook. The Mexican government disputed and then resisted this flagrant act of aggression. The U.S. cavalry was positioned in the disputed territory, now known as the Texas border region. In 1846, the U.S. government officially declared war against Mexico, and for three years the U.S.-Mexico war destroyed families and claimed nearly 30,000 lives in Mexico and the U.S.
At the time, the rank-and-file of the U.S. cavalry was comprised mostly of immigrants, some Germans and Poles, but mostly Irish Catholics. The Irish immigrants, in particular, had come to the U.S. under the most dire of circumstances. The Great Potato Famine was in the process of devastating Irish society and creating a wave of destitute refuges into the U.S. Many of these refuges were prime fodder for the U.S. military, which offered a job, of sorts, and a swift path to U.S. citizenship.
Many Irish were conscripted, their willingness to join motivated in part by the fact that the U.S. military was then battling British forces in Canada. For many an Irishman, the opportunity to do battle with their colonial oppressor, the United Kingdom, within the context of a well-armed and well-equipped U.S. army, was an appealing concept. With great relish, they headed off to fight the Brits in the north, only to find themselves suddenly transferred to the sweltering, desert-like terrain of Southern Texas, which, to the Irish, must have seemed like the surface of another planet.
The officer corps of the U.S. military was almost entirely WASP (white Anglo-Saxon protestant). Generally, they viewed the soldier class, with their immigrant ways and foreign religion, as a lower species of human being. The military was run not unlike a plantation: discipline was harsh. Soldiers who strayed from camp, got drunk, or disobeyed orders were whipped, held in the stockade, or sometimes tied to a stake and left to fry in the sun. Another common form of punishment was to be held upside down and have water poured down your nose and throat, a technique that in a later century would come to be known as “water boarding” and defined as torture.
These inhumane disciplinary techniques, combined with the fact that the army banned any practice of the Catholic religion, created an undercurrent of resentment within the ranks. Faced with the possibility of an insurrection, the military hierarchy passed an order allowing there to be a mass on Sundays. This mass was held at a local church, presided over by a Mexican-born priest. Unbeknownst to the officers, this ceremony would become a place of inter-cultural exchange, based around the concept of a shared faith, which sowed the seeds of the San Patricio Battalion.
Along with issues of cruel treatment and religious bigotry, the Irish American soldiers had another problem. Many of them had a hard time justifying the motives for this war of which they were now reluctant participants. As they came to know the Mexican people who lived in the region, they identified more with them than they did with the WASP overseers of the U.S. military. The Mexicans were peasant people, living off the land, who had not initiated conflict with anyone. It reminded the Irish of their own situation back in Ireland, only now they found themselves on the side of the imperialist and the oppressor.
The immigrant soldiers met secretly amongst themselves and discussed the situation. Eventually, led by an Irishman named John Riley, they decided to do the unthinkable. Over the course of three days, nearly 200 soldiers threw themselves into the Rio Grande and swam across to the other side. They deserted the U.S. Army. In Mexican territory, they re-gathered and formed a brigade, declaring that they would now fight against the U.S. military on behalf of the Mexican people.
The San Patricio Battalion was comprised mostly of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, but also Germans, Poles, Italians, and some escaped American slaves. They were the outcasts of the American system, men and women who had lived on the dark side of oppression and were now ready to stake their liberty and lives in support of the right to self-determination. Outfitted and armed by the Mexican military, they rode under their own banner, a brilliant green flag with a harp, the Mexican coat of Arms, and the slogan ‘Erin go Bragh’ (Ireland Forever).
With nothing to lose (except their lives), the San Patricios fought valiantly in a number of key battles. At the Battle of Monterrey, they repelled two separate attacks on the city. Led by John Riley, they distinguished themselves as an artillery unit at the Battle of Buena Vista. They inflicted many casualties but also suffered major losses. By August of 1847, reduced in number, they were overwhelmed in a savage, hand-to-hand battle at Churubusco. Nearly a quarter of the battalion was killed, the remainder captured by U.S. forces.
The surviving San Patricios were charged with desertion and found guilty in a series of court martial tribunals. Many were sentenced to death, either by firing squad or, more commonly, public hanging in the town square. Those who were not executed were branded with a hot iron with the letter ‘D’ for deserter on their cheek. John Riley, leader of the San Patricios, was spared the death penalty because he had deserted before war was officially declared. He was sentenced to 50 lashes on his bare back and branded with the letter ‘D’ on each cheek.
For those who know this history, the legacy of the San Patricios is profound. To give your life in a matter of conscience, to do what you believe is just even though you know it could cost you your liberty and life, is one of the greatest sacrifices a human being can make. We honor the example of the San Patricios not as a call to arms, or as a call to battle, but as a call to do what is right.
Today, in the year 2012, we believe the spirit of the San Patricios is alive and well. It is a spirit of multi-cultural solidarity, cross-cultural solidarity, that we celebrate with music, dance and poetic invention. By honoring this history and making it present in our lives today, we hope to harness the spirit of the San Patricios, and use it to bring attention to instances of injustice and human suffering that exists here today in the U.S.-Mexico borderland.
-- THE IRISH MEXICAN ALLIANCE