Los San Patricios and Irish and Mexican Links

By John Copeland, Producer/Director

As the opening date of “San Patricios” at the Solvang Theatre approaches, I thought you might enjoy a little perspective of historical and cultural link between Irish and Mexican people.  History is always told from the cultural perspective of the historian.  This is why historians writing about opposite sides of a conflict usually have very different historical perspectives of the same conflict. Such is the case with the story of San Patricios Battalion.

There is a saying that, ”Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” but in Mexico St. Patrick’s Day has a special meaning of historical importance.  It is a day to honor The St. Patrick’s Brigade, known in Mexico as Los San Patricios, a group of 600 Irish-American, German-American and even a few escaped slaves who switched sides to fight for Mexico during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War.   They fought bravely and many gave their lives for Mexico during the war.

On St. Patrick’s Day, from behind the bullet-scarred walls of the ancient fortress of Chapultepec,  the wail of bagpipes and a thundering bass drum echo through a plaza in the center of Mexico City.  Passers-by stop in their tracks. Children crane for a look as a platoon of Mexican bagpipers march through the gates in tribute to a strange chapter of Irish-American history.

In the United States, the deserters are still considered traitors by many historians. But to Mexicans, the San Patricios are heroes, honored in street names, plaques and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations around the country. The battalion’s name is written in gold letters in the chamber of Mexico’s House of Representatives, and a ceremony is held in a Mexico City park every year to commemorate the executions of the group’s members

To understand the events that “The San Pratricios” is based on we have to look back several years before the Mexican American War.  Beginning in the 1840’s, facing persecution in their own country in addition to the devastating potato famine, millions of Irish flooded the shores of America.  Many saw the journey to America as a fresh start, an opportunity to participate in the American dream.  Unlike their homeland of Ireland, Irish immigrants viewed America is a place where hard work and perseverance were the secrets to success. By the 1850’s, New York had the largest Irish community outside of Ireland.

Irish culture has not always been celebrated in America.  During the 1800s Irish immigrants faced severe prejudice as they immigrated across the Atlantic.  The story of Irish racism is often over looked or marginalized by historians.  It is also a fascinating tale of how a race can go from hated to celebrated in a few generations time.

The idea that the United States has always been a bastion of religious freedom is reassuring — and utterly at odds with the historical record. The real story of religion in America’s past is an often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts either paper over or shunt to the side.

By the middle of the 19th century, the enormous number of Irish-Catholic immigrants arriving in the United States encountered vitriolic and often violent prejudice directed against them. Many shops and other places of employment posted signs stating “No Irish Need Apply.”  Many Irishmen enlisted in the US Army, hoping for some pay and US citizenship. Unfortunately they continued to face prejudice in the ranks as well where they were considered inferior soldiers and given dirty jobs.  Conditions were harsh for most of the soldiers, even the non-Irish, and thousands would desert during the course of the war.

From our position in the 21st Century, It is easy to judge events and actions on the part of governments and individuals in the past through the lens of our contemporary views of morality and ethics.  However, this is a trap.  We can not begin to understand all the motivations and experiences that shaped folks in the past from our vantage point today.  Revising history does not benefit anyone. An historian’s responsibility is to uncover the past and the events good and bad that occurred.

In the spring of 1846, for reasons that are still debated among historians, the United States was eager for war with Mexico. The origins of the Mexican-American War can largely be traced back to Texas winning its independence from Mexico in 1836. Following his defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto, Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna was captured and was forced to sign the Treaty of Velasco, granting Texas its independence in exchange for his freedom.  A short time later Mexican government, refused to honor Santa Anna’s agreement, stating that he was not authorized to make such a deal and that Mexico still considered Texas a province in rebellion. Any thoughts the Mexican government had of recovering the territory quickly were eliminated when the new Republic of Texas received diplomatic recognition from the United States, Great Britain, and France.

During the next nine years, many Texans openly favored annexation by the United States, however Washington rejected the issue. Many in the North were concerned about adding another “slave” state to the Union, while others were concerned about provoking a conflict with Mexico. In 1844, Democrat James K. Polk was elected to the presidency on a pro-Texas annexation platform.  Acting quickly, his predecessor, John Tyler, initiated Texas statehood proceedings in Congress before Polk took office. Texas officially joined the Union on December 29, 1845. In response to this action, Mexico threatened war, but was persuaded against it by the British and French.

Other factors continued to disturb relations between the two republics.  One was the American ambition, publicly stated by President Polk, of acquiring California, which the United States believed France and Great Britain had imperialistic designs on. Despite the rupture of diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States following the admission of Texas into the Union, President Polk sent John Slidell to Mexico to negotiate a settlement. Slidell offered $5 million dollars to purchase New Mexico’s territory and $25 million dollars for California, but Mexico refused.

Tensions between the US and Mexico rose further in 1846, over a border dispute. Since its independence, Texas claimed the Rio Grande as its southern border, while Mexico claimed the Nueces River farther to the north. As the situation worsened, both sides sent troops to the area.

On the evening of April 25, 1846, while leading 70 US Dragoons to investigate a hacienda in the disputed territory between the rivers, Captain Seth Thornton stumbled upon a force of 2,000 Mexican soldiers. A fierce firefight ensued and 16 of Thornton’s men were killed before the remainder was forced to surrender. On May 11, 1846, Polk, citing the Thornton Affair asked Congress to declare war on Mexico.

At the time, America was very divided about the war.  The United States was increasingly divided by sectional rivalry, the war was a partisan issue and an essential element in the origins of the American Civil War. Most Whigs, including young Congressman Abraham Lincoln, (the Republican Party would not be established for another 10 years) in the North and South opposed it; most Democrats supported it. Southern Democrats, animated by a popular belief in Manifest Destiny, supported it in hope of adding slave-owning territory to the South and avoiding being outnumbered by the faster-growing North. John L. O’Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, coined this phrase in its context, stating that it must be “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.  After two days of debate Congress voted for war—not knowing that the conflict had already escalated.  No official declaration of war ever came from Mexico.

At that time, only about 75,000 Mexican citizens lived north of the Rio Grande. As a result, U.S. forces led by Col. Stephen W. Kearny and Commodore Robert F. Stockton were able to conquer New Mexico, Arizona and California with minimal resistance. Taylor advanced into Mexico and captured Monterrey in September.

A significant proportion of the enlisted men in Taylor’s army were Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany.  The Mexican government, aware of prejudice against immigrants to the United States, started a campaign to win the foreigners and Catholics to its cause. The Mexicans urged English and Irish alike to throw off the burden of fighting for the “Protestant tyrants” and join the Mexicans in driving the Yankees out of Mexico. Mexican propaganda insinuated that the United States intended to destroy Catholicism in Mexico, and if Catholic soldiers fought on the side of the Americans, they would be warring against their own religion.

Dubious about why they were fighting a Catholic country, and fed up with mistreatment from their Anglo-Protestant officers, many of the Irish and other immigrants deserted Taylor’s army and joined forces with Mexico.

With the losses adding up, Mexico turned to old standby General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the charismatic strongman who had been living in exile in Cuba. Santa Anna convinced Polk that, if allowed to return to Mexico, he would end the war on terms favorable to the United States. But when he arrived, he immediately double-crossed Polk by taking control of the Mexican army and leading it into battle.

General Santa Anna organized the American deserters with other foreigners in Mexico into 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.  But, not all the San Patricios were deserters from the US army. Their ranks also included Irish, German, English, French already settled in Mexico, and even slaves who had escaped from the American South.  Some historians use Mexican army records as a basis to state that the majority were not deserters. The San Patricios did, however, have a distinctly Irish identity since their name-sake, St. Patrick, is the patron saint of the Irish people.

The company saw action at Monterrey, again near Saltillo, and at Buena Vista, each time receiving praise for its bravery.  They fought bravely in most of the campaigns of the two-year conflict and were cited for bravery by General Santa Anna . At the penultimate battle of the war, the San Patricios fought until their ammunition was exhausted, and even then tore down the white flag raised by their Mexican comrades, preferring to struggle on with bayonets.

35 San Patricios were killed in action. Eighty-five of the San Patricios were taken prisoner, while the other survivors (about 85) managed to escape, and apparently were later able to rejoin the retreating Mexican forces. Seventy-two were charged with desertion from the US army, and General Winfield Scott ordered that two courts-martial be convened to try them.

A court-martial at San Ángel on 8 September 1847, upheld the death sentence for 20 of the 29 San Patricios tried there, while a similar court at Tacubaya ordered the death penalty for 30 more. The others, including Riley escaped the death penalty since they had deserted before war was declared. They, however, were condemned to “receive 50 lashes on their bare backs, to be branded with the letter “D” for deserter, and to wear iron yokes around their necks for the duration of the war.”

This did not end the story of the San Patricios. Mexico continued its recruitment of deserters and by March of 1848 had enough original San Patricios and new deserters to form two more companies.  Mexico did not forget its San Patricios still held by American authorities and continued bargaining for their release. However, it wasn’t until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, and the war ended, that the fourteen remaining prisoners were released. The San Patricios continued as a military unit, providing support by patrolling areas of Mexico to protect the people from bandits and Indians. To cut the postwar budget, Mexico dissolved the company in 1848. While some members of the San Patricio company petitioned the government of Mexico for help in returning to their European homelands, most remained in Mexico.

In almost every Mexican account of the war, Los San Patricios are considered heroes who fought for the noble ideals of religion and a just cause against a Protestant invader of a peaceful nation. In U.S. history, Los San Patricios are often portrayed as deserters, traitors, and malcontents who joined the other side for land or money.  But as you can see this story is hardly black and white – it is composed mainly of a variety of shades of grey.

There is still a lasting Irish presence in Mexico.  One of my father’s close friends was Juan Rodriquez Sullivan, who traced his family line back to one of Ireland’s Wild Geese.  Irish expatriates have a long history of serving in the military of other nations.  They often volunteered their services in wars of independence throughout the world.  At the end of the 1700s and the failed uprising of the United Irishmen that was quashed by the English, many left Ireland and joined joined armies that were engaged in war with the British Empire – France and Spain.  These expatriates became known collectively and colloquially as the “Wild Geese.”  Throughout their history, Mexico and Ireland have experienced many similar events, in spite of their physical distance. Because these events have had such an impact on Mexico, it is often said that there is a real Irish presence in Mexican soil.

William Lamport, born in County Wexford in 1615, was one of many Irishmen whose adventures made him famous throughout Mexico.  He is recognized by many as one of the precursors of Mexican Independence and is possibly the historical basis of Zorro, the Robin Hood-like champion of the poor and downtrodden hero of novels, movies and television series. (It’s kind of an interesting sidenote that many of Disney’s original Zorro television episodes were filmed in the Santa Ynez Valley and at Mission Santa Ines.)

By the time Lamport had celebrated his fifteenth birthday he had already been charged in London with high treason, escaped and spent two years aboard a pirate vessel where he aided in the defeat of the English navy at the siege of La Rochelle. By twenty-five he had travelled most of Europe, had been granted a scholarship to the Colegio Imperial in Madrid, and claimed proficiency in no less than fourteen languages.

A scandalous love affair with a noblewoman in Madrid caused him to flee to Mexico, where he was moved by the poverty and degradation of Indians and Africans.  Ultimately, he was accused of plotting a war of independence against the government, which led to his imprisonment. After ten years, he escaped and lived as a fugitive, continuing his life and love affairs in the Mexico. At the time, his adventurous and charitable lifestyle had such an impact, that citizens dubbed him, “El Zorro.”  Eventually, he was captured and sentenced to death by the Inquisition, elevating his name to the ranks of legendary martyrdom.

During the late 1700s, there were several other bureaucrats and officers who represented Spain in Mexico were either Irish, or of Irish descent.  Dublin-born Hugh O’Connor, was the most prominent and distinguished of that group.  He moved to Mexico to escape the harsh conditions in Ireland. In his adopted homeland, he was appointed governor of Texas by the Spanish viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) in 1767.  It is recorded that O’Conor rode well over 10,000 miles on horseback in the course of conducting his duties. O’Conor was called “The Red Captain” by the Apache, both for the color of his hair and his formidable military leadership.

Looking at the various revolutionary movements that gave Mexico, and countries in Central and South America their independence from Spain, one can find several Irishmen who played important roles in those struggles.   After Mexican independence, Irishman, James Power, along with James Heweston, John McMullen and James McGloin, founded the towns of Refugio and San Patricio in southern Texas.  These were prosperous havens for Irish immigrants for several years before rebellion took a hold of Mexican Texas and put the two countries on a path for conflict.


John Copeland