Under a Green Banner

The story of the San Patricios, a battalion--fighting for Mexico against the United States--that history nearly forgot

In the Bicentennial year of 1976, in the blazing deserts of the Southwest, a Chicano theater troupe unexpectedly put on a play about the Irish.

Staged in community centers and churches all over dust-dry Tucson, the drama began in misty-green Ireland, County Tipperary to be exact, in the dark days of English rule. The play proceeded to the bloody battlefields of the Mexican-American War, and ended with the hanging of Irish soldiers on the outskirts of Mexico City.

The strange-but-true story was performed in Spanish and English, the usual tongues of bilingual El Teatro Libertad, but also in Irish, surely a first for the Old Pueblo.

Tucson's Irish-born priests "blessed themselves in astonishment when they heard the Chicano actors speak their native tongue," recounted the late Tucson activist and journalist Gary MacEoin, in an article many years later in the National Catholic Reporter. It was MacEoin, himself an Irishman from County Sligo, who wrote the parts in Irish.

"Gary taught us the Gaelic lines," says Teresa Jones, a member of El Teatro who went on to work as an on-screen journalist with Tucson's KUAT-TV, hosting the bilingual Reflexiones program. In the play, Jones portrayed an Irish peasant woman who laments that the lessons of history are soon forgotten.

"What do you know? I know nothing," she said in Irish, again and again. Cad a tá fios agat? Níl is agam tada.

Perhaps even more astonishing than the sounds of Gaelic on the streets of Tucson was the tale that the play told. Jones, now working with Spanish-language radio in Seattle, says that the play gave a fictionalized account of the lost history of the legendary San Patricios, a brigade of deserters from the U.S. Army. (It also recounted several other forgotten tales.)

The drama, called El Vasil de 76 (Jones translates the title as The Farce of 76), began with brutal British soldiers chasing a starving Irish family off their land. The young boy in the family grows up to become a soldier in the American Army, and is sent to war against Mexico. Seeing a parallel between the British subjugation of Ireland and the American invasion of Mexico in the mid-19th century, the Irishman realizes, "These people are just like us." He abandons Protestant America to fight for Catholic Mexico.

Virtually unknown in the United States, but lionized in Mexico, the real-life San Patricios were led by a charismatic Galway man by the name of John Riley. His St. Patrick's Battalion fought for Mexico under a green silk banner emblazoned with the Irish words Erin go Bragh ("Ireland Forever") and embroidered pictures of the Irish harp and St. Patrick, beloved patron saint of the Emerald Isle.

Many--but not all--of Riley's soldiers were Irish immigrants, and not all were Catholics. But after the Irish, the next-largest group in his battalion were Germans Catholics, followed by a smattering of English and French. Nobody can really know the motives of all these men, but Riley himself explicitly linked Mexico's fight to hold onto its lands with Ireland's struggle for self-rule. His green flag, he later wrote, was a "Glorious Emblem of Native Rights," the "Banner which should have floated over our native Soil many years ago."

Conventional U.S. history books rarely mention the San Patricios at all; if they do, they castigate them as the worst kind of traitors.

"How we see the story in Mexico, and how we see it in the United States, are obviously very different things," says Lupe Castillo, the Pima Community College history professor who first alerted El Teatro's players to the tale. "They're regarded as heroes in Mexico."

Raúl Grijalva, now a Democratic congressman representing Southern Arizona, was director of the El Pueblo Neighborhood Center when El Teatro Libertad staged the play there. Later, he also commissioned the troupe's Irish-American member, Scott Egan, to paint a mural memorializing the San Patricios on the center's north wall.

"South of the border, the story is well known," Grijalva says. "It's a significant little piece of history ... the play was about strands of history that don't get talked about."

El Teatro Libertad specialized in lost histories and dissenting viewpoints. A "political theater collective doing protest plays," says member Barclay Goldsmith, it was the forerunner of Borderlands, the theater troupe Goldsmith now leads. The troupers were inspired to write El Vasil in response to a Freedom Train that rolled into town in celebration of the Bicentennial.

"The train was parked downtown," remembers Egan, now an aide to Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll. "You'd walk through. It presented standard American history. It was very patriotic."

Patriotic it may have been, but to Egan and other members of El Teatro Libertad, it didn't come close to telling the whole story of how Mexico lost the Southwest--including Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas--to the United States.

El Vasil de 76 "was our answer to the train," says Goldsmith. "What was really going on? What was going on behind the Alamo? Or the Gadsden Purchase? History is subjective. Whoever is in power tells history's story."

In recent years, alternative histories and even movies have challenged the story of those who won, presenting a new picture of the San Patricios as soldiers of conscience who turned their backs on an unjust war. Lasting from 1846 to 1848, the Mexican-American War was the young republic's first on foreign soil. The quintessential war of Manifest Destiny, aimed at extending America from sea to shining sea, it had an unseemly, if unofficial, anti-Catholic agenda.

"The Mexicans and all Catholics, in fact, are reptiles in the path of democracy," the Democratic Register, a nativist paper in Illinois, raged in 1845. "(They) must either crawl or be crushed."

Future presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant denounced the war as a land grab, and at its end, the United States swallowed up about half Mexico's territory. Abolitionists like former President John Quincy Adams charged that the push to annex Texas and the Southwest was a mere pretext for the expansion of slavery. He urged soldiers to abandon their posts rather than fight this "unrighteous war."

More than a few soldiers took Adams' advice. Desertion rates during the two-year war were the highest for any that America has fought, historian Robert Ryal Miller found. Plagued by diseases from dysentery to typhus, and unaccustomed to the hot climes of the Southwest and Mexico, deserters had plenty of reasons to go "over the hill." Most simply disappeared, perhaps to start a new life in Mexico or in the West.

But the San Patricios formed their own battalion in the Mexican Army and fought against their former comrades.

"They saw the United States doing to Mexico whet England had done to Ireland," Egan maintains. "They realized they were on the wrong side."

Many San Patricios died in battle, but of those captured by the Americans toward the war's end, 50 were hung as traitors. Riley and 14 others escaped execution, but they were flogged with whips and branded, the scorched "D" on their cheeks designating them for all time as deserters.

It was a strange quirk of history that had Irishmen fighting and dying in the far-off land of Mexico. The Mexican-American War coincided almost exactly with the Great Famine, the great catastrophe of mid-19th century Ireland. If Mexico lost half its territory in the war, Ireland lost a million of its 8 million people to starvation in the famine, and another 2 million to a new life in North America.

The story of John Riley, brawny leader of the San Patricios, begins in County Galway, in the west of Ireland, in the rock-strewn peninsula known as Connemara. The land here was so desolate, and the soil so poor, that the marauding British General Oliver Cromwell once likened it to hell.

Riley, whose name is sometimes spelled O'Reilly, was born around 1818 and grew up near Clifden, a picturesque village perched on rocky cliffs looking west toward the Atlantic. Like most Catholics in Ireland, his family was most likely made up of poor tenant farmers, laboring on rented land belonging to an absentee Protestant landlord, according to Peter F. Stevens, who reconstructed Riley's life in his book The Rogue's March: John Riley and the St. Patrick's Battalion 1846-48.

Protestant England had ruled Ireland for centuries, subjugating its Catholic natives to draconian Penal Laws that restricted them from owning land, voting or entering professions, and even practicing their own religion freely. Prevented from bettering their lives, vast swathes of Ireland's population subsisted on the potato, which could be grown on their small patches of leased land. But successive potato blights threw these marginal cottiers into near starvation.

Around the time of Riley's birth, the Forgotten Famine, in a portent of the Great Hunger to come, had the roads in Connemara "peopled with walking ruins--tattered and derelict wrecks of humanity, deformed or diseased," according to a contemporary observer quoted by Stevens. The poet Shelley remarked in 1820 that in Ireland, "the rich grind the poor into abjectness, then complain that they are abject. The rich goad them to famine and hang them if they steal a loaf."

As a young man, Riley likely knew of Daniel O'Connell's crusade for Catholic civil rights, which may have helped shape the nationalist views he would later elaborate as leader of the San Patricios. Nevertheless, with few avenues open to him, Riley shipped out as a soldier in the Army of the hated British. He was a strapping fellow, almost 6 foot 2, well-suited to military life, Stevens notes, and the skills he picked up with the Redcoats would serve him in good stead in Mexico, where he was to aim cannons with deadly effect at the Americans.

After his military stint, Riley endured a treacherous voyage on a "coffin ship" across the Atlantic, sailing first to Canada. In the spring of 1843, he turned up in Mackinac Island, Michigan, a small Irish enclave where he found work on the lakefront docks. Riley was just one of thousands of Irishmen spilling onto America's shores.

Historian Kerby Miller explains in The San Patricios, Mark Day's 1995 documentary, that Americans were horrified by the Irish invasion. With their strange Old World rituals and allegiance to the Pope in Rome, "Catholics were regarded as a threat to Democratic institutions," Miller says. The Irish, the first large group of Catholic immigrants to land in Protestant America, were seen as "the advance army of papal aggression."

Inflamed by the nativist Know Nothings and a virulent anti-Catholic press, anti-Catholic passions sometimes exploded into violence. A convent was burned in Boston in 1836. In Philadelphia, in 1844, the year after Riley's arrival, mobs burned down at least two churches and rectories, and dozens of Irish homes. Some 16 people died.

The next year, in 1845, a potato blight blackened the spuds in fields all across Ireland, while the United States overrode Mexico's objections and annexed Texas as a slave state. Some 75,000 panicked Irish fled their homeland, most of them headed for America's crowded East Coast cities. The next year, in 1846, President James K. Polk declared war on Mexico; the Irish crops failing again, some 106,000 Famine refugees took to the coffin ships. In 1847, with the U.S. war with Mexico at its height, fully 214,000 Irish left their desperate homeland, where thousands lay dying in the roads, while the indifferent English blithely shipped meat and grain back to the mother country.

The panic-stricken exodus of "Black '47" was less an emigration than a "headlong flight of refugees," as one historian put it.

The Great Hunger helped ensure that the armies of "Mr. Polk's war" would have plenty of bodies to fill its ranks. Half of the war's soldiers were foreign-born, and half of those were newly arrived Irish. There was no draft, but the dirt-poor immigrants were desperate for work, marooned as they were in cities where No Irish Need Apply signs were beginning to sprout. Thousands signed on to the military for low private's wages of $7 a month.

On Michigan's docks, John Riley was growing restless. In 1845, he turned soldier again, joining the American infantry. With a good deal of bravado, not knowing of the prejudices he would find in the American army, John Riley boasted he would "attain my former rank or die."

On the morning of March 25, 1846, already in disputed territory, the Irishman watched from a distance as the Mexican village of El Fronton went up in flames. As the Catholic church burned, so did several dozen casas, a customhouse and the farmers' fields. Terrified villagers gathered in the plaza, fearing a massacre as Gen. Zachary Taylor's troops marched into town. Taylor managed to reassure the civilians, but his men seized the customhouse.

War had not yet been declared, but the Americans were in land that Mexico considered its own. After admitting Texas as a state, the Americans added insult to injury by drawing the new slave state's borders far more generously than the Mexicans ever had. The boundary of Texas no longer stopped at Corpus Christi and the Nueces River; now it went south to the Rio Grande and west to Santa Fe.

The culprits who set the fire at El Fronton were never determined --Taylor blamed the Mexican Gen. Francisco Mejia, and the Mexicans blamed the unruly Texas Rangers. But Riley would late write about the "unjustness" of the episode, and he was joined in his dismay by Congressman Lincoln back in Washington. An outspoken critic of the war, Lincoln slammed the Army for "frighten(ing) the inhabitants away from their homes and growing crops."

The burning of the church and the houses was a little too close for comfort for Irishmen, haunted by memories of British troops tumbling the cottages of the Irish poor and spewing contempt on their religion.

Irish immigrants had found a depressingly familiar brand of anti-Catholicism in America. Worse, religious bigotry also infected the Army. Historians have found repeated examples of discrimination against Catholic immigrant soldiers by native-born officers who were largely Protestant. The Army was surprisingly brutal toward its own men, whatever their religion, routinely punishing minor infractions with treatment that in our times would be rated as torture. Most notorious was the hated "buck and gag" torment --the soldier was seated, his feet tied to his buttocks, his hands and mouth bound and gagged, sometimes for hours on end. A soldiers' ditty at the time went:

A poor soldier's tied up in the sun or the rain
With a gag in his mouth 'til he's tortured with pain.

But in his research, historian Stevens found multiple instances of harsher treatments meted out to immigrant Catholics, both the Irish "potato heads" and the German "Dutchies," as their officers mockingly called them.

In one case, an Irish sergeant named James Bannon and an American private called George Miller were tried together; "both men stood accused of verbally threatening officers," Stevens writes. The American's punishment was 50 lashes with the whip, no small thing, but the Irishman was sentenced to death by firing squad.

A French traveler reported seeing officers hanging Irishmen "by their thumbs from tree limbs for sloppy salutes," Stevens writes. Even the wounded and sick could not always escape the abuse. "Irish and German (and, later in the war, Mormon) soldiers found no refuge from nativism. Junior officers stormed among the cots in search of immigrants who had failed to report for guard duty or other tasks and, unless the men lay unconscious ... hauled them groaning from their beds."

It was too much for some of the immigrants. American soldier George Ballentine later wrote that the "degrading" discipline was "exceedingly galling to the fiery, untamable spirit of the sons of the Green Isle. And I have not the slightest doubt that those barbarous modes of punishment ... were the principal causes in the majority of these cases of desertion which were so lamentably frequent."

After the U.S. troops built a fort at the site of present-day Brownsville, across the Rio Grande from the Mexican town of Matamoros, the desertions began. The nearby Mexicans flooded the camps with pamphlets exhorting foreign Catholics, particularly the Irish, to turn against the Americans' "repeated acts of barbarous aggression," citing the destruction of "their temples" in Philadelphia and Boston. And the soldiers could hear church bells from the nearby town by day, and music at night. Nearly every account also mentions beautiful young Mexican women, "scantily clad," who washed their laundry in the river in full sight of the American soldiers.

The deserters slipped away by night, swimming across the Rio Grande, undeterred by the Americans' orders to shoot. A few weeks after the burning of El Fronton, Riley disappeared as well. It was a Sunday, and he had gotten a pass to attend Mass at a farm north of camp.

"In the month of April 1846," Riley later wrote, "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."

The date, April 12, 1846, would later save his life: The Army could execute only deserters who fled during a declared war, and the war officially began a few weeks later. Losing patience with the foreign army in their land, a small Mexican troop finally attacked the invaders on April 26 and killed 11 Americans. On May 13, Congress declared war, two days after Polk announced that Mexico had "shed American blood on American soil."

The Mexicans quickly offered Riley a commission as a second lieutenant, and he saw his wages zoom from $7 a month to $57. Like all the deserters, he was to get land at the end of the war, an inducement Stevens writes was particularly "potent" to Irishmen who had been landless at home by dint of British law.

It was apparently Riley who suggested to Gen. Antonia Lopez de Santa Anna that he lead his own battalion, composed entirely of deserters from the American army. The Mexicans first called it the Legión Extranjera or the Irish Volunteers (playfully nicknaming the unit Los Colorados because of its many red-headed members), but it was Riley who would give it the name redolent of the Emerald Isle and its patron saint. He also designed its green banner and, legend has it, had it stitched and embroidered by the nuns at a convent in San Luis Potosí.

The composition of the San Patricios rose and fell with new desertions and fresh deaths on the battlefield; probably about 700 men belonged all told. Over a run of about 15 months, they ultimately would fight five campaigns in Mexico. From Matamoros to Buena Vista and Saltillo to Monterrey in the north, and at Churubusco outside Mexico City in the south, the San Patricios charged under their green silk banner. They manned the cannon in the artillery, and fought so fiercely that they even gained the grudging admiration of their enemy and former comrades. After one battle, an American reporter wrote, "The boldest in holding out were the deserters of the San Patricios Battalion, who fought with desperation to the last ..."

The San Patricios fought only in Mexico, never making it to remote Arizona. The only Arizona campaigns of the war were Stephen Kearny's march along the Gila from Santa Fe to California, and the peculiar but polite march of the Mormon Battalion through the sleepy outpost of Tucson in 1846. The desert did not make a good impression. A doctor accompanying Kearny called it "utterly worthless." "Every bush is full of thorns," he wrote, "... and every rock you turn over has a tarantula or centipede under it."

The Mexican battles were sometimes close contests, but in the end, the Americans were almost always victorious. When the defeated Mexicans marched out of Monterrey, incredulous American troops got a glimpse of the now-notorious Riley and his men. Riley marched past the Americans "amid hisses and a broadside of reproaches," officer George Deas wrote. "The dastard's cheek blanched."

While Taylor led the troops in the North, U.S. Gen. Winfield Scott led the southern campaign, landing troops in the seaport city of Veracruz and marching to the fabled Halls of Montezuma in Mexico City. (The Marines cite this amphibious landing as an early triumph.) The siege of Veracruz was particularly brutal, with the Americans bombarding the city from ships, destroying churches and other buildings, and killing some 200 civilians. Volunteer regiments, undisciplined citizen-soldiers separate from the regular Army, were more associated with the reported atrocities in the countryside, Lupe Castillo says.

The San Patricios had their last stand in August 1847 at Churubusco, fighting at the convent of Santa Maria de Los Angeles. The American soldier George Ballentine described the "terrible combat" in his published diary. "The rattling of musketry, the clash of arms, and the deafening roar of the cannons and the groans of the dying made the scene truly awful!"

As the battle came to its end, the San Patricios twice pulled down the white flag of surrender strung up by other troops, knowing full well that hanging was the fate of deserters. Their cannon fire was succeeded by desperate hand-to-hand combat. In the end, 100 San Patricios managed to escape, but 84 were captured, including Riley. They lay in the ruins outside the convent, wounded and defeated.

"Give me a few hundred more men like Riley's," Santa Anna declared, "and I would have won the victory."

At the subsequent court-martial, one Thomas Riley insisted that United States had no legal grounds to try him. "I am an Irishman," he said.

But no defense in terms of ideology or mistreatment was allowed, and the captives did what they could to save their skins. Some argued that they had been captured and coerced into the Army, or that they had stumbled into the Mexican side via drunkenness. The judges were unmoved.

Five were pardoned, but 50 men were hung, and 15, including Riley, having deserted before the official war, were sentenced to flogging and branding. American troops were outraged that Riley escaped death on a technicality, but Gen. Scott stood firm to the letter of the law. That didn't stop Riley's flogger from inflicting an extra nine lashes more than the required 50, and from branding him twice, instead of once. Riley got two "D's" for deserter, one on each cheek.

After the war, some of the San Patricios disappeared into Mexico, while others returned to their home countries. Riley's fate is something of a mystery. He turned up in Puebla in 1849, and a Mexican newspaper noted in 1850 that "Major Don Juan Reley" had retired to Veracruz with full pay. Historian Robert Ryal Miller turned up a death record in that city recorded on Aug. 31, 1850, noting the burial of "Juan Riley, 45 years old, a native of Ireland. He died as a consequence of drunkenness, without the sacrament."

But the dates are off--John Riley would have been about 33 in 1850. Historian Stevens suggests that Riley shipped out of Veracruz and made it back to Galway. He found an 1855 record of a "John Reilly" living in a small house that he owned in Clifden, his old hometown in his Irish homeland.

Riley's story almost disappeared, Stevens writes, because the Army covered up the desertions and trials well into the 20th century. They repeatedly denied public-records requests on the San Patricios, keeping the tale quiet, Stevens argues, since the desertions were an embarrassment revealing egregious discrimination in its ranks.

Nowadays, both Mexico and Ireland celebrate them as heroes. Mexico has a whole section devoted to the San Patricios in its Museo de Intervenciones, Lupe Castillo says. Both nations issued commemorative stamps; they erected plaques in Mexico City and Clifden, and stage annual ceremonies nearby. In Mexico, an official calls out the names of the hanged one by one--Patrick Dalton, Dennis Conahan, Kerr Delaney, Hugh McClellan, Francis O'Conner, Michael O'Sullivan, John Sheehan, among others--and the crowd responds after each name, "Murió por Mexico. He died for Mexico."

As the San Patricios have become better known in the last generation, many people now romanticize the story. They delightedly compare the Mexican and Irish cultures, and praise their mutual love for music and dance, their shared Catholic religion and their tendency to want to put things off until manaña. A San Patricios Society in Phoenix annually celebrates Irish-Mexican friendship with a dinner dance that features both step dancing and folklórico.

But there are more serious lessons to draw from the story, lessons about immigration and assimilation.

"It's important that we see the whole story," insists historian Castillo. We need to look at "the Irish as immigrants, why they left their country and what they encountered here."

Congressman Grijalva notes that the vitriol against foreigners first bandied about in the 1840s is being heard again today.

"The Irish immigrant experience was not a walk in the park," he says. "We hear much the same empty rhetoric today. ... We're having disputatious discussions about immigration in the country ... Let's not repeat history."

Or as the Irish might say, Ná déantar dearmad ar scéal ar gcine.