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  • Natalie Taylor


The Saint Patrick Battalion

Every year on September 12, a ceremony is held in Mexico City; an event that connects Mexico, the United States, and Ireland. It is not a celebration of life, but a remembrance of many deaths that took place on that day in 1847, the culmination of a series of shameful acts perpetrated on Mexican soil by the United States. Little is mentioned about this event in the history books north of the border; and with good reason—the victor not only takes the spoils, he likes to stifle any unfavorable memories as well.

To fully understand what took place we need to roll back the clock to 1845 when James Polk became president of the United States. He was a zealous proponent of Manifest Destiny—the belief that racial and cultural superiority of the white, Protestant population gave them the God-given right to expand frontiers and occupy the entire North American continent. Indigenous people did not deserve to have these lands. African slaves, of course, were even beyond that fringe—a clear rationale for slavery.

The southern frontier was fluid then, particularly along the border between Texas and Mexico. Texas had originally been colonized by Spain, fell under French control, then became part of Mexico until 1836 when it declared itself an independent state. Finally, in 1845, it was annexed as the 28th state of the Union, creating a powerful ally to the Confederate States and the slave owners. As part of Mexico, Blacks would have been free, because slavery had been abolished in Mexico in 1829. Obviously the vast Texan territory was very important to those who wanted to keep slavery alive and well in the United States. The Texan situation was fraught with problems because of conflicts over culture, ownership, and ideology. Most importantly, Mexico had never accepted Texas’s withdrawal from the country, claiming that it was still Mexican territory. Like a pile of dry kindling, all that was needed was a spark.

The dispute continued, with the US claiming the Rio Grande as the natural border, and Mexico insisting that it was the Nueces River, north of San Antonio. The area between the two rivers became disputed territory. Polk’s expansionist plans included laying claim to California, New Mexico, and other lands along the southern border. He first offered to buy the lands, but the Mexican government would not even consider it. Frustrated, Polk decided to acquire the land in a different way. He sent American troops to Texas to provoke the Mexicans into war. In April of 1846 a skirmish between Mexicans and Americans erupted in the disputed territory. Shots were fired, and soldiers on both sides were killed. This was exactly what Polk had hoped for, he used the death of Americans as an excuse to declare war on Mexico. And so began the enlistment of young men to cross the border and invade Mexico. And it is here that the Irish connection comes into play.

Many young Irish men had immigrated to the United States in the aftermath of the potato famine in Ireland in 1845. They came looking for jobs, hoping to send money back to their families. The Irishmen were not well received in the US, most specifically because they were Catholics in a Protestant environment. They were discriminated against, put down, paid poorly, pushed to the fringes of society, and not allowed to attend Catholic mass.

When the war against Mexico was declared, many of them were immediately conscripted and others were enticed to join with promises of great rewards afterwards. With what appeared a good opportunity to move ahead, many joined of their own free will.

When these young men reached the Rio Grande, they saw Catholic churches on the other side, and decided to join in worship. It did not take them long to find more in common with their southern neighbors, and some 200 men defected, following their conscience. They formed the St. Patrick Battalion—los patricios—and joined the Mexicans in their fight to maintain national sovereignty.

The stronger military forces of the United States prevailed, and in 1847 reached Mexico City. The men of the St. Patrick Battalion had fought bravely along with the Mexicans, and would not surrender until captured. Most received harsh prison sentences and branding with a “D”—for deserter—on their foreheads. But this was apparently not harsh enough for the invaders. Over the course of three days, starting on September 10, fifty men were executed. The most gruesome “show execution” took place on September 13 when 30 young men were led to the gallows on horseback. As the Mexican flag was lowered and the American flag raised over Mexican soil, the condemned men were “launched into eternity,” as United States newspapers would later report. It was the largest collective execution ever ordered by the US military.

Mexicans continued the fight to expel the invaders until Americans agreed to retreat, and signed a treaty on February 2, 1848. The terms of the treaty were ruthless—Mexico had to give up not only Texas, but most of California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming. All conquered territories were incorporated into the United States, stripping almost 50% of land from Mexico. So why didn’t the US take the entire country? They had the military might for the land grab, and they could certainly justify it with their abhorrent racist rationale.

The answer lies in what turns the tide against any morally corrupt idea—the loud voices of those who oppose such actions. Many in Congress in 1848 saw the entire military campaign as an unjustified invasion of a sovereign state. Among these was a young Congressman, Abraham Lincoln, who called Polk a liar to his face: “from beginning to end, the sheerest deception,” Lincoln said. Taking the newly conquered lands, the United States left well enough alone.

Today, the San Patricios are a forgotten footnote in history in the United States. But in Mexico and Ireland, they are heroes who died for a just cause. In Mexico City a plaque honors those men, and a squad of Mexican bagpipers plays a monthly tribute. And every year on September 12. a ceremony is organized in Mexico City, and in Clifden, Ireland to remember them. A Mexican flag is flown in both places as a tribute to the shared legacy between the two countries.

The plaque reads: “In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic San Patricio Battalion, martyrs who gave their lives for the cause of Mexico during the unjust US invasion of 1847.”

The names of all those men are carved into the stone, each name is read out loud during the annual ceremony, and after each name is given, the crowd responds with “Murio por Mexico”—he died for Mexico!

Next week, let us remember these Irish-Mexican heroes.

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2 comentários

11 de set. de 2023

Good article. Well-researched.

Natalie Taylor
13 de set. de 2023
Respondendo a

Thanks, Pat. It was a horrible past, wasn't it?

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