February, 1993, p 6 -
Revising the Record:
Inglorious Tale from the Mexican War
by Howard Fast
Count Leo Tolstoy wrote, in his novel War and Peace, that every account of a battle was a lie. You can safely broaden the statement to read that every account of a war is a series of lies, and to be specific, it would be difficult to find a war woven of so many lies, speaking historically, as the 1846-48 war with Mexico. My own investigation into the Mexican War began many years ago, during dinner with a Mexican delegate to the United Nations.
"For heaven's sake," he said to me, "write about the Saint Patrick Battalion. Do it as a gift to us. I beg you. And we deserve it."
I told him that in spite of a reasonable if less than scholarly knowledge of American history, I had never heard of anything called the Saint Patrick Battalion, and that I would not have the vaguest notion of what to write. Whereupon, he told me the following story:
During the terrible Irish potato famine, 1845-49, thousands of Irish citizens came to America, almost all of them poverty-stricken and half starved. In 1847, United States Army recruiters met the ships carrying the Irish immigrants, sailing vessels that had packed the desperate Irish men and women and children into their hulls like sardines into cans. Almost ten per cent of these immigrants did not survive the voyage, and those who did were desperate enough to accept any work offered to them. Thereby, out of these new immigrants, the Saint Patrick Battalion was organized, some twelve hundred men, armed and trained and sent to fight in the war with Mexico.
Going on with his story, the Mexican diplomat made the point that the Irishmen fought well and bravely, but could not live easily with the horrors they witnessed - cruelty and barbarism directed at Mexican prisoners and against women and children in the Mexican towns that were conquered. The stories he told were ghastly, but I took them with a grain of salt. After all, he was speaking about an invasion of his country. Finally, he said, the Irish soldiers felt they could endure no more. They were fighting an enemy they did not know, Catholics like themselves, people against whom they had no cause; and this slaughter was being done under the aegis of a Protestant army whose men treated them, the Irish soldiers, with contempt and distaste.
The more they discussed this among themselves, the less sense it made; and finally, at a meeting where they spoke their conclusions in the old Celtic, they decided to go over to the Mexican side of the battle. How they made the arrangements, my Mexican friend could not say; but they made them, and one night, the eight hundred men who remained alive in the battalion took their arms and silently marched away and joined the Mexican army. They fought alongside the Mexicans gallantly, and in the San Angel battle, they were cut off from the main Mexican force on Chapultepec Heights. They fought bravely until their ammunition was gone, and then they were overrun by the American troops. Fifty-two of the Irish Battalion survived and were taken prisoner. A gallows was built within sight of Chapultepec Heights, and when the Mexican position was finally overrun, the Mexican prisoners were lined up and forced to watch the hanging of the fifty-two Irish soldiers.
This story was told to me in 1961, and as this diplomat sketched it out, it was an irresistible tale of high courage and mixed principles of gallantry, cruelty and despair and all the wretched horrors of war. It cried out to be told in full, in every detail, and I was determined to do so.
"You've told me an incredible story," I said to my dinner companion. "But where do I find it? Without proof, without chapter and verse, the story doesn't hold up. Where do I go? Where do I find the facts, the details?"
"That," he said, "is up to you. In Mexico, every well-educated schoolboy knows the story. Here - well, nothing is so well hidden that it can't be found."
But I discovered that the story of the Saint Patrick Battalion was almost that well hidden. I proceeded to pore through every history of the Mexican War that I could find in the New York Public Library. I wrote letters to historians. I went through old newspapers. I rooted out enough material to come to the conclusion that the Mexican War was one of the dirtiest shadows on our history, a war devised to deprive Mexico of two-thirds of its territory and manipulated and controlled by one of the worst gangs of rascals ever to hold power in Washington - and still the Saint Patrick Battalion eluded me.
And then, at long last, I turned up some evidence. In the bibliography of an old history of the Mexican War, I found that William Jay (1759-1858) had in 1849 written a book called A Review of the Causes and Consequences of the Mexican War. The book had been published in Boston in 1849 by Benjamin B. Mussey & Company. William Jay was a highly respected Congregational minister, son of John Jay, who negotiated the 1794 Treaty of Peace and territorial settlement with England. Since Reverend Jay's book had been written during the war, I decided that it would be well worth looking at. The Library of Congress had a copy, but complained that its condition was too poor for me to examine. This was no attempt to suppress anything, but simply concern for the single copy that existed.
Then, to my excitement, I found another copy in the New York Public Library, and staff members made me a photocopy of the entire book. I took my photocopy home with me and read it with the same excitement I had experienced in my first reading of Huckleberry Finn. I was not disappointed, for writing with all the rage and fury that a righteous minister might direct toward a churchful of sinners, Reverend Jay indicted the government of the United States, Generals Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor and President James K. Polk - this last a man well forgotten and perhaps the most deplorable President who ever sat in the White House. Jay's history of the Mexican War is written almost in the style of the best investigative reporting of today, and he gives not an inch to the lies and boasts of the "patriots."
But this is not a reprise of the Mexican War, simply an account of my attempt to find the story of the Saint Patrick Battalion. And indeed, on page 208 of the Jay book, I found the following:
"A large number of Irish emmigrants to the United States bore arms in the invading (American) army. These men were, of course, mere mercenaries. They fought, as others of their countrymen had labored on our canals and railroads, for money. They knew and cared nothing about the claims of 'our much injured citizens,' nor did they trouble themselves about 'our western boundry.' On reaching Mexico, they discovered that they had been hired by heretics to slaughter brethren of their own church. The Mexicans, moreover, published appeals addressed directly to their consciences, in which was set forth in strong language the sin they were committing in fighting against men who had never injured them and who were united with them in a common faith.... A portion of the emmigrants accepted the invitation; and it is reasonable to suppose that they were influenced both by religious and by pecuniary motives. Upwards of fifty of these men were taken prisoner in battle.... A few of these men escaped death on account of some technical objections; but a general order of the 22nd of September, 1847, contained the appalling announcement 'After every effort of the General-in-chief to save as many of these miserable convicts as possible, FIFTY of them have paid for their treachery by an ignominious death upon the gallows.'... It seems that the execution of thirty out of the fifty was entrusted to a Colonel Harney. According to the newspapers, he had them brought out with halters around their necks, and arranged them under one common gibbet in sight of the Mexican fortress of Chapultepec, which the American troops were about to storm. He told them they should live until they saw the American flag raised upon the battlements. The fortress was carried, the flag at last appeared, and the doomed men expired. This act of Harney's has been characterized by a foreign writer, as 'a refinement of cruelty, and a fiendish prolongation at once of the ecstacies of revenge and the agonies of despair.' "
The grim tale of the Saint Patrick Battalion has appeared in several books published after I heard the story from that Mexican diplomat. Published in 1849, Jay's book is; as I said, a devastating indictment, not only of the Mexican War but of all war. In the closing pages of his book, he writes:
"Boys and girls,
And women, that would gross to see a child
Pull off an insect's leg, all read of war -
The best amusement of our morning meal.
"We have been taught to ring our bells, and illuminate our windows, and let off fireworks, as manifestations of our joy, when we heard of great ruin and devastation and death inflicted by our troops upon a people who never injured us, who never fired a shot on our soil, and who were utterly incapable of acting on the offensive against us."
A Working Bibliography of the San Patricio Battalion, found at:
USAMHI / MexWar / RefBranch / js 1980; dv Jun 90
SAN PATRICIO BATTALION
A Working Bibliography
Ballentin, George. "Adventures of an English Soldier in Mexico."
United Service Mag (1852, Pt 3): pp. 403-412. Per.
Bauer, K. Jack. The Mexican War, 1846-1848. NY: Macmillan, 1974.
454 p. E404B37.
See pp. 296-301 & 305.
Bill, Alfred H. Rehearsal for Conflict. NY: Knopf, 1947. 352 p.
See pp. 142, 187, 201, 280, 285 & 310.
Chamberlain, Samuel E. My Confession. NY: Harper, 1956. pp. 226-
Executions of the convicted.
Federman, Stan. "Battalion of the Damned." Army 29 (Jul 1979):
pp. 41-46. Per.
Finke, Detmar H. "Organization and Uniforms of the San Patricio
Units of the Mexican Army, 1846-1848." Mil Coll & Hist 9
(Summer 1957): pp. 36-38. Per.
Haferkorn, Henry E. The War With Mexico, 1846-1848. NY: Argonaut,
1965; orig pub 1914. Z1009P93no1, RefColl.
Hopkins, G.T. "The San Patricio Battalion in the Mexican War."
Journal of US Cav Assoc 24 (Sep 1913): pp. 279-284. Per.
Attached to the MHI-bound Vol 24 is a letter from Frank
McIntyre, dated 17 Nov 1916, who points out that Hopkins
reworded Scott's GO 296.
Krueger, Karl. Saint Patrick's Battalion. NY: Popular Lib, 1962.
255 p. P24K7Sa.
Miller, Robert R. Shamrock and Sword: The Saint Patrick's Battalion
in the U.S.-Mexican War. Norman: UP of OK, 1989. 232 p.
The Other Side: Or, Notes from the History of the War Between Mexico
and the United States. Trans from Spanish by Albert C. Ramsey.
NY: Wiley, 1850. 458 p. E404A3413.
See pp. 114 & 294-295.
Smith, George W., and Judah, Charles, eds. Chronicles of the
Gringos. Albuquerque, NM: UP of New Mex, 1968. 523 p.
See pp. 431-437.
Smith, Justin. The War With Mexico. 2 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1919.
See esp bib entries, Vol 2, p. 385.
U.S. Army. Army of Mexico. First Div. "Order Book, 1847." Arch.
Handwritten copybook of Scott's GO's incls numbers 281-298,
many of which concern the San Patricio court martial and
desertion in general.
U.S. President (James K. Polk). Message from the President of the
United States to the Two Houses of Congress... December 17,
1847. 30th Cong, 1st sess, Sen Exec Doc No 1, 1847. 1618 p.
See pp. 319 & 344.
Wallace, Edward S. "The Battalion of Saint Patrick in the Mexican
War." Mil Affairs 14 (Summer 1950): pp. 84-91. Per.
_________. General William Jenkins Worth. Dallas: So Meth UP,
1953. 242 p. E403.1W9W3.
See pp. 155 & 157-158.
Weems, John E. To Conquer a Peace: The War Between the United
States and Mexico. Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1974. 500 p.
Scattered refs, pp. 110, 220, 285, 406, 421 & 426-427.
Wynn, Dennis J. The San Patricio Soldiers: Mexico's Foreign Legion.
Southwestern Studies: Mono No 74. El Paso: Texas Western
Press, 1984. 55 p. E415.2D48W96.
_________. "The San Patricios and the United States-Mexican War of
1846-1848." PhD dss, Loyola U, 1982. 221 p. E404W95.