The St. Patrick’s Battalion

September 12

Today the Irish are as inseparable from the American identity as the stars on the red, white, and blue. But at one time the Irish were as discriminated against as any ethnic group. Immigrants who had crossed the Atlantic, fleeing the Emerald Isle’s deadly potato famine in the 1840s soon learned what N.I.N.A. stood for–No Irish Need Apply.

The wave of German and Irish-Catholic immigration in the mid 19th century was met with an equal wave of xenophobia called Nativism, an anti-Catholic, anti-foreigner movement sweeping through the mostly-Protestant states. This patriotic sentiment was compounded with a territorial war with our neighbor to the south, Mexico, in the 1840s.

John Riley, a native of Clifden, County Galway, was a young veteran of the British Army when he entered the U.S. through Canada. He joined the army in Michigan, and served in the 5th U.S. Infantry Regiment. But the animosity he experience against his religion and his countrymen caused him to desert the army prior to the Mexican-American War.

All told around 1000 Irish deserted the army before and during the war. They were not the first soldiers to do so, but 200 of them did the unforgivable. They banded together and enlisted with their fellow Catholics in the Mexican Army.

The St. Patrick’s Battalion, or San Patricios, fought in all five major battles of the Mexican-American War. General Santa Anna once said, had he a hundred more troops like Riley’s men, he would have won the war.

At the Battle of Churubusco in 1847, the San Patricios met their end. Of approximately 200 men, 35 were killed and 85 were taken prisoner. Nearly 50 prisoners were sentenced to death by hanging. Riley escaped execution because he had deserted prior to the declaration of war. He was merely given 50 lashes on the back, branded with the letter “D” (for deserter), and forced to wear an iron yoke around his neck for the duration of the war.

The prisoners were hanged between September 10 and September 13, by order of General Winfield Scott, in full view of both armies at the battle of Chapultepec, and were forced to watch from the gallows as the U.S. flag replaced the Mexican flag above the town. The victims included one soldier who had had both legs amputated the day before.

The U.S. Army denied the existence of the St. Patrick’s Battalion until a Congressional investigation in 1915.

In Mexico, the Irish martyrs are remembered during two holidays: St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, and the Commemoracion de los San Patricios on September 12, the anniversary of most of the executions.

And on this one day, Riley’s hometown of Clifden, Ireland, flies the Mexican flag in honor of the men of St. Patrick’s Battalion.

Deserters or Unsung Heroes?

St. Patrick Battalion

Rogue’s March

No Irish Need Apply – Fact or Fiction?

Cinco de Mayo

May 5

Today we celebrate Mexican Independence Day!

Wait, no. That’s September 16.

Today we celebrate the birthday of Benito Juarez!

Uh, no, that’s March 21.

Constitution Day?

February 5.

Revolution Day?

November 20.

Flag Day?

February 24.

So what the heck is Cinco de Mayo!?

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Which is when Mexico kicked their French booty all the way back to Paris.

Actually, no. Though the French lost the battle, they conquered Mexico City a year later and installed a puppet dictatorship under this Austrian dude:

Maximilian I

So remind me, why on earth do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo like it’s the Mexican 4th of July?

Well, first of all, the Mexicans don’t. Only the Americans do, and the people of Puebla, Mexico. Mexican banks are open today, as are schools, government buildings and just about everything else. There are no ad campaign blitzes featuring Corona, and no parades outside of Puebla. The reason Cinco de Mayo is celebrated so vigorously in El Norte is one of North America’s greatest mysteries.

Though not strategically significant, the Battle of Puebla was a powerful symbolic victory for Mexico in the 1860s. The Mexican-American War in the 1840s and the Mexican Civil War a decade later bankrupted the country. To get Mexico back on its feet, President Benito Juarez declared a two-year moratorium on payment of foreign debts. Creditors England, Spain and France did not take the news well. They decided to get back their money the old-fashioned way: they invaded.

Juarez was able to reach agreements with Spain and England, which went on their merry way, but France had other plans. Napoleon III wanted to rule Mexico by proxy, perhaps to make up for that teensy land sale known as the Louisiana Purchase.

The overconfident French army set out for the Mexican capital assured of an easy victory. 6,500 well-trained French troops met up with under 4,500 ill-equipped Mexican troops under General Ignacio Zaragoza near the city of Puebla. The French were so certain of their success, they attacked Zaragoza’s forces at their strongest point. The result was catastrophic. Zaragoza’s troops suffered minimal losses while inflicting heavy casualties on the French, even chasing them in retreat.

The battle provided a much needed boost to Mexican patriotism and morale by proving that a nation still on training wheels could defeat a European power with one of the strongest armies in the world.

The victory was short lived. After hearing of Puebla, Napoleon III diverted almost 30,000 troops to Mexico. Maximilian entered Mexico City the following year and was crowned Emperor.

The reason the holiday is so important to Chicanos in the United States may be because the war against the French represented the first collaboration between Mexico and the U.S. since the Mexican-American War. Mexican-American societies from Texas to California supported their former homeland with volunteers, money, and supplies. The Vienna-born Emperor Maximilian was ousted in 1867, and Benito Juarez, the Zapateco Amerindian peasant-turned-priest-turned-lawyer-turned-President, became leader of Mexico once more. But that’s a story for another day.

Benito Juarez