Why Would Hundreds of 19th Century Irishmen Abandon the U.S. Army and Join Mexican Forces?

In Mexico, September is known as the patriotic month, or el mes patrio which culminates on the 15th with the national independence holiday. This day, the President appears at the balcony of the presidential palace holding the flag of Mexico and symbolically rings a bell, just like Father Miguel Hidalgo did in 1810 as he called for the country's independence.

Then, the President shouts, "¡Viva Mexico!" and lists the heroes whose sacrifices and efforts helped to build the nation. Among them are the niños heroes, six cadets that fought to death to defend Mexico City's Chapultepec castle from U.S. troops during the last days of the Mexican-American War and, as the legend goes, jumped from the top of the palace to avoid being caught by the invaders.

Eventually the U.S. flag was hoisted up the mast of Chapultepec palace. And at that very moment, 30 immigrants who had fought for Mexico, were brutally hung by the decision of U.S. martial courts. Twenty more had been hung earlier at San Jacinto square in Mexico City's San Ángel district. They were men of Saint Patrick's Battalion, a force of mainly Irish soldiers,who deserted U.S. ranks, joined the Mexican army and fought fiercely against the U.S. invader. Convicted for treason and desertion in the face of the enemy, they should have been shot. But their judges made a cruel, unconstitutional, exception, which reveals the contempt and anger that their conduct generated among U.S. army officials.

It was the 13th of September 1847, a day that the Mexican-Irish community commemorates every year. The names of these soldiers may not be as legendary as those of the niños heroes, but they are also part of Mexican history, and are now carved in stone in San Jacinto square.

But why would 19th century Irishmen abandon the U.S. Army and join Mexican forces?

Roberto Brown, an 84-year-old engineering professor of Irish descent, has been collecting objects and information about the Saint Patrick's battalion for the last 17 years. In his book, The Eagle and the Cross, Brown argues that religious discrimination was a very strong motive for Irishmen to leave the U.S. Army.

Brown explains that 19th century Irish immigrants faced discrimination in jobs and housing upon arrival in the United States. Many of them enlisted in the U.S. Army hoping that this would help them to improve their social status. But the discrimination that these new soldiers encountered within the U.S. army was not so different from what they experienced in civilian life.

Brown notes that Irish soldiers were mocked as agents of the Pope and were not authorized to perform Catholic rites like Sunday mass. He writes that in the years leading up to the Mexican-American war, when US troops were stationed in what is now Brownsville, Texas, Irish soldiers would dress as civilians and sneak to Matamoros, Mexico, where they could receive communion the Catholic way.

Irish ambassador in Mexico, Eamon Hickey, also describes that context of humiliation towards Irish migrants in 19th century United States: "Remember it was Ireland's darkest hour, we had a disastrous famine and it seemed our country was on the verge of extinction," Hickey told Univision News. "A quarter or so of our population had immigrated to the United States. And when they got there they didn't find a land of justice and equality, they found themselves being treated very badly, especially those who joined the United States Army. Because they were Catholic, because they were poor, all kind of prejudices were brought against the Irish at that time".

According to ambassador Hickey, Irish soldiers had more reasons to identify with Mexicans at that time than to support the U.S. cause against them: "When they were sent down here [to Mexico], they got a shock because suddenly they were oppressing a people with whom they realized they had very much in common. We Irish have a lot in common with Mexico. We have a history of oppressive colonialism, a long history of domination by a powerful neighbor…These guys could recognize injustice and oppression when they saw it. So they immediately had a community of interests with the Mexican people in that struggle."

Money could have also motivated Irish soldiers to join the U.S. army. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Mexico's supreme general, fostered desertions from the U.S. Army not only by Irishmen but also by German, French and Polish immigrants, by offering Mexican citizenship, a great share of land and much higher wages to anyone willing to leave the U.S. side.

Juan Francisco Trejo is a Mexican-Irish filmmaker who recently released a documentary on the Saint Patrick's Battalion. He also manages a very popular blog on Irish and Cornwall culture and spent two years exploring the "subculture" of the battalion's experts and fans as he puts it. According to Trejo, "the economical promises of the Mexican government of the time were certainly one of the reasons why many [soldiers] rallied to the battalion. However this did not apply at first and it certainly wasn't the principal reason to switch sides."

There is still a debate on how many soldiers the San Patricio battalion had during its heyday. Some experts say there were up to 700 troops while others put the number around 500. Trejo explains why estimates are so different.

"The number kept growing, but the thing is that after the war a lot of them managed to escape trial, a lot of them fled to the mountains, a lot of them took Spanish names and disappeared. O'Brian for instance became Obregon. Oliver became Olivera. Michael Goodin turned his name into Miguel Godines. Many of them took the identity of deceased Mexican soldiers that they knew and pretended to be Mexican. There was no real register or any real control at the time."

One thing the military records from Mexico and the U.S. do register, is the bravery that the battalion's soldiers showed in the face of the enemy. This was much appreciated by Mexicans, in desperate need of support. As Irish ambassador to Mexico Eamon Hickey told us: "When Mexico was at its darkest hour and even the future of this country was in doubt, it was very important to them and it was deeply emotional for them to have this evidence of solidarity, international solidarity, [a sign] that they weren't alone. To this day it speaks to them," Hickey said.

Often in Mexican history, heroes are martyrs and pride is to be found in glorious defeats. At Churubusco, the battle that decided the fate of Santa Anna and of Mexico, the San Patricio battalion ran out of ammunition because disorganized Mexican army staff supplied them with cartridges that were not compatible with their rifles. Forced to surrender, the San Patricios knew they were facing the gallows.

Curiously, their story was not known in the United States for decades, as the U.S. Army kept it under a strict rule of secrecy.

It was only in 1915 that an inquiry on behalf of Congress forced military authorities to recognize the existence of the Irish battalion. Nowadays, members of the Saint Patrick's battalion are considered heroes in Mexico and traitors in the U.S. Even among Irish Americans, the memory of the battalion still generates controversy and divides consciousness.

"For some Irish Americans, who are very patriotic Americans, the fact that many of these men were deserters from the U.S. army is something that they find very hard to accept," says ambassador Eamon Hickey. "But as I always tell them, the war is over. We are not required necessarily to take sides. What we celebrate and recognize is the courage of these men, their sacrifice and their contribution to the shared heritage of three countries."

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