Monday, 15 May 2017

A Request from Within the Family - The San Patricio Battalion in the Mexican War.....


          Writing, talking, and thinking about the events of San Jacinto and the Alamo occupy much time for many Texans.   And, as one continues with the exploration of events in Texas, from long before the aforementioned events up to and including the present times, it is clear that Texas and its position between two complex nations will forever be a geographical and cultural zone of interest.
     Various people have asked for my thoughts and notions about the issue of the San Patricio Battalion, a military unit that drew fame and notoriety during the Mexican American War of 1846 -  1848.  Most recently, my consuegro (the father-in-law of my daughter) has asked what might be  my analysis of the military group that drew recognition, admiration, ire, bad press, and bitterness from the various sides in that War.

     The Battalion of Saint Patrick or La Batallon de San is the same thing.   There was not one that was American and the other Mexican.   Sometimes that explanation is given.

     The Battalion was composed of a "Motley Crew".   Gentlemen adventurers, ruffians, Irish Nationalists, bandits, impromptu conscripts, prisoners, Irish Republicans always ready for a fight for Irish dignity,  and others from Spain, England, France, Italy, the United States, Scotland, and various points in-between.   Just before the War with Mexico broke out, the conscription of soldiers began in ernest, and the same system of "recruitment" would be practiced by the Union side during the War Between the States fifteen years later.

     Jails provided some of the recruits.  Others came off newly arriving ships from Liverpool, England and Londonderry, Eire, "volunteers" who were lingering in the saloons along the wharves a little too long, and regular "Micks" already involved in the American experience were recruited or impressed into the service....but not the was for the Army.
     Some historians believe that there was some "foreshadowing" involved in the fact that this began in 1845.  It was thought by some students of the War with Mexico that the fix was already in.  Texas would agree to subjugation to the American Union, in exchange for protection by the Americans against the ever present menace of a more powerful Mexico.   This writer does not buy into this assessment beyond about 1 or 2 per cent.

     Speculation and the standing back and, intellectually saying,"....and on the other hand it could have been..." in my not-so-humble opinion is not a worthwhile investment of the time allotted to this life.   The Americans knew that the Texans had been terribly lucky in their defence of their "Republic", taking advantage of a ridiculous breach of military order by a commander, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna,  who had at great loss to his own countrymen had almost destroyed the Texas military and means to resist.  All of that success was wasted by positioning his Army, essentially, with its throat exposed and its back up against a deep swamp. 

     The second incursion by the Mexican General Adrian Woll in the early autumn of 1842, six years after San Jacinto, proved that the Texans could bluster, and they could fight, but that they could not withstand a serious military en force.   The old saying "dulce bellum inexpertis" (war is sweet to the inexperienced) was very much in play.

     In any regard, the Americans were not going to dash dandily into the theatre of War with the Mexicans.   They would declare a War, and they would use a complicated, four front attack approach, and they would bring overwhelming numbers against the more well-fortified Mexican forces.  Size matters, and in a real war, numbers matter, so stuffing uniforms with warm bodies was of utmost necessity.   Therefore, there was heavy "recruiting" among the Irish.
      This does not detract from the number of Americanised people of Irish ancestry, and those Irish-Americans who actually freely joined the military effort in those days.   As best one can calculate, it seems as if the numbers of those two  categories was about equal, meaning there were a lot of Irish who were drawn to the romance, the excitement, the expression of Americanism, and the emotional rush of "going to War for a noble cause".

Arrival in Texas:
Lancers and Infantry of the Mexican
Army of the period
      Most of the infantry, artillery, and cavalry that was deployed in the Northern Theatre was delivered to La Bahia de Corpus Christi (to-day known as Nueces Bay), where the Nueces River empties into the Gulf of Mexico.  From there the army under General Taylor, organised and finished drilling and mastering their weapons, and proceeded south after negotiations broke down between Mexican and American diplomats.  It was all posturing, because in this writer's estimation, both sides really wanted to teach the other side a real lesson.
     This does not mean that the War was totally approved by either side, but both sides were generally and in their majority, in favour of War.  Loading up the ranks with "deplorables" like the Irish (American Military) and dusky Indians from Civil Defense / National Guard units (Mexican Military) was a solution in order to placate the effete and comfortable middle and upper classes in both countries.   However, it must be pointed out that many of the soldiers, especially in the professional ranks, on both sides, from fine and / or established families, saw the War as an opportunity to gain fame as an heroic personality and as a patriot to his flag and nation.

     The soldiers at Corpus Christi generally welcomed the chance to be on the move and not hang around in a smelly, hot, humid, and sand-flea consumed place.   The Mexicans, with the arrival of General Mariano Arista arriving in Matamoros (the extreme northeastern-most corner of Mexico) with well-trained troops, artillery, and the dreaded cavalry-lancers felt  they could carry the day. 

     There were a series of engagements and battles.   The Mexican forces, patrolling the north side of the Rio Bravo (Grande) encountered an American scouting cavalry column that apparently thought they were in a comic opera or something, because they were in no way prepared for combat.  The Mexicans engaged and with both numbers and skill in their favour, they essentially destroyed the reconnaissance column, leaving 17 dead.  The Mexican force had four or five wounded.
     A couple of days later the American Congress declared war on Mexico, because "....American blood had been shed on American soil."  General (Old Rough and Ready) Taylor initiated hostilities with the main body of the Mexican forces.  The bulk of the Mexican Army, and all of their artillery was on the south side of the Rio Grande, but a sizable group was on the north side.   The first major engagement was a victory of the field for the Americans,  and Taylor's forces could celebrate success at the first major engagement, the Battle of Palo Alto on the 8th of March, 1846.   The next day, Taylor followed up with another rebuke of Mexican forces, this time at the Resaca de las Palmas, (resaca being a word meaning abandoned river bend channel).
Above:  Ireland Forever,  Below: the image of Saint Patrick
with his bishop's staff, expelling the snake.  This
was the banner of the San Patricio Battalion. 

     The War was on.  Arista regrouped and began a steady withdrawal, essentially following the Rio Bravo (Grande) to the due west.  His commander, General Pedro de Ampudia had already determined that he would draw the Americans into the badlands for 200 miles, and keep them away from the centre of the country.

   Sparsely populated, full of snakes, thorns, and normally dry (except during floods), the stretch of land ahead was none too hospitable. 
Each army kept contact, one with the other.  Butthere was another problem for the Americans.

     As they pushed forward, they knew that more Mexican troops with better supplies would be forming.  Whether Linares (to the southwest and the route Ampudia and Arista were sure Taylor would take, or more to the due west towards Monterrey and then Saltillo (much worse for the Americans), each day would increase the advantage for the home team.  And one of the big reasons was going to occur after a week's march towards the setting sun.

The luck of the Irish:
     It was during this cat and mouse process as both armies moved to the west that supposedly a Roman Catholic priest moved among the American troops, night....and began to plant the seeds of defection from the American army among principally the Irish soldiers.  This occurred at a significant community, essentially the centre of a large ranch named Hacienda de San Pedro y San Pablo, now known as General Bravo.   Between there and another community, an actual city by the name of San Felipe de China, this priest possibly working with other clerics tried to convince as many of the Irish soldiers to either desert the American army and go home, or desert and join the Mexican army.
     There was some success, because of a deserter by the name of John Riley, who had left the American army and crossed into Mexico just before the Declaration of War.  He had preceded the Army and perhaps even colluded with the "unknown priest" who moved among the Irish soldiers during the advance into Mexico.   So even while the American army was entertaining the locals with their songs and marching and trying to do "goodwill outreach" among the native population, fewer and fewer troops were reporting at Reveille in the morning and most of the missing  were  Irish conscripts.
     This was not good news to Gen. Zachary Taylor, because about a fifth of the entire army had been left behind at Camargo, a community on the Rio Grande and the Rio San Juan, and more or less mid-way to Monterrey from Matamoros.  Those troops had come down with severe dysentery, quite probably a "stomach flu" and could not travel due to their illness and subsequent weakness.   True enough, reinforcements were coming in, but Taylor and his officers were facing superior numbers, increasingly better trained enemy soldiers, greater distance from supply sources, and the problem of Irish deserters actually going over to the enemy as well.
Commemorative Plaque
with the names of those members of
the Batallon de San Patricio who
were hanged for treason by the
American command.
Some 150 were killed in action, and
another 200 received other punishments,
including the dreaded "D" brand,  The
Batallon de San Patricio total number
is estimated to be around 700.   That
leaves about 400 who most probably
remained in Mexico and made families.

     By the time the American forces had made the mistake of going towards Monterrey instead of Linares (actually both choices had many disadvantages), there were 200 "foreigners", ninety per cent of whom were Irish who had defected to the enemy.   They had been formed into a two-company infantry unit, named the Batallon de San Patricio, although their forte' was artillery.   Due to that fact, the Mexican command found artillery for them and it was used with extreme effectiveness at the Battle of the Bishop's Palace on the west side of Monterrey, and during the defence of the Ciudadela Fortress and Quartermaster Headquarters more in the centre of Monterrey.
     It was during those confrontations that each side learned the full mettle of the other.  Each side lost 600 dead during four days of constant combat and manoeuvers.  The Mexicans appreciated their foreign allies, and the Americans hated the dirty deserters.   It would be that way until the end of the war.

     The Batallon de San Patricio served up to and including the final, pointless battle at Churubusco outside of Puebla, serving under Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, ending on 20 August 1847.....several days after the formal cessation of hostilities.   It was calculated that the Americans had lost 12,800 dead in the conflict, many of them from illness while the Mexican losses were thought to have been nearly 20,000, perhaps half being in combat.   It has been presented by some as a "theatrical war" with lots of highly festooned and decorated soldiers and officers, much shooting and noise, but little combat.  Such, lamentably, was not the case.   There were two or three occasions that the Mexicans could have won the war, and they failed to take advantage of each opportunity.
     For instance, when Gen. Winfield (Old Fuss 'n Feathers) was nearing Puebla, the last big city before Mexico City, the Mexican Congress was arguing about points of procedural order about things that had nothing to do with the defence of the Republic.

There will more about all of this in the next couple of days.
El Gringo Viejo