Saturday, 27 May 2017

Returning to the Batallon de San Patrico - with an edit from the first posting for the purpose of continuity


A Request from Within the Family - The San Patricio Battalion in the Mexican War.....with the final installment....the rest of the story



          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 serpents.  This was the banner
 and battle standard 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 as well as

hanging as traitors.
  The Batallon de San Patricio
 total numbers is estimated to
have been around 700.   That
leaves about 400 who most
 remained in Mexico
 and made families or pursued
other interests such as going
to the gold rush in California.

     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) Scott was nearing Puebla, the last big city before Mexico City, the Mexican Congress was arguing about points of procedural order between the  Congreso de Diputados and the Senado 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


Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor
This is El Gringo Viejo at the Cavalry
 Headquarters at Fort Brown, Brownsville,
Texas.  This building, though somewhat
up-dated, renovated, restored, and fixed-up
is essentially the same building where his
Father served in the 1st Cavalry Division,
12 Regiment (mounted), Headquarters
Squadron, during the late 1920s through
the early 1930s.   

     There are many, many details of greater and lesser importance concerning the War with Mexico.   For instance, returning to the initiation of hostilities, we pointed out that the American forces were a bit dismissive of the Mexican ability to fight.   The pointless exposure of  a 90 trooper cavalry reconnaissance squadron in the face of a combined force of cavalry, artillery, and infantry of 850 men under the command of General Arista was foolhardy.    So, in fact, the Mexican forces won the first significant encounter of the War.

      What the Americans prefer to remember  is the subsequent Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de las Palmas.  And, it is a reasonable thing, because they were not mere "significant skirmishes" but full scale engagements.   But for a few days, Gen. Taylor recognised a severe defect in his arrangement for battle.  He had left much of his supply line from Brazos de Santiago Pass (entrance to anchorage at Punta Isabela) to "Fort Texas" (the first battlement put into place with dirt walls and heavy defence with the presence of 500 infantry and an artillery contingent.
Jacob Brown mortally wounded It  here that the first fully commissioned officer of the  forces was killed in action, being hit in the upper leg, full-on by a howitzer shot.   Though he survived his very serious wound for six days, up to the 9th of May, he did succumb on that day.  His holding against a superior force for that length of time, while Gen. Taylor rearranged his supply defences, turned out to be the key to the turning of the tide.
     The overall Mexican General, Pedro de Ampudia, decided to concentrate his forces in reserve to his first subordinate, Arista.  It was, by the book, the correct deployment, and once breaking down the Fort Texas blockage, the Mexicans could have pinned the entire American force into annihilation or surrender, putting their backs to the Gulf of Mexico.  It was the right thing to do, but it produced the wrong result.
     Gen. Taylor settled his line, rejoined Major Brown, possibly with only 48 to 72 hours to spare.  The ensuing battles told the tale.   The Mexicans had prepared an offensive, and had people milling around for animal feed and gunpowder in order to begin an offensive advance "to-morrow", when the Americans arrived "yesterday" to do the same "to-day". 
     It is from that event at Fort Texas that was drawn the name of the military installation, and formally named and known as "Fort Brown".   The facility later became a centre for all kinds of goings-on in the City of Brownsville, Texas  (established and incorporated in 1850 & 1853).

    Now, in that past is prelude, let us return a bit to the Texas Republican Period.   Before the Texas Revolucion against Lopez de Santa Anna and the Mexican Centralists, the Spanish and then the Mexican authority decided to populate the distant areas of their country with colonists who would work the area, and more importantly, catch Kickapoo, Comanche, and Apache arrows "up - north" instead of down in the more populated central and eastern areas of the nation.

     Various "colonias" were empowered to the control and essentially grant ownership of various "empresarios", who would agree to introduce significant numbers of immigrants through grants of land (after such and such number of years of improvement), and following other laws, such as learning the Spanish language and coverting to  the Roman Catholic denomination of Christianity.

     There was the Austin Colony, the DeWitt Colony, and numerous others,  including one named "Colonia de San Patricio", founded by John (Juan) McMullen, and John (Juan) McGoin, both Irish-born Irishmen.  Its founders promised to guessed it... Irish and English colonists, already of the Roman Catholic faith.  It was a fairly large land grant, and 89 or more such families made their way to occupy land that ranged from good to excellent for farming and livestock.

       The story is long and complex, and here we only need to know that during the conflicts that resulted the independence of Texas, this particular colony, was centered where present-day Sinton (near Corpus Christ) presides as County Seat of San Patricio County.

     As Mexican Centralist forces, advancing after essentially destroying Zacatecas, Zacatecas and the best militia in Mexico, was coming north to make "mostraciones y reconiciones" (demonstrations and reconnaissance).   The Governor of Coahuila y Texas had fled to Texas, with a number of his own militia, and they would join the Texians.  They passed through McMullen's grant and were well received by the locals.
    But around that time, at a make-shift fort called Lipantitlan (a Nahuatl adaption of a word meaning Land of the Lipan Apache), not far from a population cluster in the McMullen - McGoin grant, A Mexican Captain came up and called for volunteers to join the Mexican Centralist forces to drive out a bunch of Texian troublemakers from the "fort".    These times being in November of 1835.
     Some estimates of the San Patricianos  who joined and fought were as low as 28 while others (irate Texians) said that almost 100 joined forces with the Centralists.  To make a long story short, a story heavily injected with the "fog of war", the Texians at Fort Lipantitlan beat a fast path to the north, and with some considerable losses.   The "Battle of Fort Lipatitlan" is little known, but not entirely forgotten by those of us whose talent is for knowing about things that have absolutely no interest to anyone, nor any use to the body of knowledge of the human race.

     There were some who have postulated that John Riley, who was born in Ireland and who became the titular head  (never full commander) of the Batallon  de San Patricio as the Mexican - American War ground on, was from the McMullen - McGoin Colony,   It is my opinion that this is lore, and is spun by faery dust and leprechauns.  It is true, however, that there were a few, to perhaps quite a few, "Irlandeses" who sided with the Mexican Centralist forces a little more than 10 years before the War with Mexico, who were Texians supporting the Lopez de Santa Anna and the Centralists.

     One big assistance as this War continued with abysmal losses on both sides, was that the generals could look at the mess, and declare, "We won!"   Both sides did it, but our old friend Lopez de Santa Anna did it best.   At the Battle of Buenavista, south of Saltillo, he managed to stop Taylor, but did not commit his reserves during the night to confront Taylor.  He began a forced retreat (covering 40 to 50 miles per day.....incomprehensible but true) down to confront the Americans as they left Vera Cruz on their way to Mexico.

     The number of Mexican casualties at Buena Vista?  Perhaps 1,300 dead, 2,500 wounded, and several hundred....just gone.   Gen. Taylor had lost almost 600 dead, and 1,000 wounded, but worse, over 1,500 had just deserted.  Those were official American Army estimates.  It was a sobering battle for both Armies.

     Then at Cerro Gordo, fighting through the tropical jungles, the high mountain passes, the always cold at night highlands, at Peniensco, the Churubusco, and finally at the fall of the City of Mexico....the Batallon de San Patricio was still intact, with many losses during the months of almost constant preparation for and implementation of combat measures.
    Even at the end, when a hopelessly exhausted regiment of Mexican veteran patriots had run out of ammunition, many dead, almost all wounded, either Riley or one of his immediate subordinates dashed over to knock the impromptu white flag from the hands of a wounded sergeant (some say three times).
     It is thought that the Americans and other San Patricianos did not want to be captured by the Americans, because many would be hanged like dogs, after short military trials.  That is what they thought, and for many, there was truth to the issue.
     This event at the Fall of the City of Mexico on the 14th of September, 1845, only two days before Independence Day there, the American officer in charge of those final moments, regarding the one destroyed regiment of patriotic defenders, and studying the most famous element of the enemy they had been facing for such a long and bitter time....the San Paticio Batallon....took pity.  He drew out his own white flag, and surrendered in their name.  The Batallon de San Patricio had to admit and accept the offer because the only other alternative was group suicide.....the Masada Alternative.

     A cessation of hostilities and commitment to a negotiated peace was initiated during the next days....very quickly.   The Mexican military in the central core of the nation, and in the northeast, as well as the tropical east, complied with the armistice. To the south, little was known about the War, and it had escaped almost all the violence.
     Religious figures of importance came to request lenience for the San Patrico Battalion personnel.  Gen. Winfield Scott said that his lenience was for the honourable Mexican soldiers, not for American traitors.  He declared that he was irretrievably committed to providing the maximum punishment to all who deserted and joined foreign forces against American forces after the Declaration of War in the United States.
    That would exempt John Riley, because he had left a few days before that Declaration was made.  The plaque included in Part I of this treatise has the names of those who were hanged, in fairly short order, after the fall of Mexico City.
     The remainder were given 20 lashes for enlisted, 40 lashes for non-commissioned officers, and 50 for commissioned officers.   All were branded with a "D" on the cheek,  save for John Riley who received his 50 lashes (some say his lash-count was botched, and he received 59), his "D" and another " D" because the first one was put on upside-down, and then prison detention.
     One unfortunate San Patriciano had had to have his legs amputated due to his wounds, but they took him from the hospital doing a basket carry to the gallows and hanged him anyway.   This was also revolting to Mexican urban and religious sensibilities, but.....

     More or less finally,  and this is in no wise anything like a thorough and complete study, the War ended in Mexico City and in Mexico generally, but it was not over.  Several battles were joined on the Baja Peninsula and along the Mexican Pacific Coast.  Lopez de Santa Anna remained just east of Mexico City for several weeks, engaging American military presence and huffing and puffing about how he was the provisional Presidente de Mexico.  He and his very reduced ranks finally threw in the towel about a month after the general cessation of hostilities.   Before the mid-point of 1848, all was quiet on all fronts, but 99 per cent of the hostilities ended with the occupation of the City of Mexico.

     It was said that John Riley died of his wounds and mistreatment by the Americans, compounded by the fact that he was thrown in jail by Mexico City police breaking up a barroom brawl...and languished in jail, finally winding up dead in 1850 at the age of 45. This was pretty much accepted as fact, but later research has reasonably established that John Riley left jail, paid a small fine, took his fame to Canada where he had lived before his arrival in America back in the early 1840s.   It is thought he might have died in British Colombia in 1880.     It is fairly well known that many foreign venturers in Mexico would state "I am Riley.... John Riley...'' in order to impress the folks, especially the ladies during those times.

     Once in Canada, he became somewhat hermitic and supposedly spoke little about his service in Mexico.  It was thought, however, that appreciative wealthy people in Mexico had given Riley an significant, discreet, endowment for his service.

     El Gringo Viejo does not know what happened to the John Riley in question.   I have not seen him, nor have I seen anyone credible who saw him, although I did see Jesse James and Elvis Presley at a bowling  alley near here the other day.   But Major John Riley, hero of the Batallon de San Patricio, Hero of Mexico was not with them. The Canadian story has a strong twang of credibility, however.

 Thanks for your time and attention.  We retire....
El Gringo Viejo