By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred fifty three years ago this week, on September 13, 1847, the U.S. Army completed the largest execution of deserters in the nation’s history. On the verge of defeating Mexico in the mismatch known as the Mexican American War (1846-48), the U.S. Army had captured seventy-two men who had deserted to fight for Mexico. Fifty of them went to the gallows between September 10 and 13. Most were Irish-born or Irish American, members of the San Patricio Battalion of the Mexican Army.
The San Patricios were commanded by Galway-born Captain John Riley. He had deserted the U.S. Army in April 1846, just before war was officially declared. Joined by dozens of fellow deserters, approximately 40 percent of them Irish and the rest German, Mexican, and American, he raised a unit of more than 200 men. In tribute to the high percentage of Irish in the ranks, they took the name San Patricio Battalion of the Mexican Army and fought under a flag that depicted St. Patrick, a harp and shamrock.
Several factors explain why the men who came to comprise the San Patricio Battalion deserted the U.S. Army. First and foremost, they experienced brutal treatment from the largely non-Catholic officers in the U.S. Army. Second, the deserters were disturbed by the prospect of participating in the defeat of a Catholic nation. Third, the Mexican government offered huge land grants of 320 acres to all who switched sides to fight for Mexico.
The San Patricios fought in every major battle of the war. Knowing that capture meant death for deserting, the unit fought with great intensity. They were cited for bravery at Buena Vista and when American forces overran the fortress of Churubusco, the San Patricios continued to fight down the fort’s hallways.
Seventy-two San Patricios were captured in that battle. General Winfield Scott ordered the prisoners court-martialed for treason and desertion. Fifty of the accused were convicted and sentenced to hang. More than a dozen were whipped and branded with a "D" on their cheek, the traditional punishment for desertion. The rest were set free.
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The executions took place in two towns. Twenty San Patricios were hanged on September 10, 1847 in the town of San Angel. The remaining thirty were scheduled to hang in the town of Mixcoac on September 13. The army officer in charge, not content to simply dispatch the condemned men, had their scaffold built on a hill overlooking Chapultepec. With the U.S. Army poised to attack the Mexican stronghold, he lined up the San Patricios on the hill and informed them that they would live until the American flag flew over the fortress. The condemned men watched hopelessly for a few hours as the Mexican defenders slowly succumbed to the American onslaught. All were hanged within an hour of Chapultapec’s surrender.
Most Americans forgot about the San Patricios within a generation of the Mexican War’s end. Few seemed interested in remembering this disconcerting incident of treason. Besides, those involved were nameless, faceless Irishmen.
But among Mexicans, the San Patricios were never forgotten. To this day they occupy a special place in the history and lore of Mexico’s struggle with its powerful neighbor to the north. In 1959 the Mexican government unveiled a memorial to the San Patricios in the Plaza de San Jacinto in San Angel. The inscription reads: "In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic San Patricio battalion, martyrs who gave their lives for the cause of Mexico during the unjust North American invasion of 1847."
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Sept. 13, 1932: Yankee manager Joe McCarthy becomes the first manager to win both the American and National league pennants. He had previously won a pennant as manager of the Chicago Cubs.
Sept. 15, 1930: Pianist and composer Hoagy Carmich’l records "Georgia on My Mind" for Victor records. "Georgia on My Mind" has been the official state song of Georgia since 1922. The song has been recorded by many artists over the years.
Sept .18, 1914: Parliament passes the Suspension Act, delaying the establishment of Home Rule for Ireland until after World War I.
Sept .16, 1845: Young Ireland leader Thomas Davis dies.
Sept. 18, 1867: Fenian gunmen spring two prisoners from Manchester Jail. Three Fenians, known as the Manchester Martyrs, were later convicted and executed for their alleged role in the incident which resulted in the death of a guard.
Sept. 14, 1879: Birth control advocate and feminist Margaret Higgins Sanger, in Corning, N.Y.
Sept. 14, 1844: Sculptor Martin Milmore, in Kilmorgan, Co. Sligo.
Sept. 17, 1903: Author Frank O’Connor, in County Cork.
Sept. 18, 1905: Labor leader and nationalist Mike Quill in Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry.
Sept .19, 1737: American patriot and only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, in Annapolis, Md.