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The Rogue’s March. A Kildareman in Mexico's San Patricios Battalion

James Durney

In the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 more than 200 American deserters (many of them Irish immigrants) joined the Mexican army to fight against their former countrymen. They formed the St. Patrick’s Battalion (San Patricios) and chose to fight under the Mexican flag. As a result of their actions these men suffered an appalling fate. Among the deserters from the US Army was a young Kildareman, John Little.
Texas was the source of the trouble between Mexico and the United States. In 1835 it was a province of Mexico when it, along with other provinces, rebelled against an increasingly autocratic and centralist Mexican rule. Texas gained its independence after a year-long battle but the peace treaty, signed by General Santa Anna, was tainted by some of its provisions. The border of Texas was pushed from its historic location along the Neuces River much further south to the Rio Grande. The Mexican government viewed this as a land-grab and, claiming that Santa Anna had signed under duress – he was in captivity – rejected the treaty. Texas knew that Mexico would someday reclaim its lost territory, so canvassed for admittance to the United States. Texas was admitted to the US in March 1845, infuriating a bankrupt Mexico, who had been negotiating the sale of California state to the Americans.
As soon as Texas agreed to annexation US President, James K. Polk, sent a naval squadron to the Texas coast and an army of occupation to western Texas to protect the new American state against a threatened Mexican attack. It is possible that Polk sent the large military force to Texas in the hope of provoking an attack by Mexico, after which the US would retaliate by seizing California and other Mexican territory. General Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Seminole Indian War, was commander of the US Army in Texas, which numbered 3,900 men, almost half of which were foreign-born. The Irish totaled 24 percent, Germans were 10 percent, English 6 percent, Scottish 3 per cent, and another 4 percent came from Western Europe or Canada.
The increasing numbers of Irish and German Catholics arriving each year in the United States had awoken a latent anti-Catholicism in American society. No more so was this anti-Catholicism rife than in the US Army. Discipline in the United States Army at the time was savage. Branding with hot irons for infractions like drunkenness were almost daily occurrences. Other cruel punishments ranged from hanging a man by his thumbs for hours, repeatedly throwing buckets of water in a soldier’s face until he had almost drowned, putting a man in solitary confinement in tiny underground cells  for days at a time, to repeatedly throwing bound and tied soldiers into a pond. Added to these punishments were physical assaults by officers, with some men being literally beaten to death. However, the most vile punishment, and the one most hated by the men,  was a process called ‘bucking and gagging,’ where a soldier was tied in a sitting position, with a pole placed under the knees and over the elbows (‘bucking’) and then gagged by stuffing a rag into the man’s mouth. The unfortunate soldier would be left like this for hours, often in the open, with no shade from the sun. In Zachary Taylor’s force the Irish and German immigrants soon realised that they were suffering a disproportionate number of these punishments.
In the Texas camp the soldiers were poorly accommodated and the food was often rotten. The American officer class was almost wholly Anglo-Saxon Protestant and many of them were ‘nativists’ and anti-Catholics. They meted out punishments to the rank and file, but reserved their greatest disdain for the Irish and Germans. In March 1846 the bulk of the troops were ordered to break camp and set off to the disputed territory, advancing as far as the Rio Grande where a new camp was set up on the banks of the river, opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros. Disciplinary action had pushed many men beyond the limit of their endurance and there was even the threat of mutiny and plans to kill some of the most brutal officers. However, with the closeness of Mexico desertion became a more palatable option for many of the men. At the end of March men began to desert in ones and twos and then in more numerous groups, forcing Gen. Taylor to issue an order that any man refusing to swim back across the Rio Grande was to be shot dead. Taylor’s threats had little effect. The Mexicans, through leaflets and other means, enticed more men to desert, and each night former comrades called across the river exhorting their friends to join them in a more just and fairer army.
One of those who answered this call was John Riley, a veteran of the British army, and a native of Co. Galway. He quickly realised that the Mexican army was made up of the poorest and most desperate of the Mexican people, mainly conscripted Indians, and if he was to achieve anything he would have to organise the other experienced soldiers who had deserted. Riley named the group the St. Patrick’s (San Patricios) Battalion and they fought under an emerald flag emblazoned with the Irish harp and shamrock. The Irish-Catholic link had only a superficial meaning to the San Patricios – it gave them a distinctive symbol and provided cohesion for the group. Not all the men were Irish, although it is thought that they made up two-fifths of the unit.
During the two years of war the Mexicans called this unique unit by various names. Officially the unit began as the San Patricio Company, an artillery outfit that was later expanded to two companies. In mid-1847, the Mexican war department reassigned the men as infantrymen and merged the San Patricio companies into the newly created Foreign Legion, which some Britons and Americans called the Legion of Strangers. In 1848, the Mexican president expanded the companies and formed the St. Patrick’s Battalion. The national origin of every San Patricio is not known but at least forty were known to have been born in Ireland. The birthplace and numbers of the others known are: twenty-two born in the United States; fourteen in some other part of Great Britain; fourteen in German states; two in Canada; and one each in France, Italy, Spanish Florida, and Poland.
The war offically began on 24 April 1846 when a Mexican unit attacked an American patrol near Matamoros, giving the United States the excuse it needed to declare war. John Riley and his San Patricios fought for the first time on 3 May when they were involved in the bombardment of their former camp near Matamoros. The Mexican forces evacuated Matamoros on 17 May, and among the San Patricios that marched out of the city was John Little. He was twenty-five and had enlisted in Company C, 2nd Dragoons, US Army, on 1 August 1845 and had deserted on 8 April 1846. John Little’s birthplace was given as ‘Kildare, Ireland.’ The surname Little was quite common in Co. Kildare, with families bearing the name Little in Athy, Donadea, Robertstown, Bodenstown, Ballymore-Eustace and Naas. However, it is not known where John Little was born and there are no records to coincide with his birth in the county, in or around the year 1820.
In September the San Patricios fought gallantly at the siege of Monterrey. Desertions continued in the American forces, and the Mexicans offered deserters who joined the Mexican army, even as a private, 320 acres of land. (Over 9,000 men deserted from the US Army, but only a few hundred of these joined forces with the Mexicans.) The San Patricios played a devastating part in the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847 where for the first time the Americans caught a glimpse of the San Patricios’ green flag. They became a source of inspiration to the Mexicans, but one of hatred for the Americans. At the Battle of Churubusco, in August 1847, the San Patricios lost thirty-five men killed and eighty-five captured, among them John Riley. The San Patricios artillery had inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking Americans and it took great effort and courage on behalf of an American officer, who had to restrain his men from bayoneting the captured deserters.
The captured San Patricios were tried by an American military court, with fifty of them sentenced to death. Extraordinarily, Riley escaped the death sentence. He and five other men, including Kildareman John Little, had deserted their units in April 1846, which was before the official beginning of the war. Under a technicality of US law, the soldiers could not receive the death penalty for desertion, as they had deserted during peacetime. Riley, Little and thirteen other deserters, were given over fifty lashes and branded with a two-inch letter ‘D’ on the face or hip for desertion. The sixteen men who received the death sentence were forced to witness this and then were hung. The Americans hung a further fourteen San Patricios, including one, Francis O’Connor, of Cork, who had lost both legs in the Battle of Churubusco. The surviving San Patricios were held in captivity until the war ended the following year when they were released. The remaining San Patricios were scattered around Mexico and Riley found himself in the village of Tlalnepantla, north of Mexico City, along with around ten soldiers of his former battalion, among them John Little. A local newspaper started a subscription to help the former prisoners and Riley acknowledged the contribution of 232 pesos in a letter to the paper in which he stated he had distributed the money among the following “companions of arms”: William H. Akles, John Bartley, Thomas Cassady, John Hamilton, James Kelley, John Little, John McCornick, Alexander McKee, James Millar, John Murphy, Peter O’Brien, Samuel Thomas, Edward Ward, Charles Williams, and John Wilton.
There are few, if any, records of the San Patricios who remained in Mexico. They had retained the respect of many Mexicans, who responded generously to requests for assistance and paid for many of the San Patricios to return to Europe. Others settled down in Mexico, married and had families. It is thought John Riley returned to Ireland, but there is no proof. What happened to Kildareman John Little is also uncertain. He could have returned to Ireland or settled in Mexico. It would be nice to think he returned to his native county and regaled people with stories of adventures in America and Mexico, but his trail ends in Mexico in 1848.
John Little and his comrades are not forgotten in Mexico, however. While his life in Ireland is unknown John Little is a hero in Mexico. There is a plaque erected on a wall facing the San Jacinto plaza in Mexico City’s suburb of San Angel, which bears the names of seventy-one soldiers of the San Patricios, including John Little. An escutcheon at the top of the plaque depicts an Irish Celtic cross protected by the outstretched wings of the Mexican Aztec eagle, while at the bottom appears the phrase: With the Gratitude of Mexico, 112 Years after Their Sacrifice.

In the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 more than 200 American deserters  formed the St. Patrick’s Battalion (San Patricios) and chose to fight under the Mexican flag. Among them was a young Kildareman, John Little.

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